The Past Challenges of Being Haitian in the American School System

This blog post is very real to me because as it clearly states from the title there are challenges that I have had to endure because of my ethnicity in addition to the color of my skin. Since students and educators always stated that Haiti was the poorest country in the world, it really made me embarrassed of my Haitian culture. So I tried to not tell people where my parents were from. When my classmates saw my father, they knew he was not a Black American. So I was made fun of during my childhood years being called African booty scratcher or I heard the default phrase for black students, “You Jamaican!” I could go on about the socio-cultural conflicts, academic values, parent expectations and stories of my past. However, my experience may be isolated. So I wanted to get the perspective of another adult of Haitian descent. It turns out that Gary Rozier, GOMO Consultant, who grew up in the same town with me, was very excited to share his experience.   

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Gary states, “The Montclair Public School System in New Jersey is where I received my formative education; it’s my hometown. By and large, growing up in Montclair was a good experience but not without some challenges.  As a young Haitian American I was living within a culture that was vying for my attention against the culture that was raising me.  My parents emigrated from Haiti [to the U.S], and while I am the last of six children (four boys and two girls), I’m also first generation American.  In my estimation, we lived in a town that was relatively diverse. The Fourth Ward of Montclair was primarily African American, but the schools we attended were racially and ethnically diverse. I went to schools comprising students that were Black, Jewish, Asian, White, Latino, and so on. 

            My parents valued the importance of an education, so much so that when it came ;down to it- the teacher was always right.  I remember one time my Social Studies teacher told me he was going to stop by my home one evening so that he could talk to my dad and tell him how well I was doing in his class. I never told my dad he was coming.  When the doorbell rang, I answered it and welcomed him in. I told my dad who rang the doorbell, and he got dressed so he could greet him.  When my dad came into the living room, he brought the biggest black leather belt he had; I was so disappointed and embarrassed at the same time.  By the end of the visit, if my dad thought or felt he committed a faux pas, he certainly did not acknowledge it, but inwardly I felt vindicated to some degree.

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            Back then, if you were of Haitian descent, your number one priority was to bring home the best grades you possibly could to make your parents proud.  Extracurricular activities didn’t rate that much.  I so wanted my dad to see what else I was good at.  At the time, I think I just wanted his support; I wanted him to see me doing my thing.  When I showed him newspaper clippings of my wrestling matches, he didn’t seem interested.  He never came to my wrestling matches even when I became captain of my team.  While I was working hard to earn my father’s approval, I was yet (along with a great number of my friends) dealing with the social ills that accompanied being black and of Haitian descent.  It would’ve been one thing if white kids were making fun of the fact that I spoke a different language, but when it’s your own kind rendering the ridicule day in and day out, that can be quite a bit to process.  This was my life, along with several of my peers, for some time.

These things caused us to band together all the more.  We didn’t band together because of the social ills we incurred.  We did so because in a sense without knowing it, we realized that we were all that we had.” Imagine how different the schooling experience could have been for Gary, me and countless other children of Haitian descent or Haitians who emigrated to the US if we didn’t have to experience the barrage of ridicule, social isolation, bullying and oppressive practices. I remember a number of students of Haitian descent that were socially accepted by the popular American group of students. Sometimes, they joined the popular group in the disparagement in order to protect themselves from being recipients. While these stories may seem isolated or were common just in the past, but they’re happening presently in schools and in the community.

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As a former principal, I made sure to highlight and celebrate the Haitian culture because of my childhood school experiences. I was also always praising my students of Haitian descent but especially those who newly emigrated to the US. I spoke Creole and French with students, parents and staff all the time to show them I took pride in the language, regardless of who was around. It generated a level of pride that the Haitian community always said they valued and really appreciated. One student told me that I made him feel human comparing his previous school experiences before my leadership. My experience with this topic strengthens the need for GOMO Educational Services to help educate, empower and build agency in all places involving students. We work with adults to help strengthen relationships and value diversity so students and adults can grow and learn from all ethnic and cultural differences.      

            On one hand, readers of this blog post may feel sorry for Gary and me. On the other hand, Gary adds, “Who would’ve known that what me and my cronies endured as young pre-teens and teens would only make us stronger as we became men?  Our perceived weaknesses essentially became strengths.  We weren’t wise enough to identify that at the time because we were immature, and the pain of dealing with the teasing, mockery, and bullying was too difficult to see past it. Yet, we went through it” As you can probably tell Gary and I became stronger men that have become proud of our Haitian culture.

Being a Targeted Christian in Times of Racial Tension (Part 2)

From my examples provided in part 1, you can clearly see that racism exists in all facets of life, both personally, professionally and spiritually. Since Christians of color are being discriminated in the church and amongst the body of believers, why would it be different in the world? Well, it isn’t.

