A Haitian man folds the Haitian flag after the funeral ceremony for Leo Larose, 45, who died after being found dehydrated and undernourished. The ceremony was organized by members of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which recently opened an office in Tapachula.

Overview:

People across nations look down on Haitians for an array of reasons – the main one being racism/colorism – blinding them to our contributions across the Western Hemisphere. To turn things around, us Haitians have to first see ourselves as deserving and treat our own better. Then coordinate efforts to get the same from others.

NEW YORK—Back in my 20s, I often jumped at the chance to visit friends in the Caribbean or go on vacation there, especially during carnival. At the time, Spirit Airlines tickets cost less than a tank of gas, I loved collecting passport stamps and I much preferred the indigo waters of my native tropics over the grayish-blue of the East Coast.

On one trip to the Bahamas, I stayed with a friend who had moved back there after completing her degree in the U.S. Since she had to work one day, she hooked a sister up with a VIP day pass to the Atlantis resort in Paradise Island! Somewhere between screeching down epic water slides and standing around with flamingos, a man on the grounds — ebony-hued, maybe 5-foot-8, smiling — came up to me. I picked up his accent immediately and told him en Kreyol that I was Haitian too. He was agog at first, then happy to chat with a Haitian from America. 

Long story short, he had paid smugglers to get him from Haiti to Florida, but got dropped off in the Bahamas. He had since been trying to get to the U.S., hanging around Nassau to find day jobs. Finding an American woman to marry him (yes, he did propose) was one way out. It was hellish to live there, he said, as too many Bahamians looked down on Haitians like him or blamed them for everything.

To be honest, I felt a teeny, tiny twinge of remorse.

The Bahamas
About 400 Haitian migrants were apprehended Sept. 26, 2021 off an uninhabited cay in the southern Bahamas after their green and yellow wooden sloop partially submerged. Photo courtesy of The Royal Bahamas Defense Force.

Last month, this chance encounter came to mind when some Bahamians said it wasn’t right to celebrate Haitian Flag Day in their country. As happens anytime a Haitian-bashing incident springs up, I thought of that man and other Haitians similarly stuck in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Turks & Caicos, Dominica, Martinique and so many countries in South America – just trying to do the best they can.

I thought too of how Haitians are easy targets of xenophobia because of our unique history, color, religions and languages. These same traits, ironically, are celebrated in every setting other than migration, including during Caribbean and immigrant heritage recognition events held in June in the U.S. They are the ones too – in addition to our skills and work ethic – we can call on to make #HaitianExcellence the default view of our people everywhere they go.

Disrespect, mistreatment and attacks not random

All across the region of 50 countries, it’s too often the same story with Haitians “invading” and “taking, taking, taking.” The Dominican Republic’s anti-Haitianismo is a part of life there. In the Bahamas, stories of resentment and discrimination against Haitians abound. Same with Haitians forced to leave Chile, Brazil, Panama and other Latin American countries because of overt discrimination or exclusionary government rules.

In Tapachula, Mexico, Haitians waiting for immigration processing there have complained of being passed over for other nationalities. Surely, you remember the Del Rio, Texas encampments that took weeks to clear, a boon to anyone looking to fan the flames. Even once allowed entry, according to a 2023 Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees report, a slew of anti-Haitian, anti-Black immigration policies make it difficult for Haitians to gain employment.

Just this week, the first presidential debate smacked us with the xenophobic fear-mongering at play across the region. If you can stomach it, watch to see how false claims about immigrants can have folks feeling like no one is safe from “millions” of mentally-ill killer immigrants out to take all the “Black jobs” and “Hispanic jobs.” Again, no proof of numbers or even definition of what these jobs are.

A workshop under way at the Miami Workers Center in Miami, Fla., in August 2022. Photo by Ashley Miznazi / Go West Now

No wonder “the migrants” seem to be the reason our society’s ills persist, in some people’s minds. That type of inflammatory rhetoric is exactly the kind that drives resentment, hatred outright attacks. The type of permission people use to  look down on and bash Haitians like we're unfeeling piñatas, available for anyone to take out their frustrations on something that won't strike back. The kind that has even led to death from mistreatment, such as the Haitian man in Tapachula who died from dehydration.

In a report released in April titled “The Time is Now,” for one, advocates with the Global Justice Clinic at NYU Law and the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova, demand that Mexico provide refugee status and protections to Haitans. In coming up with the recommendation, the authors summarize what we’ve been seeing around the region.

“Haitians living outside of Haiti often lack access to basic human rights, face anti-Black discrimination, and in many countries, live under the threat of being sent back to Haiti,” the authors write. “Pathways to legal status in other countries are essential for Haitians seeking safety, but governments rarely grant legal status to Haitians and, when they do, protections are often temporary.”

Scapegoating trumps commerce, construction, other contributions 

But why does everyone seem to bashing us Haitians, from the D.R. to the U.S.? 

The reasons vary from island to island to the world’s superpowers in North America, but two in particular stand out to me.

First, Haiti is now the most populous country in the Caribbean at 11.5 million people and growing faster than the next largest two, Cuba and Dominican Republic. The past few years is the time the First Black Republic surpassed the region’s Hispanic/Latin countries in this era. Meanwhile, as our population has been growing, so have Haiti’s socio-political problems. The result: People fleeing for better lives, making Haiti the most consistent exporter of human capital to places near and far.

