12750417273_d3d4fc58cf_z.jpgCitizenship & Identity 

Whiteness is Not Competence

By Phoebe Rusch

Haiti tugs at me in a way I myself don’t fully understand. Maybe it’s the unique, revolutionary history, the mordant humor and spirit of resistance to be found in the literature, music, and art. Maybe it’s simply because I’m the kind of white person who would be obsessed with Haiti. The need to finish my education no longer tethering me to the Midwest, I was game to take any job I could get in Port-au-Prince. Given my non-existent French and broken Creole, the best option was to apply for a position at an English-speaking international school and improve my language skills in-country.

Quisqueya Christian School has been around since the 1970s, when American missionaries in Haiti decided they needed a school to serve their own children. Today, while expat kids still attend QCS, children of wealthy Haitian businesspeople form the majority of the student body, while the administration and faculty are mostly white American evangelicals. Although as a liberal Christian QCS’s conservatism gave me pause I figured I could filter what I shared with my colleagues for the sake of building a life in Haiti.

Along with Union, a secular English-speaking school, QCS is one of the two most elite pre-collegiate institutions in the country, accessible only to Haiti’s upper class. (Haiti’s mostly privatized education system leaves few options for impoverished parents besides relying on charity.) A small number of families, many descended from Syrians, Germans, or Italians who immigrated to Haiti at the turn of the century and married within the mainly light-skinned elite, control the economy. These families usually send their children to QCS or Union. So the fourth graders I taught could generally be divided into two categories: middle-class American children whose missionary parents had taken a financial hit by relocating to Haiti and the 10-year-old scions of Haitian business tycoons.

Given the affluence concentrated in the QCS community, I was surprised by many of the challenges I encountered. When I administered a test with extra credit questions, two students scored significantly above 100 percent while one girl couldn’t take the test without having the directions read aloud to her. Admittedly, it was a difficult and poorly written exam, but still this little girl’s teachers had passed her all the way to fourth grade without ensuring that she acquired basic literacy. Many of her peers also struggled to read and write. The French teacher doubled as a remedial math instructor, taking on several students who required specialized attention, but QCS provided no such service for non-quantitative learning disabilities or ESL-related issues.

Without an education degree, let alone a background in special education, I was expected to devise differentiated lesson plans for students with widely divergent needs and teach a functionally illiterate child to read, all without any training or guidance, or even an elementary principal to field questions, because almost two months into the fall semester the QCS director had still failed to hire one. When I asked the director why QCS hadn’t invested in special education or ESL, his answers didn’t satisfy me. Managing resources is difficult, he explained, as if QCS were an underfunded rural school, truly unable to afford helping students with learning difficulties, rather than one catering to a wealthy oligarchy.

In response to the concern that a lot of my students struggled with reading in English despite their fluency in the spoken language because they’d learned phonemes in French (sometimes Spanish or Arabic), the director opined that ESL is a “crutch” and that the best way for students to “lose their accent” and learn English was to listen to me, a native speaker. Although many QCS parents must have been grooming their children to inherit businesses, and I understood the boardroom cachet of speaking English with an American accent, the emphasis struck me as assimilationist.

Of the four new teachers this school year, two were also white women in their twenties straight out of college, both more dedicated and suited to the job than I was but without master’s degrees or significant experience. Another was a young missionary who wrote in his blog that he had a “passion” for “reaching” “unreached people groups,” missionary-speak for an ethnic group without enough Christians to evangelize the rest of their country, as if a Genoese megalomaniac hadn’t “reached” Haiti and violently Christianized it centuries before. And, in any case, Haiti is 80 percent Catholic—but apparently Catholics are an unreached group in need of Protestants to reach them. During the U.S. Marine occupation of 1915-1934, American soldiers wrote about Haiti this way too, bizarrely referencing nonexistent “jungles” despite several hundred years of deforestation.

There were, of course, incredible teachers at QCS with years of experience, and I hate to disparage them by association. The new hires have made a significant commitment, extending far beyond a week of poorism, and they’ll grow in ways I won’t because they’ve stayed. (Often, participants in weeklong missionary trips are qualified professionals—dentists, surgeons, gynecologists—with a real service to provide.) Still, certain trends within the school’s hiring policies need to be pointed out. Of the Haitian faculty at QCS, only the French teacher wasn’t a member of the diaspora with a coveted American accent. It led me to wonder whether QCS, along with many other institutions in Haiti, turns away Haitian applicants with experience and master’s degrees just because they sound too Haitian; whether I had, with my American accent and my whiteness, taken a better teacher’s place.

This is, as a Haitian acquaintance wrote to me, “a thorny and nastily complex issue that has not received its due in quantitative longitudinal analysis.” A lot of QCS parents “collude with this practice, both openly and subtly.” And the evidence that expats often displace more qualified locals is usually anecdotal; the subject is neither well-documented nor comfortable to talk about. Few people, Haitian or foreign, wish to jeopardize professional and personal contacts by naming the racism that pervades institutional environments. But the parents who pay a premium for native English speakers should be made aware of the trade-off, which is that their children’s educations are often entrusted to people like me who have no idea what they’re doing.

