There's a long standing maxim in the African American community that if you want to succeed in this country, you'll have to work twice as hard as anyone else. (Of course, I would extend this thesis to all historically marginalized and oppressed groups throughout history, including but not limited to women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, immigrants, and so on.) History bears testimony to this truth as countless remarkable *nonwhite* men and women have been relegated to the shadows.
Everywhere that I turn I am accosted by images of greatness that continue to exclude the multitude of incredible human beings who happen to be marked by some—more often than not intersectional— difference. From Iggy Azalea (who won an award for being the best rap artist in 2015) to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (who beat out Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys in 2014), white people are supposedly even better at the things we have created for our own self-expression, like rap. Once again, there are few nonwhite people nominated for the Oscars, despite numerous individuals and films being worthy of such an honor. Sylvester Stallone got nominated for his supporting role in the movie Creed, but Michael B. Jordan did not get nominated at all. I wish this were a joke.
When my mother first started working at a large corporation located in New England, she remembers talking to a coworker about her family. As she was describing my life situation as a PhD student, another white coworker walked by murmuring, "They gotta fulfill them quotas." Somehow my mother still works at said corporation, after mustering the strength to keep her cool after being accosted with such bullshit. Many kudos Ma!
Frankly, the sentiment displayed in that woman's comment is ubiquitous, exhibiting itself in various forms throughout my life, from the peers at my undergraduate institution that questioned my presence on their campus and at their parties, to my ex girlfriend's parents who believed that affirmative action was responsible for their daughter not getting into graduate school.
If for some reason you thought that academia was immune to this phenomenon you are dead wrong. Sadly, most people would rather believe that if you are nonwhite in academia that you have received a world of help to get you to where you are. For them, you got into college because you are black, you are able to take advantage of various research programs because you were black, and eventually get into graduate school because you are black. Shit, I never knew it was so easy being black, given that all along the way, I've had people telling me that I am not good enough, implicitly and explicitly!
I recently received feedback from an academic journal that I submitted some work to. Commenting on a section that reviews literature in the U.S. on environmental injustice and inequality, the reviewer states (bold is my emphasis):
"Making statements about the findings of others and assuming they are factually correct is the mark of an incompetent (or prejudiced) researcher. You need to be wary of doing this. For instance, you seem to simply accept that racism plays a part in environmental injustice because the proportion of rich black people living in poor-environment neighbourhoods is greater than the proportion for white people. If this is really true, you need to give numbers to prove it. Moreover, you need to apply some sort of control to such numbers by taking account of the fact that some rich black people choose to live close to their family members and there are more black family members living in poor-environment neighbourhoods than there are white people.
Unless you can prove what you say with evidence, you should not simply state it as fact. If you do, you are yourself being racist by unfairly accusing white people of causing a situation even though:
So, Mr. Reviewer, I am an incompetent researcher for citing a vast body of literature that points to the importance of race when it comes to determining environmental inequities and accepting it as fact? Oh what's that Mr. Reviewer... I am racist for thinking that whiteness has something to do with the fact that communities of color are overburdened with environmental burdens, while their white counterparts are not? Oh my bad, I forgot that people of color just choose to live in shitty neighborhoods next door to toxic facilities, engulfing us with air pollution, because that’s exactly what we’re into. We love having asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Really, though?
Of course, I do not assume that Mr. Reviewer knows that I am black, despite sending him my submission from my google account which has a clear picture of me (perhaps I should remove that). Nevertheless, the message is the same. By subscribing to standard research conventions (i.e. citing previous research) that happens to be critical of race relations and whiteness, I am somehow incompetent.
But wait, there's more as Mr. Reviewer continues:
"And so we continue on, and I am perhaps now beginning to understand why some people do not want to become involved with your work, not even by simply reviewing your paper. Its title – environmental privilege, could be seen by some as unnecessarily provocative in the sense that it tends to attribute selfishness to those who have worked hard enough to be able to afford to live in environmentally pleasant neighborhoods." He suggests that I change the title, and indeed the entire concept of "environmental privilege" to "environmental success" thereby circumventing the entire issue of racial privilege all together.
If that isn't an instantiation of white fragility, I don't know what else is. The title of my paper is so affronting to white ontological stability that it is understandable that he has had trouble finding another reviewer. You know what I don't think I want to revise and resubmit my paper. Thanks anyway, Mr. Reviewer, I'll take this one somewhere else.
Yes, if you are different in some socially relevant way, you do have to work twice as hard, especially in academe. Why? Historically, white men have been the producers of knowledge, and thus knowledge was produced from their standpoint. From my reviewers standpoint, it would be racist to think that white people are somehow complicit in environmental inequalities because of course white people have never meant any harm. Knowledge produced from the standpoint of the "others" is threatening and often world-shattering for dominant perspectives. It must be suppressed. Thus we have it that Du Bois' social theory and methodologies for social research would be relegated to the shadows of history until being recovered rather recently. Why? Because Du Bois' social theorizing of race ran counter to dominant conceptions ubiquitous at the time.
Hidden within Du Bois' story of marginalization is a valuable lesson for us (the "others"). Working twice as hard is cumbersome, but in the end forces us to develop intellectual, and more importantly emotional, resilience. Despite the perpetual side-lining Du Bois faced throughout his lifetime, he nevertheless continued on with his work, producing some of the most sophisticated social scientific work the world has ever seen with limited resources.