The social construct of race to classify people hundreds of years ago dictated who had the privileges and advantages and who didn’t. Therefore, the experiences of those under the same being of Christ were also and continue to be different because of race. Although I am stating the Christian faith in the title, there are so many other faiths that practice love and turning the other cheek for your persecutors. However, it is a difficult thing, especially if the oppressive behavior and practice continues to reoccur.

Many people of color around the world are looking to see how other people of color are responding to the tensions because they are tired of seeing Black men mistreated and killed by law enforcement and other people of underrepresented populations being denied access to numbers of human rights because of systems that are designed to see them fail. What’s worse are the supposed Christians that act like a savior but are only looking to boost their egos or position in the world of helping people of color in need.  As a result, we see varied responses from peaceful small gatherings to large protests not only involving Christians but people of every faith and walk of life.

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We are no longer in the 17th century during the times of Puritans like John Lock, John Cotton and Richard Mathers when Black people, mainly African slaves were regarded as a commodity, uncivilized beasts, unintellectual and hyper sexualized. Although the times have changed, some views and practices have not. Without turning this into a history lesson, the forced assimilation or voluntary adoption of Christianity by Blacks and other people of color prepared us to forgive for the social ills by our oppressors with verses like Matthew 5:44 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and Romans 12:9 “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.”  While this may be my position because of my spiritual walk of referring to the scriptures, prayer and fasting are my personal preferred responses, not every Christian responds the same because of their continual reception of racial microaggressions and macroaggressions, especially by other Christians. Don’t forget I discussed three personal examples in part 1.

Unfortunately, I have seen firsthand discriminatory actions against students of faiths outside of Christianity and Catholicism by adults. School is a place where students enter to feel safe from many social and societal ills. However, in some cases, it is a continual perpetuation.

At GOMO Educational Services, we realize that everyone’s faith and upbringings play a significant role in the shaping of their values and belief system. Therefore, we stress the importance and set up relationship building dynamics to get to know people first. It is impossible to develop a relationship if there is any discrimination based on race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, religion from the onset. So we are intentional about professionally developing the cultural awareness and competencies of adults so positive relationships can be abound in every school district, organization and community. It is our hope that not only Christians of color will no longer be targeted in schools or the world but people of every faith.

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Christians or a believer of any faith with a higher power need to be anti-racists. Most importantly, it is the responsibility of Christians of the dominant group when they see or know about discrimination to speak up and speak against. Why would you allow your spiritual brother or sister to be silenced or experience oppression of any kind when you are supposed to be suffering together or deny your spiritual brother or sister the opportunity to bond and rejoice with you in love? So it comes down to the words of the song from the Black Eyed Peas, “Where is the love?”

Being a Targeted Christian in Times of Racial Tension (Part 1)

From birth to grade eight, my family and I only attended Haitian churches. So everyone spoke the same languages and looked like my family from the babies and youth to those in their very wise years. During my high school and college years in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, our family attended an American church in Montclair, New Jersey. Everyone still looked like us, but it felt like we were in North Carolina in North Jersey because there were so many people from the South. Therefore, I would overhear adults discussing some of their experience and challenges with racism from the South growing up but also in the present time.

It was not until 1991 during my freshman year at the largest Christian university in the U.S. that I was called the “N” word on the first day in the dorm. The white freshman who called me the racial epithet stated that I was the only “N” he had ever seen close up before because there weren’t any where he lived in Vermont. Of course, I asked him to refrain from identifying me with that term. Because change is difficult, I believe it occurred a couple of other times before he stopped completely. However, it took for him to get to know me as a person.

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There was another male student in our dorm that I had to interact with daily. He used to look at me with a crooked eye. Although we had classes together, dorm gatherings, bible studies and more, he watched me closely for the first semester but never spoke to me. It was not until the first day after returning for second semester that we began talking. He notified me that I was also the very first Black person he had seen. Growing in West Virginia without any person of color, he heard so many negative stories of Black people. Prior to me, he only heard one time that there was a black person in a Walmart parking lot. So he and a few of his friends ran over there to see this phenomenon but the person had already left. It was a missed opportunity. Therefore, watching me over time interact with other people proved those stories incorrect. Additionally, the other Black people in his classes and places he visited also were different. We really became good friends during the second semester because he let his guard down.

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During that same school year, I became friends with two white female classmates. I felt the bond getting stronger that I asked them both at separate times to potentially consider our friendship to evolve into a relationship. I was rejected by both at separate times but for the same reason. My classmates attributed their future rejection by their families and communities would be too much to bear. One even stated, “What kind of struggles would our future mixed children experience? It wouldn’t be fair to put them or me through that.”

Although sad, these situations occurred at the most prominent Christian university in the US at the time in the early 1990’s. There is a chance they probably still do. How could that happen, every student, faculty, staff and administrator is supposed to employ Christ-like principles of love so racial epithets, divisiveness, oppressive behaviors and practices should not exist. Unfortunately, they do. I will discuss more about Christians and racial tension in the world in part 2.