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.


Dear Editor:

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.


Long Bench


12 Responses to “Sorry fi Haiti but scorn Haitians”

  1. Betty SB Says:

    In 1937 the Dominican dictator, Trujillo, established a form of Apartheid, Antihaitianismo, against his neighbours. We should not continue this prejudice. It is not the fault of the Haitian people, but rather of generations of dictators, that they do not have access to health care, sanitation, etc. that we have in Jamaica. On the other hand, we need to recognise that Haiti does have a greater incidence of illnesses than we do, thanks to their awful public water supply (it is quite likely that when you were in Haiti you stayed somewhere which had its own water supply). We need to consider too that thousands of prisoners escaped in the earthquake, though some of them might well be innocent political detainees.

    In short, I’m trying to advocate a middle ground. Should any Haitians arrive in Jamaica we must make sure they get proper medical attention and ascertain that they are not wanted criminals. Then we should welcome them and make them feel at home, not scorn them, as they have been through more than any Jamaican, or anyone else, can properly understand.

    The language argument is a non-starter, people all over the world deal with that every day.

    • Long Bench Says:

      BettySB: Thanks for stopping by! I am pretty aware of the history of Haiti, and it’s for that very reason that I decided to respond in the way I did.

      As I noted, this is first and foremost an immigration issue, not an opportunity to remind Haitians of their presumably inferior status relative to us.

      Beginning with this notion that Haiti “has a greater incidence of illnesses” and so they need to be “screened”, it follows that such measures should not be applied to people coming from places that we don’t think are as “disease-prone”. Well, If that were true, then we should be treating many poor Jamaicans in the same way that Haitians are to be treated. If that’s not a recipe for public health problems, I don’t know what is. Funny enough, nobody has bothered to say what they think we should be “protecting” ourselves from. Should I be worrying about malaria, yellow fever, or inhaling any air that was fouled by Haitians? If they are so contagious then shouldn’t we Jamaicans be informed about how to prevent getting sick? It’s a specious argument based on prejudice and misinformation. Nothing more, nothing less.

      Re: Haitian prisoners on the loose. Not all of them are dangerous people; many were not even charged with a crime. But, again, the hypocrisy is amazing. We have gangs, dons, and random youth wreaking all kinds of havoc on the society already in broad daylight. They and their police counterparts are running the gun trade between Jamaica and Haiti. Haitians who are in the know already know that Jamaica is a criminals’ paradise. I cannot imagine what any Haitian ex-convict could do that would be any more heinous than what is already being visited on us. If anything, our local criminals will learn a new language to use for their misdeeds.

  2. Debi Says:

    Excellent post. I hear too many so-called people claiming they are all for the “black man” but when it comes down to truly loving your neighbour, this idiotic drivel is what you hear.

    • Long Bench Says:

      Debi – Thanks for stopping by! Funny how Danville is concerned about Haitians, but he has not articulated any such concern for the massive amount of guns being smuggled into Jamaica via Haiti. As soon as the trade resumes, and it will, I hope he will set up a customs office in Portland/St. Thomas and tax the “importers” accordingly. Naturally, the Haitian ones would not be allowed to come ashore, but he would probably still accept the money.

    • longbench Says:

      Hi Debi – Thanks for stopping by! Those ideas are always conditional, aren’t they? Not just anybody is entitled to the same respect; there have to be all kinds of tests to decide who is really deserving, and most of us would fail them anyway.

  3. Fiyu Pikni Says:

    Long Bench, if you want to get your letters published (and they should be, because you always have great perspectives to share) you shouldn’t write letters quite so comprehensive :D. The newspapers don’t seem to have the capacity to determine when an article merits publication if they exceed their general word limit, unless you are someone like Danville Walker. It’s unfortunate.

    You know, I have always wished that there was more direct exchange between the people of the Caribbean. Tourists come to Jamaica continuously, but they often look so different from the majority of us that it’s easy to characterize them as the “other” and regard them only scantly. But we could better relate to Caribbean people, as a result of our shared history and common reality.

    Jamaica is a stone’s throw away from Haiti and Cuba, whose people do not speak English. There is a wealth of cultural diversity in our little region that has been severely underutilized, partly because we don’t have the means to facilitate extensive back and forth interactions. If only we could be exposed to these people and their culture in more productive ways, perhaps through films, music, subsidized school tours etc. we might be given the tools to regard them in more respectful ways.

    It’s foolish that Jamaicans could be so xenophobic in their outlook sometimes. Everything that is unfamiliar is demonized. Haitians speak another language, oh dear! It’s ridiculous. We need to learn to better recognize people’s humanity. There is no better or worse when its comes to people and cultures- just difference.

    It’s great to hear from you!

    • longbench Says:

      FP = Yes, is a regular problem. I keep forgetting that substance is not what sells; I didn’t say anything about the “morality” of Haitians, and there were no “let us” clauses, and I certainly don’t have a big name. Poor me – doomed to blog, I guess. LOL!

      I totally agree about the real loss in not having more meaningful relationships with other countries in the region. We could stand to be a little more open and not so insular, so infatuated with and crippled by ourselves and our limitations. And that’s not going to happen by wishing it. UWI should require that all students travel to at least one other campus to study before they graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Our TV shows should be beamed in from other Cbn countries, rather than be so focused on knowing only about from ‘Merica. We can celebrate MLK and talk about Black History Month, but don’t know squat about the significance of the struggles of other countries. Maybe subtitles would help more Jac’n people learn to read too! Why am I not the Minister of Culture??

  4. […] that the arrival of Haitian refugees in Jamaica could be seen as a threat to public health, Long Bench republishes a Letter to the Editor that he wrote: “Haitian refugees are not criminals, and […]

  5. […] that the arrival of Haitian refugees in Jamaica could be seen as a threat to public health, Long Bench republishes a Letter to the Editor that he wrote: “Haitian refugees are not criminals, and […]

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  7. Fiyu Pikni Says:

    I recently watched two films that I think are worth seeing. You can find them online.

    1) TRIBES: Set in Port of Spain, Trinidad and directed by the one they call the Guru, Ras Kassa, Tribes aims to challenge the sexual behaviors of young people in Trinidad.

    2) NOT TO ME: Not To Me is a powerful and passionate story about young people trying to find their way through life and realising the consequences of their actions. Set in Jamaica and to creatively entertain and educate, this one-hour film features real-life stories that highlight sexual and social issues. (It doesn’t play to the end for some frustrating reason, so you wont be able to watch the last few minutes).

    Very well produced films- with Caribbean subjects. One of the things I love most about ‘Not to Me’ is that it is largely in Patwa, and the subtitles are more or less accurate translations to English.

    I suppose all it takes is money to produce films of this quality. I’m all for making you minister of culture 🙂 It’s getting the votes for you that would be the problem.

    • longbench Says:

      Hey FP: Thanks for the recommendations. I will definitely check them out. Yes, all it takes is money, and increasingly *less* of it, if that makes sense. The quality of work that one can produce on those little handheld recorders is astounding. I was at a friend’s house back in December, and he showed a 30-minute video he had shot with his phone and then edited! Mind you, he is a professional media person, but obviously he had good quality to work in the first place; I’m still amazed at what I saw. So, all of us can now tell the stories that we want to tell, and YouTube is right there to help us promote it. So, when yuh plan to mek your film?

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