Our options are limited. Unless you let them succeed in telling you that you are not good enough, you have no choice but to carry on to do the brilliant work that you know that you are capable of producing.
I remember my feelings of anger and disgust when I heard that a close friend of mine was told that her NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant would not be funded because her project carried "no intellectual merit" to the sociologists reviewing her proposal. If there was anyone in graduate school that I've met whose work had intellectual merit, it was this person! Why didn't they think her work was good enough? Well, it seems obvious that they felt that her work was "me-search" because she studies the identity formation and experiences of a group of black Appalachians of which she is a descendant. On her qualifying exam on race, ethnicity, and migration, she was told by examiner that she needed to "talk more about white people." It is very clear that unless you are in an ethnic studies related discipline, centering the experiences of nonwhite people is viewed as illegitimate. That is, of course, unless you yourself are white, if so, researching and writing about nonwhite people is rewarded and praised. Did she let this stop her? Hell no! Like Du Bois who continued on with his work despite being told repeatedly that it wasn't good enough, she took those comments in stride, and will continue her work as an assistant professor at UCLA this fall.
Whenever I'm feeling shitty, and need a little help fostering my own resilience, I think about all of the people who came before me and the myriad ways in which they forced the structures of knowledge to open up a little more, even if ever so slightly. I am reminded that we are never working twice as hard for ourselves alone.
"So it is better to speak,
we were never meant to survive." -Audre Lord
Queer. Black. Foreign-born. Woman. Brown. First generation. Indigenous. We were never really meant to survive in these institutions of higher education. They were not built for us, as people who are not straight-white-men. Our experiences of neglect, hostility, and imposter syndrome are a testament to this fact.
It took a while for this to sink in. As an undergrad, I worked so hard to get into graduate school, taking part in research training and mentorship programs such as the McNair Scholars Program and the Leadership Alliance. Though wonderful, these programs didn't prepare me for the reality of life as a person of color in the academy.
To be honest, as an undergrad, I had become used to being the token black guy. The University of San Diego is a predominantly white institution. Joining a department that lacked diversity as a graduate student (sadly) felt normal.
What did shock me, however, was the reaction we received from many faculty members when we as graduate students brought the lack of diversity center stage. It was simultaneously disturbing, disappointing, and enraging, to see the ways in which certain faculty displayed a sort of veiled combativeness to our campaign. Of course, today, no one is going to say, "I don't support this whole diversity thing. I'm fine with there only being two faculty of color in the department," or "I feel threatened by the presence of non-white people, and I'd rather keep things the way they are." But, the truth is, at this point, no one has to say these things out loud for us to know that this is how they (probably) feel. Knowing that there are only three faculty members that, without a doubt, actually care about creating a more open, diverse department, is almost gut-wrenching.
So, no, I do not feel like I was ever really meant to survive in academia. More often than not, I see a world that doesn't really want me, and people like me, at all. Yet, rather than let this realization destroy me, I've learned to channel that energy into something positive. I've learned to affirm myself, and to settle even deeper into that person that I feel I want to be, while remaining open to change. I've learned how to be fearlessly me, and to encourage this attitude in others (particularly women, people of color, queer people, etc.).
How has this translated into my daily life as an academic?
Following the advice of a black, female colleague one year ahead of me, I've decided not to give away my time to causes I'm not truly invested in. Look, life is too short to spend your time on things that are not fulfilling to you. As academics, we already sit in a position of privilege, relative to many of our fellow humans who must toil with their hands to make a living everyday. We are paid to think, write, and teach. Within your power, do whatever you can to make sure that you are thinking, writing, and teaching about those topics that you find compelling. I sure do.
My glasses are green, I have both ears pierced, and a nose ring too. I refuse to try and look the part. Why? Because when your very existence as a (black) person is itself a political act, so too is the way that you choose to present yourself in public. Besides, what would looking the part entail anyway?
In the face of both subtle and overt assaults on our being, as people who are not straight-white-men in academia, we have a choice. We can masquerade as straight-white-men, constantly trying to prove that we can be just like they are, or we can accept our differences and use these as fuel to power us through the barrage of bullshit we will never cease to find ourselves wading through. Being who we really are, as young scholars that are marked by some (often overlapping) form of difference, is often the most radical thing we can do.
This earth day, many quotes will be circulated (tweeted, retweeted, or posted to Facebook) from America's most beloved environmental thinkers, who happen to be mostly white men. In this vein, John Muir once said, "I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness." Unfortunately, in today's colorblind society, it is easy to forget that Muir didn't really mean ALL people, but white people. Indeed, our beloved John Muir was racist.
The establishment of the National Park System that Muir played a key role in relied on a conceptualization of wilderness that was pure and devoid of human (especially non-white) contamination. In My First Summer in the Sierras, published in 1911, Muir expresses disconcertion in encountering Indigenous peoples in his travels throughout the Sierras and into Yosemite Valley. For Muir, the Indians were unclean and didn't belong in the wilderness, despite their existence there preceding his own. "A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness," he commented.
Places like Yosemite National Park, were always inhabited by people, and their erasure both physically and symbolically was key to the establishment of white spaces of wild purity.