Note: The “trends” table above lists 23 Caribbean countries. Click on the image for the full table in alphabetical order. Click on any country to view Quick Facts (2023), Patterns and Trends and Sources. Credit: Table via U.S. Census Bureau 

Second, and most significantly, the one consistent reason for mistreating Haitians is one we also experience among us: Racism. You can call it colorism, but the root of both constructs is the same. 

The point is, seeing us strikes fear in others because that’s what we’re conditioned to feel. The Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees report describes how current immigration policies were “originally designed to deter Haitians centuries ago and stem from decades of imperialist and White supremacist actions on the part of the United States with respect to Haiti.”

In the case of the Americas, Haitians being either the darkest-hued in some places, the only Creole-speakers, the only ones practicing Vodou, the ones with least money – or a combination of all these – make us easiest to single out and exclude. Ironically, these traits often used to expel us from the dominant English-speaking Caribbean or Latin American spheres are the ones we proudly claim.

Sadly, the Bahamian xenophobes, like bigots everywhere, are playing into the divide-and-conquer strategy Western Europe used to take over and divvy up the globe. Meaning that when everyone is of the same or similar origin, turn minute differences become huge existential threats.

What the ignoramuses may not know or care to understand is that the entire region depends on Haitians in some shape or form and that our people’s positive contributions outweigh the challenges of our presence. Yes, all 2 million or so of us in the diaspora at different legs of our immigration journeys. These critics don’t know or forget that Haitian hands help build these countries through construction, cultivation of crops and service-sector jobs.

In the case of the Bahamas, for example, many may not know that Haitians have been living and working in or trading with them since before I was born. Ever heard of ‘pantalon abaco?’ It’s what Haitians called denim jeans when I was a kid because back in the 60s and 70s, Great Abaco was the Bahamian island where Haitian merchants went to buy goods from the U.S. These days, Haitians make up about 20% of the Bahamian population. Most work, but for low wages and under much duress with the threat of deportation looming.

Similarly before 2021, we saw indications of such a similar Haitian labor presence in Brazil and Chile too. Now, Mexico is where many Haitians are staying as the U.S. tightens the southern border. In the U.S. and Canada, Haitians here on TPS alone contributed $4.4 billion to the American economy, according to the Haitian Bridge Alliance. I can’t even begin to count all the ways we’ve contributed across sectors and socially. Look up #Haitian Excellence on Go West Now for a sense, and we’re just one platform.

Out with the ignorance, in with Haitian Excellence

Until we recognize how the -isms subjugate Black and Brown people across the globe, see ourselves differently as the essential workers and deserving contributors to any society, and treat our own better, no one else will give us better – at home or abroad.

At home, we’ve been so busy with political in-fighting for leftover colonial crumbs, we’ve devalued our country’s economy, education, cultural artifacts and other social foundations over time. We’ve done so to the point where people can’t wait to flee Haiti. Or, like many in the diaspora, don’t have real opportunities to return and build lives there long term.

Abroad, we’re unfortunately so worn down by the circumstances that made us flee and lack of money, we don’t stand up enough to attacks against our rights and humanity. In the U.S., where we’ve been for more than 60 years, our visible engagement in social justice seems limited to the Brooklyn Bridge march and Abner Louima protests. These efforts have been furtive, at times fractured, as we have largely shied away from that arena to focus on day-to-day survival.

Haitians in America: (clockwise from top) NFL player Carl Davis, Africana Studies Director Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, Award-winning poet An Duplan and Dotie Joseph, State Representative and Leader Pro Tempore in the Florida House of Representatives

In all countries where Haitians have a presence, we must truly believe that these countries need us Haitians as much as we need them. We have to also invest in coordinating our efforts or joining hands with other groups to stand up for our rights in a strategic, sustainable way. We have to do the work of marrying our common traits and what’s unique to our culture if we want to strike back effectively.

So as we look at these viral videos and, in the U.S., recognize both Caribbean and immigrant heritage, I hope people can remember this very simple message: Stop being ignorant.

For us Haitians, our biggest, hardest job as individuals is to change our attitudes toward race and class. We must do so from within if we really want to unite in a way that commands respect from others. This means actually setting aside our historical hang-ups around race, color and class, and being more open-minded to each other’s experiences and humanity.

We also have to be more willing to challenge those who discriminate against us, in Haiti and abroad, despite our own imperfections. Look at the Indiana driver’s license case again. It gives inspiration to develop the most critical of components toward fostering human dignity: Respect for self.

As for my Caribbean massive and fellow Americans, please stop buying into the drivel of divisive politics. Please understand that Haitians wouldn’t be stuck in your country, trying to celebrate Flag Day there unless we had to be. And please understand our countries’ symbiotic roles, admit it and be grateful.

Then, watch as #HaitianExcellence flourishes in your own land – drawing more children of Haiti who will happily visit, knowing our brethren are treated with respect and dignity.


Macollvie J. Neel, a writer and communications consultant, serves as executive editor of Go West Now. Her company Comms Maven LLC helps mission-driven professionals and organizations tell their stories in workplaces and media spaces. Her professional development ebook — Scripts for Success: Workplace Communication Templates to Advance Your Career — is available on Bookboon.

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2 Comments

    1. Correction but Haitians have been in America for more than 60 years..
      Haitians moved to Louisiana after the Haitian revolution in 1800s and
      Haitians were among the First Blacks to settle in French-built cities of the US such as Detroit, St Louis, and even New Orleans..

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