By Onz Chery |Onz@haitiantimes.com
The scene: a ‘bal’ in an affluent suburb of Port-au-Prince. On one side of the room, the lighter-skinned people stood. On the other side, the darker-skinned people mingled. The separation proved stark to Evidge Jean-François, then a young adult visiting from New York after being away for decades.
Growing up in Haiti, Johanne Belizaire recalls she was never called Black in her circles. Rather, people used “caramel,” “café au lait” and similar descriptors because of her privileged upbringing. A privileged feeling that, when she visited or moved to Florida, she didn’t feel.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Legros Willis said she’s been asked on several occasions if she’s Haitian because of her lighter hue. And in the workplace, she’s been counseled not to wear her natural hair loose because doing so had been deemed unprofessional.
The three women, and two academics, shared their experiences with colorism as Haitians and Haitian-Americans on Sunday during The Haitian Times’ second Community Conversation of the year — bringing light to an issue not often discussed publicly. During the hour-and-a-half panel discussion, the group discussed colorism both as a part of day-to-day life and its historical roots. The full virtual panel is available on The Haitian Times Facebook page.
“We do have the tendency to classify people. Even though we all agree that we’re a Black nation but we don’t treat all Blacks the same,” said Belizaire, a health consultant based in Florida. “I’ve realized that the system in Haiti has its flaws. [It’s] colorism.”
To shed some light, Alex Dupuy, a professor emeritus of sociology, said the concept of race dates back to the 16th century when Europeans started bringing Africans to other continents as slaves. Racism and its derivative colorism started as a means to create different social classes.
“Racism and colorism weren’t invented or developed simply to distinguish between groups of people on the basis of the color of their skin but to also hierarchize them,” Dupuy said. “It’s a social hierarchy where those at the bottom could be exploited.”
Dr. Philippe-Richard Marius, a cultural anthropologist, added that whether someone speaks French fluently is the ultimate way to rank people in Haiti’s hierarchy.
“Not only is language more of an indicator [for social classes] it’s the ultimate barrier of class,” Dr. Marius said.
There’s not much awareness on colorism in the Haitian community, the panelists said. However, such conversations are overdue and necessary in helping Haitians continue to advance.
“Bringing up a problem is a problem that’s already half-way solved,” Belizaire said. “If you start bringing awareness and depicting the problem, you’re closer to finding a solution than if you’re in denial.”
The viewers were pleased with the panel.
“Thank you so much for this fascinating discussion. I learned a tremendous amount,” Michele Salcedo commented on Facebook.
The Haitian Times’ next Community Conversation focusing on women will take place later this month. Follow The Haitian Times on social for more information and to sign up free of charge when Zoom registration opens.