Before a week ago, I’d never been to Yosemite National Park. I grew up camping in Northern California with my grandparents, so I am used to being outdoors. For some reason, leading up to the trip I’d imagined that I’d be roughing it for a couple of days out in Yosemite. The only images that I’d ever seen of the Park made it seem so wild, or much more intense than anything I'd ever done before. Little did I know that I was about to enter what might be John Muir’s nightmare.
Yosemite is a nature-theme park, equipped with trolley service, multiple accommodation options (hotel, Park provided tents, condos, etc.), multiple dining establishments (including, but not limited to, a large cafeteria, bar, pizza and hot-dog parlor, grocery store, and coffee shop), a pool, and plenty of parking lots. The gift shop sells T-Shirts, stickers, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and much more. Perhaps you forgot your tent at home on the way to your weekend getaway. No worries! You can even load up on extra outdoorsy materials from a store next door that resembles a well-stocked mini REI. Carabiners anyone?
On a hike up through the Valley of the Mist, I was struck by the melange of faces, hair types, clothing, and languages being spoken. An array of people of color, speckled the trail all the way to the top. For once, I wasn’t the only black dude in an outdoor setting! Contrary to what I’d read about as an environmental sociologist, people of color are visiting the parks and want their dose of natural beauty just like everyone else. This brilliant diversity of people coupled with the Park’s nonhuman elements (birds, squirrels, bears, rock formations, trees, etc.) combined to produce one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
I don’t think that John Muir would feel the same way. Muir would likely view the park as too popular, and therefore tainted. I’m pretty sure he’d be offended by the idea of having a grocery/gift store, in addition to the other amenities that the Park now provides. Given his racist attitudes, he might also be offended by my own, and many other people of color like me, presence in the park. While I’m uncomfortable with the way that Yosemite resembles an amusement park rather than a refuge for nonhuman nature (apparently there is a three strike rule for bears…absurd), I think that the diversity of people that feel comfortable in that space is a welcome trade off.
John Muir is rolling in his grave, and I’m okay with that.
 See Merchant, Carolyn. 2003. “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History.” Environmental History 380–94.
 The climbers out there will get that reference.
I smiled and replied, “Of course not.”
“Well what about the other elective teachers? What about the piano instructor?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure some of them do.”
“Then why would you do it?”
“I enjoy being around you all, and its my way of giving back. I’d hope that you all will feel inclined to do the same…Right?”
We all laughed.
This was the second classroom exchange in which my high school students questioned my incentive to work with them. Perhaps it won’t be the last. But I guess it is a fair question. Why would a graduate student training to teach at the collegiate level volunteer his (fleeting) time to work with high school students?
In all honesty, I’ve dreamt about doing this for quite some time. The school that I teach at isn’t random—I had the privilege of attending for two years when my family made the trek back to R.I. from Texas in 2006. It is a small charter school with a track record of placing its students, mostly black and latino, from low to middle income households, in great colleges around the country. Moving from a large, suburban Texas school to a tiny Rhode Island charter school proved less challenging than one might immediately assume. Though I’d always been an accomplished student academically, Blackstone Academy’s emphasis on community engagement ignited my passion and commitment to social justice. On top of my academic pursuits, I was on the indoor track team, soccer team, student council (Vice President), debate team, Students for Darfur Club, and Latinos Helping Hands, among other commitments. I was really able to flourish at Blackstone and I knew that when I graduated if I ever found myself back in RI I’d have to get involved somehow. Graduate school at Brown provided the perfect opportunity.
Teaching high schoolers is hard work. They demand your attention and constant engagement. Unlike at the collegiate level, you cannot simply assign a bunch of readings and come together in class for a lecture or conversation. When it comes to sociology, it is also a challenge to find readings that aren’t too abstract as to be completely untenable. Instead, I focused my efforts on developing my students' sociological imagination, and capacities to think sociologically, with emphasis on exploration of social inequality.
As young people growing up in the midst of many of the issues that sociologists explore on a daily basis, much of what we talked about wasn’t news to them. Of my 13 students, 2 are white, and 1 is male. Many of them are daughters of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. They know what it is like to see their parents struggle with finding work, and they know what it is like to have unfair expectations placed upon you just because you are a girl, or your skin has a certain pigmentation. They already had the experiences, I simply offered the language and conceptual tools to think through and understand them. Having these tools is critical for young people of color, women, the poor, because they are the foundation of any real emancipatory project. While sociology by itself cannot change the material conditions that infringe upon our collective welfare, it provides the tools that can lead to cognitive liberation, upon which we can build movements to challenge structural conditions that limit our individual and collective possibilities. Imagine, for instance, how learning that gender isn’t biological, and thus that women aren’t inherently any weaker than men, could influence a young woman’s development in life. Women can and should be just as powerful as men, social structures are to blame for the lack of women in politics. Perhaps learning that race is a social construct might encourage young people to stop viewing themselves and others in essentialist terms. People of color aren’t lazy and don’t find living on welfare very comfortable, social structures are to blame for the amount of folks struggling to get by.
So, no I don’t get paid to work with the high schoolers as a graduate student, and I’m not sure how long I will keep it up. However, no amount of monetary compensation, nor school credit, could ever amount to the satisfaction I feel in knowing that maybe—just maybe—I’ve helped one of these students better understand his or her own life and the freedom that that entails. Who needs to get paid when you’ve got that? I’m convinced that one day the students will understand that too.
