Friday, September 14, 2007

The Utility of Mirrors

I recently went to a screening of the documentary, The Price of Sugar. It is about the slave-like working conditions of Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic. According to the film, which chronicles the advocacy work of Father Bill Hartley, there are thousands of Haitians who are brought into the Dominican Republic to cut sugar cane every year. They are brought in by a Dominican sugar company and stripped of their Haitian papers and never given Dominican papers. They exist essentially as stateless people and are forced to work and live in horrific conditions that are reminiscent of slavery. The film also spends considerable time showing the anger and hostile attitude of Dominicans towards the Haitians. Their vitriol was laced with racist venom as they decried the “Haitianizing of the Dominican Republic.” It was an emotionally difficult film to watch as it showed malnourished children and black people cutting cane barefoot with severed fingers and limbs and all manner of awful disease and dysfunction. During the scenes where they showed the protests of the Dominicans against the Haitians you could feel the anger of the audience and their mounting scorn towards them.

The audience at the screening was a very cultured set of predominantly black people with a number of the academic street conscious crew too. The high end set had ornately arranged dread-locks and were adorned with golden Egyptian scarabs on their hands that poked out from expensive looking cuff-linked French cuff shirts. The street conscious brethren and sistren were crowned with their black, gold and green tams, bathed in Egyptian musk and carried their signature weathered leather satchels with two heavy books that contain the “knowledge.”

What was striking about the public discussion that followed the film was the combination of a sense of victimization among black people and anger directed towards the Dominicans. There was a lot made of the negative consequences of “globalism” and the detrimental effects it has had on African people throughout the centuries. The scorn directed at the Dominicans was palpable. Members of the audience scolded the Dominicans in the film for looking down on the Haitians as being “blacker and poorer” than them, while failing to see the mutuality of their collective plight. That idea seemed to capture the attitude of the audience.

What was interesting about the dialogue is that we failed to look into the mirror that was presented to us. The Dominicans in the film are us. The attitude that black Americans have largely adopted towards Hispanic immigrants is identical to that adopted by the Dominicans towards the Haitians. The analogy is almost perfect. The working and living conditions of many Hispanic immigrants in the United States are atrocious and largely unknown to black people. We don’t really know where they live and what they are subject to in their working lives. Hispanics are broadly viewed as lower down on the totem pole of respectability than we are. We tend to see their limited proficiency in English as an indication of limited intelligence. We don’t understand the difficultly of having families split between countries. Our instincts probably hint to us that they are not, in general, living comfortable and peaceful lives; however, that hasn’t muted our resentment. Many black people have taken the side of conservative white people who decry that America is for Americans and we have to resist the “Browning of America.” We tend to view Hispanics as “browner and poorer” than we are and therefore we derive some distorted sense of self-importance by denigrating them. Essentially, we fail to see the mutuality of our collective plights.

This small screening made it abundantly clear that in the absence of critical thought, mirrors are useless.



luvlife0702 said...

as a teacher of 'race and ethnicity' we often explore this issue. but it seems so foreign to me. partly because in washington state most of the latinos are not in places where they mix much (i.e. compete much) with black folks. most of the 'mixing' (genetically and socially) occurs in the military at one of the 6 or so bases in a 100 mile radius of seattle. mutual dependence for the preservation of life and limb brings out a different side of folks.

but i dont know many latinos that dont have black folks in their lives and vice versa. but i'm a west coast black girl and maybe these anti latino heads exist among black folks here but most of the folks i know are too busy dating each other (too few brown people for us to give this kinda conflict too much time;-) to even spend much time on the issue.

of course i know it exists. just haven't been in a forum to have the discussion with anyone who felt that way. which is very itneresting now that i think about it. i do read about it but it's all abstract to me.

and my summers in brooklyn were spent in a columbian (grandma) and panamanian (grandpa) household (both black folks) and the folks around us were dominican, puerto rican and all manners of blacks and latinos.

and when were dominicans not black folks. did the spanish get black folks from some place different than the French?

all that said, your physical description of the parties involved does add something to the discussion because the stereotypes (and i'll own that i am stereotyping) that i would attach to these folks would require a certain amount of self-absorption and blackness as 'front' and 'worn identity' that looking in mirrors is only to determine how pretty the locks look and how 'african' urbane they look. sometimes i wonder if they notice that the mercedes benz doesnt go with their overwrought sense of justice. and the clothes they are weearing were just as likely to be made by Haitians in Dominican factories as by some other oppressed woman in Thailand, Malawi or even some Filipina in LA.

But then again, maybe they bought their fabric and made it themselves. and that pedicure from the Vietnamese woman... well... hmmm and how much per hour are they paying the African woman who does their hair. WHATTHEFUCKEVER!!!

black as performance annoys me to no end. maybe why black (as performed in the US of A) tends not to be central to my identity.

IK said...

I saw a screening of this same film in DC (actually Silver Spring)
this summer, and it has left strong images with me as well. I, too,
was very interested in the dynamics of the crowd there. For some
reason I expected the crowd to mostly be made up of Dominicans and
Haitians, so when I got there early and started watching all the white
hippies trickle in, I realized what a dolt I had been. Who can go to
a movie in the middle of a weekday afternoon? We didn't get a Q&A
afterwards; just lots of literature about Amnesty International.
Better than nothing, I guess.

Now, since you've provided a forum I wouldn't otherwise have, let me bore you with my "fieldnotes" from that day (15 June 2007):
This crowd is very interesting and this theater rocks. I feel very conspicuous at this sugar movie with my Dr. Pepper and rare treat, Twizzlers. So. Sugar. What am I going to learn here today. I suspect/fear this is going to plunge me too far back into the details of sugar production again (for my work), but that's okay. I can handle it. No, buddy, there's nobody sitting there but you and your ridiculously expensive orange shirt and your cologne. I thought there may be some Haitians here or Dominicans, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I thought the pre-film chatter may be interesting. Nope.