Sorry fi Haiti but scorn Haitians
February 5, 2010
I wrote this a few days ago in response to Danville Walker’s letter to the editor published on Feb. 1 in the Gleaner. It wasn’t published, and since I am just remembering about it, thought I’d share it with you.
Frankly, I am rather disappointed that Danville Walker has chosen to jump on the bandwagon and frame the arrival of Haitian refugees as, first and foremost, a public health threat. I am wondering: why take this stance among all the other far more reasonable positions that one might have expected from this particular public figure? More generally, what is it about the way we insist on thinking about Haitians that allows us to intentionally cast them as dirty, diseased and backward, a status, according to Mr. Walker, that is only enhanced by their “lack of familiarity with the English Language.” Such arguments are truly self-serving, and say much more about us, than it does about the people who are being demonized and mischaracterised in these pejorative ways.
I am certainly no stranger to the reactionary, cruel and
stereotype-ridden stances that many Jamaicans are wont to take about whoever is deemed as a “problem.” What I do find interesting is that we still have so little perspective on the real effects of policies built on the very arguments that we are bandying about in the papers and on the airwaves i.e. that because the Haitian is a “foreigner” and is “not one of us” because of differences in cultural practices and living situations, s/he poses a danger to the health of the nation, and with whom contact should be minimized as much as possible.
Not only are these arguments frightening. They have been used time and time again in so many countries to imprison people indefinitely, to exclude them from jobs, housing, and education, and used to make scapegoats of them, assigning them responsibility for every possible social problem. I am fairly sure the British folks used some of these very arguments against Jamaicans when we first went to England in the 1950s!
Indeed, Danville Walker’s suggestion, however well intended, sounds more and more like the kinds of policies that the U.S. imposed on immigrants who entered through Ellis Island in the late 19th and early 20th century, where, depending on where people were coming from, they were sprayed with pesticides and quarantined for fear they would be bringing in foreign diseases for which the U.S. policymakers believed there was no treatment or cure. Most recently, the U.S. enacted a ban in the 1980s forbidding Haitians and gay men from donating blood because of the assumption that both groups would contaminate the general blood supply, and spread HIV to the general population. They too were registered as “foreign” and their bodies subjected to all forms of stigma, discrimination and surveillance. We in Jamaica swallowed those problematic arguments without so much as a cough or a question. Just look how far those ideas have brought us.
Beneath all these arguments for protecting the nation from the “dirty foreigner” – now Haitians but somehow never Eastern Europeans – are some serious prejudices which have never been unearthed and actively challenged, but are allowed to fester and ooze into the public consciousness in exactly the moments when what is desired is thoughtful, humane policy and action.
Certainly, many of the arguments we are hearing now about the “diseased Haitian” were made years ago when the first group of Haitians came to Jamaica. While the voices echoing the attitude of “No Haitians Allowed” have now been cast as hard-hearted and cruel, and of course, nobody wants to be seen as such, there has been little response to the seemingly more benign position of “Bring them in but spray them first” which is steadily creeping to the forefront. This more rational and reasonable-sounding argument echoed in Danville Walker’s letter has begun to seep into the debate, as if to suggest that there has been a significant change in the general sentiments previously expressed. But that’s clearly not true. Rather it is the same prejudices and ignorance being cloaked as “concern” for the general wellbeing of Jamaicans. Naturally, we would have not considered the reverse situation i.e. whether there are potentially detrimental effects that living in this society could pose for Haitian refugees. Nor have we considered that Jamaicans including myself have lived and worked in Haiti and we didn’t live in bubbles or come down with untreatable diseases. No. Such would not be a concern because the implicit message is that Jamaica – and by extention, Jamaicans – is “better” (i.e. morally, socially and culturally superior) than Haiti. To many of us, Haitians are just too close to “Africa” and “Africans” who we look on with the same loathing and disgust, to be held at arms-length, using sterile latex gloves. It is deeply saddening that so many of us think nothing of talking about people using words and tone that enact a certain kind of violence, while conveying how little we think of them. But let any other country apply its own ill-conceived policies to Jamaicans in the same way that we wish the government to treat Haitians, and we are ready to cry “racism” and “discrimination.” It is very clear to me that the very same racist ideas that were imposed on this society several centuries ago have found numerous ways to survive in our social system and attitudes. The anti-Haitian arguments floating around Jamaica right now stink of racism; the root causes need to be addressed.
At the end of the day, this is primarily an immigration issue. Haitian refugees are not criminals, and should not be treated by citizens or represented in the media as such. They should be subjected to the same procedures that others currently undergo when they come to Jamaica to live or to stay for long periods of time. Nothing less than fairness and respect for their dignity should be accorded to any persons who come to our country, for whatever reason. If some of us are still struggling to accord that basic respect to our fellow citizens, then perhaps the immigration officials and other government workers charged to re-settle Haitian refugees can provide a laudable example of how we should be living and relating to each other.