I've been working on a means to measure environmental privilege, using and index and ArcGIS. Here are some notes on my progress and a couple maps to go along.
It is no secret that we live in a world riddled with inequality. This is a world in which access to clean, safe, and healthy environments is distributed unequally both socially and spatially. Yet inequality as such rarely goes unchallenged. In the United States, and increasingly across the globe, people are calling attention to the normative notion of environmental justice, forming a global social movement around the idea that all people, regardless of any defining social characteristics, are entitled to freedom from environmental hazards and risks and access to amenities like green space (Gottlieb 1993; Pellow 2007). Climate change, for instance, has spurred organization around the notion of climate justice and the necessity for the most privileged within the global social system to recognize their part in the unfolding crisis and to do something about it (Petit 2009). The notion of climate justice points directly to the ethical problems that climate changes poses, given that the world’s most vulnerable are also least responsible, but suffer the greatest damage in terms of climate related disaster (Roberts 2001; Roberts and Parks 2006).
While scholars have spent a great deal of time describing, and identifying, the mechanisms behind environmental inequalities, they have spent far less time exploring the other side, that of environmental privilege. Wherever there is environmental inequality, there must also be environmental privilege, which allows for certain groups to have access to safe environments to live, work, and play in, while others do not. This privilege is the result of interlocking systems of political, economic, and cultural power, that allow for freedom from hazards, such as air pollution from toxin releasing manufacturing facilities, and access to amenities such as coastal property or national parks. Therefore, to better understand environmental inequality, it is important to focus on both sides of the coin, addressing both the negative (unequal exposure to hazards and risks) and positive (unequal access to amenities) aspects that environmental inequalities necessarily entail.
I measure environmental privilege by considering both social and environmental factors:
Using a points system, I calculate the Environmental Privilege Index score at the block group level, and map using ArcGIS. Here is an example of Rhode Island and Providence (the largest city and capital of RI).
At the state-wide level we see disparities between various municipalities in levels of environmental privilege, but there are also disparities within cities too. It is important to point out that the areas shown in red with little or no environmental privilege are concentrated in Rhode Island's urban areas, with high concentrations of minority and working class people. Here is a map of ethnicity in Rhode Island to help give you an idea.
Below, I have another map, this time showing Providence. We see a disparity between the east and west sides of the city. Not coincidentally, the east side of Providence is home to Brown University, and many wealthy and white residents of Providence, while the west and south side of the city are composed of mostly minority residents.
Finally, we have a map of Providence showing the environmental burdens overlaying the EPI Scores of each census block group. From this map, you can see that the areas high EPI scores in green are mostly free from high volume roadways, hazardous material sites, and industrial areas. They are also the most affluent. On the other hand, the areas shown in red and orange are areas close to industrial areas, hazardous material sites, and high volume roadways. In sum, I think that Environmental Privilege Index is a productive way to think about environmental privilege, other means (perhaps historical or ethnographic) are needed to assess the mechanisms that create and maintain it.
It was an early morning.
“We keep going, Don't stop running. They keep selling, We don't want it.
So close to it, Almost found a way. Two steps closer, They keep coming. We keep yelling, We don't want it.”
I awake for the last time in Haiti, at least for now.
Nick-Olson, the same driver who I first met when I landed in Haiti, was waiting for me downstairs on the couch. He greets me with a smile and a handshake-hug.
Its really dark out, but many people are up. It is Sunday after all. We pass a couple of churches on the way that are about to start their service.
He asks if I enjoyed my time, and what I will tell my friends about Haiti. I tell him, “Ayiti se bel (Haiti is beautiful).”
The airport is hectic and inefficient. We go through THREE different security checks: upon entry, to get into the gate, and right before getting on the plane.
I’ll miss it, though. There is a simple beauty here. Mwen we ou pita, Ayiti.
I’ve been trying to think through the sociological significance of my trip…
One thing that has stuck with me is how to think about environmental inequality in Haiti. When we use the concept of environmental inequality in the United States is means something very specific, but this changes from between contexts (between environments). Given that environmental inequalities are spatial, different spaces yields different forms of environmental inequality. We also have to think about scale. To say that the global south is more vulnerable to climate change is true, but it also false. As I’ve argued, to speak of the global south we must already be speaking of the global north, think of the Taiji symbol, or Ying and Yang. In more sociological terms, we need to think relationally. The Global North does not exist without the Global South and vice versa. Additionally, the global north is almost always embedded within the global south and vice versa. This is the nature of the modern world with the flow of people, things, and ideas. So when it comes to the environmental inequality, I think we get a more nuanced picture when we look subnationally, where we are able to see the North in the South, and the South in the North. Sadly, I haven’t come across this type of thinking in the work on development in the social sciences.
Pellow and Brehm (2013) define environmental inequality as the “uneven exposure to environmental risks and hazards, often coupled with the systematic exclusion of people from environmental decision-making processes, is called environmental racism or environmental inequality” (Pellow and Brehm 2013).
What does environmental inequality look like in the Haitian context? Surely there are uneven exposures to environmental risks and hazards. Those living in the slums at the bottom of large mountains are at higher risk of death from flood than those sitting at higher elevations. This is an inequality based on class. The wealthier Haitians often live at these higher elevations, on mountain tops and sides. There is certainly more pollution down in urban centers where there is a constant flow of car traffic.