A co-worker at the school told me about a Haitian pastor who was invited to speak at QCS, but only to the custodians and food-service workers. That the predominantly white and American administration of QCS, who preside over a predominantly black and Haitian student body, did not believe they had something to learn from a Haitian preacher speaks volumes of the esteem in which that administration holds Haitian parents, to whom they do the immense disservice of promising the highest quality and then hiring people whose most outstanding qualification is being white. These practices insult the intelligence of Haitians, privileged and poor alike, by perpetuating the pernicious lie that foreigners possess knowledge and abilities that Haitians do not.

This lie justified the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, during which American Marines conscripted Haitians into chain-gangs then framed the products of this slave labor—new roads, schools and hospitals—as a generous gift bequeathed by a noble civilization to a lesser and savage one. Several Marines wrote memoirs of their time in Haiti, in which they puzzled over what to make of the Haitian elite. These memoirists by turns praised the sophistication of Haiti’s upper class, exoticized their multiracial heritage, and condemned them for their oppression of the impoverished majority. From William Seabrook’s The Magic Island to my own grappling with the class-race privilege matrix, the Haitian elite always seems to have presented somewhat of a conundrum to the white American mind.

Many in the journalistic and expat communities refer to the Haitian business class as “MREs” or “Morally Repugnant Elites.” I’ve heard NGO-types shame other NGO-types for enjoying the nightlife in Petionville, which, according to them, the supreme arbiters of authenticity, is not “Real Haiti.” The vilification of the Haitian elite (while not unearned) often stems more from a wounded sense of racial entitlement, an old and very nasty kind of resentment, than from true moral outrage. A narrative in which white Americans get to be generous to people of color, all while learning lessons about “resilience” and “joy despite suffering,” is more satisfying to the ego than one in which people of color possess the wealth and power white supremacy holds as a white birthright. It’s also easier to demonize rich Haitians for living in opulent gated communities while their countrymen exist in grinding, dehumanizing poverty than to come to terms with the fact that much of the U.S. is, metaphorically speaking, an opulent gated community; than to confront one’s own structural sin, one’s own complicity in perpetuating inequality, no less real for lacking the dramatic visual of shantytowns neighboring mansions. While foreign NGO workers who rarely leave their compounds and drive around in big SUVs paid for with donations do need to face a reckoning, enjoying a night out at an upscale restaurant in Petionville is really not that much different from enjoying a night out at an upscale restaurant in New York. The Haitian super-rich are no more in the wrong than the American 1 percent.

A Haitian woman whose child attended QCS recounted an exchange she overheard between three “extremely elite, very white-looking, educated professional Haitian mothers expressing the hypocrisy they experienced at the school where they had come to see their children achieve. They clearly said no matter how ‘friendly’ the folks at the school acted toward them they knew they would never accept them as equals.” This is despite the fact that these mothers wielded more capital and political power in Haiti than any QCS employee ever would in the U.S.

From what I could tell, Haitians were not viewed as spiritual equals either. Faculty Bible study featured a long discussion of the inadequate and legalistic understanding of the Gospel supposedly stemming from some defect in Haitian culture, but offered no critique of the earlier generation of missionaries who drilled that same legalistic framework into their converts.

Perhaps to avoid political incorrectness, Catholicism and Vodoun—often practiced in tandem—were never broached, but there seemed to be implicit agreement that our role was to rescue Haitians from their scourge. (Books like Miracle on Voodoo Mountain: A Young Woman’s Remarkable Story of Pushing Back the Darkness for the Children of Haiti, the memoir of a 20-something white woman who converts a mountainside Vodoun spiritual site into an evangelical NGO, were popular among my colleagues.) A friend who is a member of the Haitian diaspora tells me that in the south of Haiti so many Vodoun drummers have converted to Protestantism that centuries-old rhythms—an artistic and religious heritage which survived the Middle Passage—are being lost. “If Vermeer paintings were regularly being ripped up, there would be an outrage,” she says. “But our culture dies silently.”

If QCS’s mission is, as one teacher said during a morning faculty meeting, to educate the future leaders of Haiti so that they will want to invest in their country rather than leave it, there needs to be a shift away from viewing Haiti as benighted, in need of intellectual and moral instruction. I resigned from QCS because teaching fourth grade proved to be a hard job, not to take any sort of stand, but steering Haiti’s future is certainly beyond me. Rather than disempowering those best equipped to address Haitian problems, QCS and similar institutions should make every effort to create opportunities for Haitian educators regardless of how much time they’ve spent abroad.



Phoebe Rusch is a Zell fellow in fiction at the University of Michigan. She is working on a novel set in Haiti.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr]

Related posts