At the moment I’ m being a little dumbfounded at what strikes me as a generalized lack of interest in actual Haitians, and a huge interest in imaginary Haitians. The objectification thing. There are a ton of events going on here in Los Angeles, each put on and designed for its particular micro-selection of the population: the hipster edgy art people, the world music people, the art lover elderly people…It shouldn’t be surprising that people would mobilize the networks they know best when they put on events where’ they’re trying to raise money for Haiti. What’s missing in most of them, as far as I can see, is much of an effort to learn anything about Haiti (except for the earthquake which is, so to speak, the tip of the iceberg), or to engage with the local Haitian community. I’ve had any number of conversations and have been in any number of meetings where my efforts to get people to talk to an actual Haitian person, or consider involving a real Haitian are met with blank stares, non-commital murmurings, or, simply, are ignored.
There are a lot of things at work there. Here in LA most people aren’t even aware that there is something that might be called a Haitian community, so I suppose the attitude or assumption that including Haitians isn’t necessary is understandable, even if it isn’t excusable. I admit that I suspect that there are uglier things beneath it. For one, it’s a lot more fun to “help people” if you don’t actually have to deal with them in 3D. Or worse, have to negotiate what they might think or feel that isn’t contained in your own imaginings of who they are. All of that is sticky, sticky business. Keeping one’s ‘helping’ activities hermetically sealed means protecting one’s view of oneself as good, as knowing, as powerful. Collaboration, however, means opening oneself up to not knowing — and really, most people in the U.S. don’t know diddly about Haiti and never even heard of it before two weeks ago. Keeping Haitians out of their own engagement with its disaster is a way of ensuring that they never WILL know diddly about Haiti, and that they never will have to confront, either, the complex history and politics in which they, unfortunately, are implicated whether they like it or not.
Take the upcoming interfaith service that will be held at Occidental. No Haitians needed, thank you. We can emote and pray for your wholeness without you! we can do it in 15 different spiritual traditions, too! Never mind that there are many Haitian religious leaders who would love the opportunity to speak about their culture, their nation, their families, their homeland and to communicate the depth of their love and appreciation for this place that, to most in the U.S. at this moment, appears as nothing more than a scene of devastation and ugliness. Never mind that these same Haitian religious leaders are Seventh Day Adventists and Evangelicals who aren’t exactly either welcome or represented on Oxy’s campus. Never mind that some of them got here not too long ago, refugees who speak with accents and have antiquated, formal manners most of us haven’t seen in living memory. To engage with all of that, however, requires letting go of one’s belief in oneself as being the point, and letting go of that idea is something eminently unpleasant for so many Americans who believe in the power of one.
Yes, there is a lot of ugly, nasty business going on down there and it’s certainly not a bad thing for ‘us’ to feel bad about it and to want to do something about it no matter how incohate and disorganized (and utterly ineffectual) that desire might be. But it’s way too convenient for ‘us’ to chalk up the devastation and ineffectiveness of those emotive efforts to corruption and lack of development and all that other crap that we use to explain why the poor and disenfranchised did it to themselves.
What including Haitians means, at every point along the way, is facing ourselves, and taking on the responsibility for understanding that we are not the calvalry riding in on white horses to save the day, not saviors, not even witnesses most of the time but navel gazers. Unless Haitians are included in whatever the effort is — spiritual wholeness, raising money — I’m afraid it’s just self-serving bullshit. We need to get off those high horses, put our feet upon the dusty and muddy earth where all those Haitians are living right now, and put our shoulders to the wheel. And maybe it’s us who should be taking direction from them.
Just an idea.