I suppose what I’m really trying to get at here is that the influx of all of these international people, ideas, and things creates environmental inequalities too. Like who has access to clean drinking water and proper waste disposal, who has comfort in security and safety from threat like robbery or assault, who has access to a place to cool down in the Haitian heat, who has access to clean and safe food? These are the kinds of environmental inequalities that you can find in Haiti in Urban areas in addition to the more traditional ways of thinking about environmental inequality. Are they necessarily unique to Urban Port au Prince? No, I do not think so. These are also things that you can find in the U.S. Think of gated communities, etc. What makes Haiti unique, I think, is that it is driven by the foreign presence of the international community of development and aid workers, which are seemingly ubiquitous in Haiti. Tourism, too could be a culprit in the future, if it eventually takes off.
What if the same people sent to Haiti to alleviate poverty were actually, unintentionally, perpetuating it?
These are of course precursory remarks based on my short stay, in one part of the country. Further study is needed to validate any of these claims, or to “test” these hypotheses.
Tomorrow, I’m headed back to RI. Back to Grad School. Back to my room, my bed. Back to my family and friends. But I’m going to miss Haiti. A lot. There is something about it.
I’ve practiced the language, I’ve soaked up some of the culture. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here. There is so much that numbers don’t capture, as with any abstraction. Judging from the numbers, you’d think that Haiti was a barren desert. It is not. Yes, the hillsides are mostly barren, but there are many lush green areas too. There is also rubble, trash, plastics, pollution. Nonetheless, there is a beauty.
I’ll admit it, I was scared to come here alone. I’d read too much, I’d had too many family members react jarringly when I told them I planed to come by myself. I’m glad I did though. I don’t think I would have had the same experience. I don’t think I would have been as challenged as I was. I don’t think I would have soaked in as much as I have. I’ve grown from this experience.
I leave Haiti humbled and filled with gratitude. I’ve been extremely fortunate in this life. The Haitians I’ve met, the lives I’ve encountered even if only for a split second while passing them on the streets, have inspired me to keep pressing forward. Many of them fight to survive every single day, while I fight to read and write another privileged sentence.
One of the biggest take aways from this trip is how complicated it all is. I’ve sometimes felt like this academic thing is a joke, and that what I should really be doing is helping people directly. Here in Haiti, from what I’ve seen, this isn’t really the solution. I’ve heard Haitians tell me this themselves. Haiti is full of Aid workers of all sorts, from non-governmental organizations like Save the Children to the United Nations Development Program. As a Haitian informant asked, “they’ve been doing this for 50 years, and what do they have to show for it?” Could bringing more jobs to Haiti help? Of course, but only with the right intentions. We’ve got to call it like it is. Capitalism is a system of socio-ecological relations that benefits a minority of people, at the expense the majority of humans, other species, and the landscape. Bringing huge corporations to Haiti won’t help anyone if people continue to be exploited for their labor! $2 a day? Come on, it is ridiculous.
So what is there to do? The best that I can do is rouse the passion that stirred in me as a young person (and still does) in others, in my students. Some of us are born with a stronger sense that something is not right than others, and it is our job to point this out to people. This is true especially of sociologists, whose job it is to decipher the complexities of social life, past and present. It isn’t enough to simply show people that this inequality exists, as evinced by a recent study that shows that showing people the numbers on the disproportionate number of blacks in the prison system actually leads them to support the types of policies that produce these inequalities. We’ve got to make the moral appeal, that the inequality we’ve observed and the ways that it is produced are WRONG. If that doesn’t work, God help us.
Celestine drove me downtown to the MUPANAH, a small museum containing historical artifacts of Haiti. I live for this kind of stuff! There were all kinds of things. Some overwhelming, like actual slave irons! I couldn’t believe I was in the presence of the chains that bound black bodies up until 1804. There were artifacts from the TAINO and ARAWAK people that were decimated when Europeans colonized the island. Weapons, swords, rifles, bayonets, and pistols from the REVOLUTION. Absolutely incredible.
I was happy to see a group of young Haitian children being guided through the museum by a curator. They must know the beautiful history of their country, and of their ancestors. I wonder if learning this history is as emancipatory for them, as it was for me?
I knew little of Haiti, other than its current poverty, growing up. In school, we didn’t learn about the Haitian revolution. The first time I learned anything of it was in college when a professor mentioned it to us in one of my sociology classes. He pointed out the neglect of Haitian history in the American education system. I knew that a nation of slaves overthrowing their masters was something incredible, but it didn’t sink in at that point. It wasn’t until much later as a graduate student that Haiti reemerged in my consciousness, as a teacher’s assistant for a course on Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Modern world (taught by one of my mentors).
Modern Haiti is the result of a system of global white supremacy. First, the island of Quisqueya, now known as Hispaniola, was cleared of the Amerindian peoples that called it home by European settlers. Then, a colonial system was set in place, which utilized slave labor from West Africa. It is estimated that over a million slaves were brought to the island. They were treated brutally, but resistance was the norm. Slaves would flee the mountains often. Perhaps a revolution was inevitable. After the revolution, no nation would see Haiti as an equal, and the new Black nation was deliberately stifled. Then comes government corruption…violence…civil unrest…Now everyone wants to help Haiti from the aid workers to the missionaries.
