I never knew I was black until I came to Miami.
I had spent most of my childhood in Haiti, in a community that was already made for me and people like me. Though I understood there were social classes that dictated my place in society, I was comfortable knowing where I belonged. But when I moved to America, the fact that I was black and of Haitian descent mattered just as much as class, and sometimes more. It was the first time I’d had to deal with identity hinging on ethnicity and race.
In Haiti, we had one way of being othered. Here it was many things, and all of them applied to me.
Everyone needs a space
In a way, I had been an outsider in my community in Haiti too, having been born in the Bahamas. I was not going to give up that I was from the Bahamas, but I wanted to fully belong in Haiti. I was part of both cultures and wanted to be accepted in both. This longing intensified here, where my familiar cultures were seen as strange and foreign, and I was far on the outside of American culture, even if I embraced it by doing the same things as any other American kids.
Coming to America taught me that everyone needs a space where they can be themselves—where they can claim, without being silenced, the cultures that made or are making them who they are. I think that sometimes we fear finding common ground with others, maybe asking if we will be unable to retain the part of our identity that makes us unique. Then because of that fear, we make decisions that we think will protect us, but decision-making out of fear is never going to bring peace in our communities.
Outsider in America
My first year of high school in the United States, we Haitian newcomers attended the closest school that offered an ESOL program. The program itself was new, placed in a predominantly white school. The following year, it closed down.
I can understand the anxiety when a school changes overnight. Many of the new students did not speak English well and had mannerisms that didn’t look or sound American. When we Haitian kids would walk noisily through the neighborhood on our way to school, we were having innocent fun the way we always did, but maybe it didn’t match the way the kids from the predominantly white neighborhood had fun. And of course, when newcomers in a culture feel isolated, they retreat into their own clannish circles, making assimilation even more difficult.
But by othering us—focusing on the differences—people feared us because we were unfamiliar rather than connecting with us over shared values or interests. Decisions were made out of fear, and the school closed within a year of my coming to the States. This was my first introduction to white flight. I know that these parents cared very much about their children’s education, but if they had been able to consider our shared humanity, they might have better understood that like them, our parents only wanted the best for us. Maybe then it would have been easier to make space for these newcomers, young kids like me and my friends, whose only crime was that we had fled unstable societies with no future.
Self-empathy: foundation of tolerance
Self-empathy is indispensable here. It is the foundation of tolerance. If we can allow ourselves to accept our human limitations—for example, we cannot control the future—we will find ourselves remembering that our limitations are part of our common humanity. We human beings are, in the end, all the same. That recognition and acceptance make it easier to understand others, and even more importantly, to take actions to alleviate their concerns too.
In fact, the best way to make decisions is to remind ourselves of this common humanity: I make mistakes the same way as others. I am imperfect, and that is okay. Self-empathy leads to empathy for others because we will begin to reflect on what we share rather than on what divides us. The more we feel empathy toward ourselves and accept our humanity, the better decisions we will make for everyone. The more we accept our common humanity and create space for all, the greater the trust we will build in ourselves and in our communities.