Dear foreigner in Haiti,
‘Blanc’ can mean a multitude of things. Whether you speak French or Creole or neither, it will be the first and most important word that will define your status in the island nation of Haiti. It denotes not only the colour white, but white skin too. It usually refers to anyone of a race other than the black one, but above all else it means ‘foreigner’. Rest assured the visiting African or African-American, blacker than the blackest Haitian, also gets called ‘blanc’. Depending on the context, person addressing you and the moment in time – there are many different ways to hear and to say “blanc”. Here are five of my favourites.
1. Children stay in groups playing outside their homes; they pause while watching you walk by. They will shout ‘blanc’ (or ‘blanco’ if you happen to be close to the Dominican border) at you repeatedly. If you choose to ignore them and continue walking they will keep shouting this, growing louder the further away you get. They are excited about your presence, in a detached sort of way. You have provided a welcome moment of entertainment.
2. Children are on the side of the road as you race by on a moto-taxi. They will yell ‘blanco’ once and joyously, in part an appeal for your attention and in part a salutation to the visitor. They are surprised and enlivened by your fly-by presence. They barely have the time to realize what they’re seeing, although the flash of white is unmistakable. You’re already around the next bend in the road and the next group of children looks up. The pattern continues.
3. Children or teenagers walking slightly behind you or beside you as you walk along the road. They will mutter in Creole and you’ll hear the word ‘blanc’ intertwined with other words. If you speak Creole and address them they will be very surprised and giggly (girls especially). One of them may address another telling their friend loudly excitedly that the ‘blanc’ can speak Creole… as if you couldn’t clearly understand what they are saying.
4. Older farmer (surely 70 years of age but doesn’t look a day over 40) with a sure and steady gait, dons oversized rubber boots and swings the customary machete at his side; it is somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 in the morning. He walks right past you and raises his hand in friendly and open salutation. While you expect a ‘bonjou’ to come forth, he offers a cheerful and loud ‘blanc!’ instead. It’s so obvious that you are foreign that he had to address it. Plus, he’s happy to see you out and about at such an early hour (it’s rare for us white folk). He’s a cool dude.
5. Sometimes ‘blanc’ will be abandoned all together for lengthier and more formal references to your white skin and foreignness. This is especially likely to happen at larger social gatherings (in my experience this has included presentations, weddings, and events at a school auditorium). At times like these you will be asked to stand, smile and give an awkward bow as the speaker at the microphone reminds everyone that you are present in the crowd. As if anyone could miss you in a sea of black anyways – you stick out like a sore thumb. This time you will hear ‘blanc’ whispered behind many childrens’ hands as they gaze up at your paleness in wonder.
You are white, foreign and in Haiti. Your presence here will always, to some degree, be defined by your status of ‘blanc’. Rest assured that time and time again and in various ways you will be reminded of it.
footnote: then there’s our groundskeeper at our office in Sainte-Suzanne. He is nicknamed Blanc. I’ve heard this happens to blacks who are less black than usual… although this 80-year-old and smiling Blanc is about as black as black can be. This one just for the record, for it has nothing to do with you, dear foreigner in Haiti.
Enjoy your stay with the noirs, and wear your blanc colours proudly! There’s no escaping it anyways :)