“If you look just at the decades after 1934, you know it's hard to point to really inspired and positive support from outside of Haiti, to Haiti, and much easier to point to either small-minded or downright mean-spirited policies.” Paul Farmer
Thank God for wikileaks because without them this would all seem like conjecture. Cables reveal that even the Obama administration fought to keep Haiti from improving the conditions of its workers. The Administration pressured the Haitian President Martelly to keep the daily minimum wage under $3 a day for factory workers. The foreign business community of Hanes and Levis claimed that anything above would damage their profits. Really, an hourly wage of .31 cents an hour? Can you imagine anywhere else say in the Europe, Australia, or the United States that would allow this?
I don’t really have much to say, but I’ve been told to write even when you do not feel like it.
I skipped breakfast this morning. I haven’t seen or spoken with any other guests in a long time.
For lunch, I considered having the staff help me to order something from a restaurant. I haven’t eaten at a restaurant yet, since I’ve been going to the grocery store. Instead, I decided to get out of here and go for a walk to Kay Atizan (Artisan House). James, our lover of John Legend, gave me directions from his cellphone, “Go down this street right here and take a left at the first intersection.” It seems like everywhere I go there is a certain feeling of discomfort. I suppose it comes from not knowing much about where I am, and not feeling fully comfortable to figure everything out on my own, like I would say back in Providence.
There are high concrete walls with metallic doors on building here. A lot with a big old building sits surrounded by tents and a high metal fence with barbed wire at the top. A placard says “UNICEF.” From a distance I see “Kay Atizan/Serenity Cove” so I know that I am in the right place. I walk in with confidence, false confidence, but confidence nonetheless. Without it, I think I’d be paralyzed here. A woman stands talking on the phone through the smaller than normal doorway. She hangs up, once she sees me. There were all kinds of things. Jewelry, cool T-Shirts, bags, Vodoun artifacts. Magical.
Instead of eating something from a restaurant I went to another grocery store, one that I hadn’t been too. Same exact dynamics as observed at the previous one.
Time moves really slowly, and I’m a little lonely.
I called my parents using FaceTime.
I used to think that I could change the world. Classic messiah complex. Now, I realize that the world is nothing but change, somethings for the better and others for the worst. As a sociologist, I’ve chosen to try to understand the world as it is, while always thinking of what it could be. I feel a bit useless lol.
MOMENT OF INSIGHT: In the past, I’ve argued out loud with people about the use of analytic/descriptive categories like Global North/Rich and Global South/Poor. I’ve always seen these categories as empty and meaningless because the world is never this simple. Even as ideal-types, they fail to capture that which the concepts are supposed, that is the distribution of resources and wealth. A place like Haiti has really brought this home for me. Everywhere I’ve turned I’ve found traces of the Global North. First, there is me, and all the rest of us who go to foreign places to conduct research for whatever reason we do so. Second, there are the international development aid workers and Christian missionaries from Europe and the United States. Third, there are the people that come here from the United States to set up business operations. Fourth, there are all of the material things that come from the Global North as imports. Food, batteries, office supplies, shoes, clothes, and more. Fifth, there are the immaterial things that are imported from abroad, including but not limited to musical proclivities, words (“Chopin: Shopping”), ideas, habits and behaviors (young people wearing backwards hats with USA sports team logos, etc. There is Global North within the Global South and Global South within the Global North. This is modernity.
This movement and convergence of people, things/materials, and ideas, from disparate parts of the globe (often in the name of development, or humanitarian assistance), create the bizarre environment that I’ve been observing here in Haiti. This is what has drawn me to the supermarkets. It is wholly peculiar that there would even be one massive structure devoted to the exchange of goods (food for money) that the vast majority of permanent residents cannot afford. The only thing is, here in Petionville there are 3 of these supermarkets. There are also compounds devoted to organizations like the United Nations Development Project, or USAID, all of which are secured 24/7 by armed guards and high cement walls with barbed wire at the top. Across the hall from me, sleeps a woman here for just three weeks to work for Save the Children. Hotels exist here solely for the foreigner to feel like he is back at home in the Global North. In short, the confluence of people, things/materials, and ideas from the Global North, in a place as impoverished as Haiti, necessarily creates an environment with inequality seeping through everything.
Petionville is rife with indirect, or slow, violence. The anthropologist and medical doctor, Paul Farmer, calls this structural violence. “The core meaning of violence is the deliberate infliction of bodily violation or harm on one individual human being by another” (Shaw 2006). Foreign researchers (including MYSELF), aid workers, Christian missionaries, rich Haitian citizens, are complicit in this violence every time we walk past a mother and child exchanging dollars and cents for produce on the side of the road, to get our imported goods from the supermarket guarded by men carrying shotguns. The message conveyed, implicit and explicit, intentional or not, is that most Haitian bodies matter less. With streets populated with advertisements in English and French, when only a tiny fraction of the people here can read and understand both, the message is Haitian bodies matter less. This violence is pervasive. It reveals a contradiction. All of this foreign aid, all of this foreign intervention, all of these foreign people, things, ideas, have created a form of hyperinequality in Haiti, which is manifest in the physical, biological, and social environment(s).
