Sunday, March 21, 2010

Moun se moun

My best friend says I have the spiritual gift of martyrdom.

I'm not sure if that's meant to be a compliment, but the truth is, I'm not very good at not rocking the boat when something irritates me. I try to avoid unnecessary discussions where I know there will be a conflict, but if the issue aggravates me enough, I'll make my feelings known, sometimes subtly and sometimes not.

Now there were one or two exceptions, but most of the medical clinics we worked with while I was in Haiti after the earthquake provided lunch for us: a nice fresh plate of rice and beans for us, and for the interpreters working with us. It's hard to imagine that lunch would be a racially tinged subject, but it was. And true to form, I had go against the grain.

First time was at Bojeux Parc, where the lunch crew prepared lunch in two different sorts of containers. The American and Colombian medical teams got their food on plates. Haitian workers received theirs in boxes. It was the same food, but the snub was obvious; to our interpreters, it was as though they had been told they had to drink from the other water fountain, by their own countrymen.

The sting was still sore the next day, when I tagged along with the team. I heard the interpreters muttering about it, and when lunchtime came, I committed a breach of protocol. I took a box like they had, sat with them, and spoke only Kreyol, even when they addressed me in English.

The second time came about a week later, at L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne. I had got into the chow line with the Haitian workers, and when they discovered that I could speak Kreyol, they had a field day. They delighted in speaking too fast for me to follow and in making jokes at my expense, particularly when I stuttered. While this was going on, members of a team from the States were scooping up plates full of rice and beans and carrying them off  elsewhere.

"You don't need to wait in line with us," one of the Haitians told me, to a chorus of assent from others in the line. "You're white; you can just take a plate."

I knew at once that I could to rationalize taking the food. After all, I had come to the country, and to this hospital, to help. I had been interpreting for a physical therapist all morning, explaining to patients the exercises they would need to practice in order to regain full use of their limbs. The food had been made available as a way of saying thank you for the work we were doing, for the sacrifices we had made in coming to Haiti in the first place. I was entitled.

I bristled, and dug my feet in.

"Non," I said. "Moun se moun. A person's a person; if you can't take the food like that, then I can't either."

Somebody up front handed me a plate, skipping seven people in front of me. I offered it to the person in front of me, and when he wouldn't take it, I handed it back. My entire life I have enjoyed benefits so subtle that I'm usually not even aware that I'm receiving them. I assume instead that they're entirely the fruit of my own efforts, when they're benefits I would have had to work harder to achieve if I weren't an American, if my parents weren't college-educated, if I'd had more melanin in my skin. To a large extent this sort of deference to social rank is unavoidable, but I will not accept it, especially not in a place like Haiti at a time like this. The people waiting in line with me had been working just as hard as I had, perhaps harder; their country had been shaken to pieces, and I cannot in good conscience accept preference for food just because an ancestor of mine several thousand years ago moved to northern Europe, where lighter skin was an asset and not a liability.

Moun se moun.
I heard the phrase passing up and down the line. The merciless torment over my stutter came to a halt, and one man who had been edging me out of the line suddenly stepped back from his place and told me I could stand in front of him. Perhaps the Americans manning the food pot sensed a shift in the mood, because suddenly they started handing out plates of rice and beans to everyone in line. Only after the men in front of me received their food would I accept a plate, the only white person in the entire hospital to wait in the line with everyone else. (A few of the other medical people skipped the meal entirely, because of their medical duties; and at least one had brought a power bar with her to eat.)

Moun se moun.
Somebody else repeated it as he walked past the spot in the hall where I was inhaling the food faster than is healthy. Later that afternoon, I would have a long talk with that man, in Kreyol. During that conversation, he would not speak as fast as he possibly could in an attempt to confuse me. Actually, he would go on to teach me a few new words, and "correct" my pronunciation where it wasn't French enough. He would also pay me the supreme compliment of saying that the only problem with my Kreyol is the limits of my vocabulary. Another two months in the country, and I'd be a Haitian through and through. ("Mèsi," I told him at this point. "Se bèl manti ou ban mwen. Thank you. That's a beautiful lie.")

I don't share this anecdote because I think I'm a glorious person for taking a stand against racist attitudes; quite the opposite, actually. I think I'm generally as clueless about day-to-day prejudice as the next white collar white male. I noticed at Bojeux Parc only because I heard the interpreters muttering about it. I only noticed at the hospital because I happened to see the chow line and got into it. If I'd been handed a plate of food ten minutes earlier, I wouldn't have thought twice about taking it, and it never would have occurred to me that I inadvertantly had jumped in front of the national workers.

And yet, here in the United States, my European American heritage has opened doors, granted privileges, and created opportunities for me that would not have come as easily if I had been born black, or Indian, or Asian. When I started college, no one assumed that I had got to college on an athletic scholarship, like they did for my black roommate; the police have never pulled me over for walking or driving through the "wrong neighborhood"; and I'm pretty sure that if I were to run for public office, rumors that I was secretly a radical Muslim would never gain any traction at all.

That this has not been the experience of all my neighbors should concern us all. Preferential treatment is something that may be inescapable in a human society, and therefore at some level perhaps we need to tolerate it, but it is something we should never accept.

Moun se moun. Anything else is an insult to us all.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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