As the truck rolled past the gates of the airport, I knew I was over my head. This was my first time in Haiti, back in 2010, and I was faced with a lot of thoughts swirling around my conscious. Things that had been pushed so far back into my subconscious were making their way into the forefront of my brain as we passed burning piles of trash and open sewage lines. Poverty, at that time so clearly explainable to me; it was harsh and unrelenting. I wondered how people could live in such an environment.
This is not unlike some of the attitudes I meet today. Shaking hands with people, well meaning folks that come to some of our speaking engagements, they ask me how in the world I can work in such a horrible place. Their questions cut me. I hate hearing people color Haiti, a place I have fallen in love with, by such harsh statements. I hate to think of my friends who are more like family there as anything less than what they are: amazing humans. I also hate these statements, though, because they remind me of my own thoughts. They remind me that we are all capable of totally and completely misjudging situations and using our own privilege to say it doesn't matter when we are called out.
When I first met one of my friends in Haiti she spoke with me very openly about racism she'd experienced. I thought it interesting, as Haiti is a black nation, that she'd feel this way. But, what she was referring to, I believe, is this idea of systemic oppression: that the powers that be prefer the west (often times white people like me). I would be lying to you if I did not say that I saw it, too. It has benefitted me in health situations or situations where we have needed to cut lines. It has helped me in times where I might have been scared. I have been obviously and unashamedly prefered in Haiti because of my skin tone. Haitians have suffered for years at the hands of powerful people (labeling themselves anything from "missionaries" to businessmen to NGO workers). I have heard stories first hand of forced prostitution, money mismanagement, and more, that Haitians have suffered at the hands of people with more power than they have.
I share this because it really, in many ways, took me working in another country to see the privilege that carries into our own American suburbs and cities. Growing up in the south, I am not amiss of opinions or stories of prejudice, but I was also weary to "go there" because it seemed so distant and in the past. Being a second generation American, it did not feel as if I had any privilege. My ancestors did not really build America- they came here much later. However, doing the work that has needed to be done in Haiti to build and restore healthy relationships with my friends, I realize that the work really is ours to be done. It does not matter if you "weren't here" for the atrocities in the years past. It doesn't matter if we weren't a part of the march on Saturday. If we are of privilege, we have to use it for restoration.
You might think you are not of privilege. I used to think this, too. This is not a bad thing, or a thing that you have acquired. This just simply is. Like the way I have cut in lines at Haitian hospitals when I have needed to, there are just certain unspoken rights we have based on the color of our skin and appearance we have. It's there. So, the real question is what are we doing with it? I came across this question when I was working in Haiti, as well. I realized that I was using my own background to be a "voice for the voiceless" when what I really needed to do was just use my voice to silence everyone so that those with the real voices could speak. We don't have to know what to say or how to respond, we just have to listen.
I just finished my fieldwork for school, a time where I was to intentionally think through cultural nuances and traditions I was seeing in Haiti. It was a time where I was to interview people to understand their culture more. I thought this would be a breeze for me, as I have worked in Haiti for nearly 7 years. Instead, I uncovered another layer of my own understanding: assumptions. I was shocked to learn some of the information I did, even about close friends of mine there. It wasn't that I did not care before, but it was that I did not ask questions and I did not listen. I was rooted in good intentions, but not in understanding. I am not afraid to admit this, because my work in Haiti has shown me that the only real mistake we make is making these crazy assumptions and driving them home with our action (or inaction). Listening to people is an intentional act; it doesn't just happen.
In the light of the events that happen all around the world, from my tiny corner of Haiti to my tiny corner in southern Alabama and beyond, let us not forget what it means to love one another. In love, we listen. In love, we champion one another. In love, we ask for forgiveness. In love, we really seek to change our own behaviors, thoughts, and misconceptions. In love, we learn more about the struggles and issues of our friends. I am hopeful, because I know we all can ask more questions and seek the reconciliation we all need. After all, "love covers a multitude of things" (1 Peter 4:8)