Haitian Proverb: Neg di san fe. People talk and don't act.
I didn’t sleep as well as I have been last night. I kept having weird dreams.
My eyes pop open as my body jolts back to waking consciousness. Everything is okay, go back to sleep. Two people were outside in the courtyard speaking in Kreyol. I walk over to my window, but I cannot see anything. “Ventwa (23), Vensis (26), Venwit (28)…” the smooth male voice spoke. What is this counting? A female voice appeared asking a question really fast. The male voice responded, then started to read out numbers again, “Karantun (41), karantde (42), karantsenk (45)…” This must be a radio show, but what kind. I remembered my professor telling us something about a book of numbers that Haitians use sort of as a fortune telling divination sort of thing, kind of like the I-Ching in Chinese culture. Something inside of me was a little freaked out. Flashback to watching Hotel Rwanda and the radio as a means of communication that it was time to kill… I put in my headphones and listened to some Haitian music to try to get back to sleep. It must’ve been the security guard listening to something on the radio, but I have no clue what it was. I’ll have to ask my professor back in the States.
This morning I was a little nervous about my interview. From my experience, and from what my Haitian professor has told me, Haitian people like to talk so I shouldn’t be as nervous that I didn’t really prepare. A knock at the door as I button up my shirt. Its James, my John Legend loving lobby attendant. “I just wanted to wake you up. Ms. Vivianne (the owner) said your driver will arrive at 8:30,” he said. In haste, I grabbed my shoes and told him I’d be ready and thanks. I struggled for a moment about whether to tuck my shirt in or not. Tucked in. Its more professional, right?
The driver got a little bit lost on the way. Shit! I’m glad I didn’t decide to walk like I originally planned. Very few of the streets have signs, there are people everywhere. He calls Ms.Vivianne and tells her to that we cannot find it. She tells him to ask someone, so he pulls over and gestures for me to roll down the window. No one knows where it is either. I’m not worried about being late. It must happen often here.
We finally figure it out. Its a small, but modern building with the foundation’s logo on the door. Before getting out, the driver writes his name on the back of a blue post-it note and says to call him when I finish. “Koman ou rele (What is your name)?” “Celestine,” he replies. “Mesi bokou,” as I leave is small white Toyota (with transmission problems).
When I walk into the Foundation, there is a small black woman sitting in the waiting area. She looks around my age. I walk past her to the a woman who appears to be the receptionist. “Mwen gen yon [pause as I search for the word for meeting…instead I go with interview] entevyou,” I ask. It seems that many people in business settings have been speaking French to me. Though I know a tiny bit, and can understand a tiny bit, it throws me off because I’m expecting Kreyol. “What is your name?” she asks after a failed attempt in another language. She stands up gesturing to the black woman sitting in the waiting area and leads us both into a room with the Co-Founder of the organization.
He is an “average” sized, white, male. “Ce va?” he asks. “I’m well.” Both the young woman and I take a seat across from him at his desk. He is bald and wears a gold cross around his neck. His red, white, and black plaid shirt is unbuttoned enough to reveal some chest hair and the gold chain he is donning. “I don’t speak French,” I proclaim. “Okay. I will have to struggle with English then,” he replies turning towards the woman “Do you speak English?” “I can understand it, but I don’t speak it well,” she says. The other co-founder walks in at that moment extending his hand for both of us to shake. “Shall we go into the conference room?”
We are joined by another woman who is called the Operations Manager. She has an American accent, but speaks to both of the men in Kreyol too. We go around the table and introduce ourselves and say what we do. I’m a graduate student in the U.S. interested in development and environment blah blah blah. The young black woman seems to work for an organization called Biotechnology Development in Africa (or BDA). The foundation has been trying to initiate a project with BDA for the past year, but its not moving ahead. [Because I am making these notes public I’ve decided not to use the real names of the directors at this point to protect them. They will be called L and C.] L does most of the talking, with C chiming in from time to time.
They keep getting interrupted with phone calls. “Sorry. Its crisis mode,” says the Operations manager. They explain to me that they are in the middle of receiving some money.
Money and politics are the main themes of our discussions. Though they’ve managed to survive, money and politics continues to be an issue. In Haiti, they explain, no one wants to do anything unless they see how it will benefit them. This explains why I’ve had such bad luck getting in touch with people here. For example, this project with BDA, which at this point is awaiting a signature just for a $250,00 feasibility study is being delayed because there is no money for people in the government to gain from it.
They detail how they have had many successful programs in the past but that they cannot be maintained because of funding. They had an “Ecole Verte” or green school which sough to education youth from Port au Prince about the environment and would take them up to La Visite Park, where they do all of there work. La Visite is one of two national parks in Haiti and is vital to the socio-ecological system here. “If the park goes, then so does all of Port au Prince’s water,” said the operations manager. Many people are migrating to the lands that are within the park out of necessity. It is probably better than living in “Site Soley” says C. They can grow food and have space up in the mountains where the park is located, but growing food means cleaning of trees for land.
