By Nicole Alcindor
As a child, Eileen Ternize said she feared openly admitting to classmates that her parents are Haitian immigrants. To protect herself and avoid conflict at her Cambria Heights Catholic school, Ternize kept her ethnicity a secret.
Then in the sixth grade, a few students overheard Ternize’s grandfather speaking Creole to another parent. They began to make fun of Ternize regularly, going as far one day as to point and chant “you eat dirt” and “you do Vodou” as she walked down a hallway.
“That’s when everything took a turn for the worse,” Ternize, now 17, said. “The news spread through my school like wildfire and I became a laughing stock.”
“It wasn’t until just recently that I’m finally able to say out loud, ‘I’m Haitian,’ with pride,” said Ternize, now a college freshman.
Stories of Haitian-American youth being called names, taunted or assaulted because of their ethnicity go as far back as Haitians have been coming to the United States en masse. However, while being subjected to negative stereotypes is part of the immigrant experience, parents and caregivers should proactively teach their youngsters how to react, experts and Haitian-Americans say.
“Those stereotypes have come to stay, unfortunately, and we all need to do something about it,” said Dr. Seth Asumah, a political science professor and the Chairperson of the Africana Studies Department at the State University of New York – Cortland. “We have to face this because being silent and denying your culture does not solve the problem.”
A history of xenophobic insults
Ever since Haitians began migrating in large numbers to the United States in the early 1970s, Haitian youngsters have faced discrimination, taunting and bullying from peers.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, young Haitians dealt with being called “Frenchie.” In the ‘80s and ‘90s, they had to work through being called “boat people,” among many others. As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, the prominence of proudly-Haitian celebrities such as Wyclef Jean lessened the prejudice and discrimination aimed at Haitians, Asumah said.
This “Wyclef Jean era,” as Asumah calls it, helped Americans enjoy the music produced and popularized by Haitians, but the prejudices against Haitians by Americans only subsided.
“I used to be afraid to admit I am Haitian because of stereotypes that were deeply [ingrained] in the minds of my American peers,” Ternize said. “The bullies would say things like, ‘all Haitians are involved in Vodou’, [that] ‘all Haitians are lazy.’”
Decades prior, school children also harassed Sophia Royer, 36, for being Haitian.
“It was absolutely insane,” said Royer, who was 10 when she immigrated. “I was the kid in the class that spoke differently, looked different, and I was teased a lot because of it.”
Royer, of Rosedale, said her classmates told her Haitians smell and hurled other insults. Some routinely asked, “Do you have water?’” “Do you have toilet paper or do you use rocks?”
For Ronald Myrthil, another Rosedale resident, not fully embracing his Haitian background was never an option, despite bullying and seeing other Haitian-American kids deny their roots.
“Kids would run down the school hallways screaming H.B.O., which stood for Haitian body odor, in order to get under my skin and provoke me,” Myrthil, 45, said. “I lost a lot of friendships including my best friend because people didn’t want to hang out with the kid that was Haitian and proud.”
Beating back the stereotypes
Dr. Alexandra McGlashan, a clinical child psychologist, said the best way to handle bullying by ethnic stereotypes is to ignore it or report it to their school staff. Educating children about their heritage is also important in building a sense of pride, she said.
Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, McGlashan said children, mostly African American and from the Caribbean, taunted her with ‘boat-people’ and ‘AIDS-carriers.’ However, because McGlashan’s mother had taught her about Haiti, the knowledge helped. And that is what she advises now as a professional to parents.
“I was able to counter [the stereotypes] because my mother told me positive stories about her lived experience as a Haitian,” McGlashan said. “My mother instilled in me a sense of pride … and I stand here today a proud Haitian-American woman.”
Asumah, himself an immigrant from Ghana, said in addition to being proud, Haitian-Americans should teach their oppressors why the stereotypes are so wrong.
“We need to re-educate the American public, have prejudice reduction workshops, and we need to start the reimaging of Haiti to eradicate the microaggression and microinsults,” Asumah said.
Asumah suggests a variety of tactics, including writing to news agencies and legislators to protest the use of negative images and having kids walk in groups so they are picked on less. He said the effort requires real work, resistance and persistence.”
For Ternize, the change in her outlook came from seeing celebrities such as Usher, Jason Durulo and Kodak Black, and influencers such as Jessie Woo acknowledge they are Haitian. Her family also encouraged Terzine to love her Haitian identity more.
In Royer’s case, growing up, it was her little cousin and younger brother who helped her get through school every day.
“I continued to persevere so I wouldn’t let my family down,” she said.
Myrthil took the route of correcting ignorance when he met with it, as Asumah recommends.
“Whenever I got in an argument with my bullies, I always spoke peacefully or I would walk away if the bully tried to get violent or wouldn’t stop yelling at me,” Myrthil said. “Overall, admitting who I am made me stronger and I’ll never ever stop being proud of who I am.”
Kyle Clerge, an Iona College freshman, is learning that lesson over time. He no longer lets the bullying of his adolescence color his views about himself and other Haitian-Americans.
“Even though it was extremely difficult, I have learned more and more how to appreciate who I am as a Haitian-American, despite what others think,” Clerge said. “I hope to continue that legacy and help other Haitian-Americans [my age] to begin to embrace who they are as well.”