I ask them if they are the only environmentally focused in NGO in Haiti and they say no. There are others but they have more of a philosophical approach at times, whereas there organization seeks to be more hands on and pragmatic. They work directly with the farmers (universally referred to as Peasants here). There organization is more interested in the people and the environment and not simply in conservation. They want to create jobs for people, and realize that addressing the environment in Haiti must also address the other issues like poverty. Value must also be placed in the environment for Haitian people to care. “If you had to cut down the last tree to save your family, you would, and so would I,” says C. I nod my head that I would. They need something that combines environmental concern and protection with the livelihoods of people, so they are interested in developing something like eco-tourism or or trees and foliage that can be useful in skin and healthcare products.
“Environment and development doesn’t exist here in Haiti,” says the operations manager. She is the most outspoken and skeptical about what can be done. Most people are only concerned with profit. Wealth is concentrated among the elite here and they will keep hold of it at any cost. Money first. “People are concerned with profit, and the government is concerned with power, but you already know that as a sociologist,” L says. International aid is an issues too. L claims that 80% of what Aid the international community gives to Haiti goes back to the donor country in some way. Think about the personnel and the materials. Most of that money doesn’t benefit Haiti. He tells me to think back historically. Its been 50 or 60 years of this international aid for development and where is the development? Haiti is in the same place as it was. On top of that, when it comes to aid trickling down to NGOs like their own, it is SLOW and INEFFICIENT. In fact, most NGOs here don’t make it past 10 years, though they have managed to survive for this long. “If you depend on international aid, without self-sufficiency, nothing happens,” says C. The woman from BDA asks about the private sector to which they reply is of no help. They are all for profit. They also have their own problems, as most of the businesses here are small and not thriving.
Given all of this I ask how they keep going. They strive to stay positive and they have commitments to the people. If they quit, then people will suffer. He makes sure to tell me that they do not sustain themselves from the Foundation, and that their own salaries come from other ventures. We talked for an hour and a half before saying our goodbyes. They handed me a flyer and a DVD about their organization. I asked if I could call the driver on their phone. As I waited for him, I sat in the main lobby area. The operations manager came over and asked if I needed anything. I told her I was fine, but had a question. “Are these large supermarkets owned by Haitians?” I ask. She says that most of them are owned by Arabs, and a lot of the management positions are occupied by Filipinos.
On the ride back to the hotel, the driver and I speak in Kreyol. He points to mountainsides, which is covered in colorful square structures, “I live up there.” “Se bel (Its beautiful)” I say. He nods yes with a smile. In english he asks, “Are you American black.” “Wi.” “Ou se Ayisyen (Are you Haitian)?” “No. M’ap etidye kilti ak lang Ayisyen nan inivisite (No. I’m styling Haitian culture and language at University),” I respond. I ask him about the supermarkets. He says there are many big supermarkets here. I ask him if he buys his food there and he said yes. I told him that at the supermarket I saw “anpil moun blan (many white people).” He explained to me that Petionville is a kominite (community) with a lot of white people. I asked fi it was because of all of the NGOs and embassy and he said no its because of the money. There are many people in Petionville with money. Looking up at the top of the mountains attests to this fact. They are speckled with very large houses. I hand him 50 gourdes as he pulls onto the sidewalk to drop me off. I tell him thanks and head inside.
In the lobby, James sits at his small desk listening to John Legend. In fact, as I write this he has listened to that one song, All of Me, 6 times, covers, instrumentals, and all. I NOW KNOW THE SONG BY HEART. I’m not mad though. Yesterday he told me that is how he learned English apart from school.
I've spent the rest of the day chilling in my room, except for my daily walk to the grocery store. Tomorrow I might go be a tourist and go to the National Museum. Its a must given my intrigue with, and love of, Haitian history.
My conversation with the local environmentally based NGO has left me a little bit puzzled. On the one, hand they suggested that all of this foreign involvement in Haiti has not been of much help, on the other they cannot imagine life without MINUSTAH, a UN peace-keeping force presence. They said that MINUSTAH has made it so that they feel safe, and that their families feel safe. The situation is further complicated by a government that has little financial stability, nor willingness to address problems that aren't of immediate benefit to those occupying places of power. If the Park that the organization seeks to protect, while enhancing the lives of people living there, gets overrun there could be dire consequences for the broader community. The people that I talked to today called it short-sightedness.
After hearing all of this I don't know exactly how to feel. I'm very inspired by the organizations efforts, especially given the constraints that they operate under. I felt a sense of pride for whatever reason. Here is an organization that is trying the best it can. Its scrambling for money all of the time, picking up crumbs here and there. This makes me a little sad. The people that care and that are actively doing something for the Haitian people, are the same people that have it hardest. Haiti needs to be self sufficient, as those slaves that rebelled against their colonial masters envisioned. Gen twop men an Ayiti e moun li (There are too many hands on Haiti and its people). I've lost track of all of the foreign NGOs, UN people, foreign embassies I've seen here. Yet as my friend from the Foundation pointed out not much has changed with all of this foreign assistance. Haiti remains at the bottom, one of the poorest in the world. It is historically outrageous that the first nation in the world to declare "Tout noun se noun (All people are people)" would in up in the situation that it is in today!
I’m reminded of what the sociologist Howard Winant writes, “In a socially just and historically conscious world the West would not only forgive the debt of the world’s “others”; it would seek forgiveness; it would seek to make good on their losses, to make them whole in the legal sense. Such an event—difficult even to imagine today, but pressing world-historical requirement—would go a long way toward destroying the racial hierarchy built into the contemporary global political economy” (16).