By Moise St. Louis, Associate Dean of Students/Director, Center for Multicultural Affairs and Services/Lecturer, Peace and Justice & Political Science
One does not have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and absence of understanding are sufficient. - Charles M. Blow
It was Christmas Eve and my family, as custom would have it, had gone to midnight mass. I was home sick and feverish, waiting for Santa, the cook preparing the reveillon (Christmas Eve Super) while Joseph, the groundskeeper, regaled me with his stories… the classic Haitian tales that leave kids at the edge of their seats with excitement. What a storyteller he was. I must have fallen asleep and rather than leave me in a big house alone and sick, he laid me on his sheets and pillows in the common room where he and the cook could keep an eye me. “You are such a disgrace,” she said angrily as she pulls the sheets violently shaking me out of my sleep. I was ten years old, and I could hear her voice and see the anger in her eyes. I still feel the sting of those words as if it was yesterday. The message was clear, the lesson was clear, but I did not understand their implications then. I was just embarrassed for having fallen asleep in the common room assisted by the groundkeeper, covered with his sheets, my head resting on his pillow. I was home alone and he was a caring human being who tried to help a kid. He had kids my age and it was natural for him to be a father, but in my world, social class structures were the jagged and rigid fault line and for my aunt, the line between a groundskeeper and her/us was categorically drawn. I looked down ashamed as Joseph picked up his things. I felt the anger and understood the lesson but did not understand the implications for both him and me. I missed the family reveillon that night, too embarrassed to come out of my room. No adults spoke up, no one intervened. The reveillon went on; Santa came; and life went on.
My family members were outstanding members of the community-- they supported causes, paid for the schooling of low-income children, owned schools that supported families with scholarships, and volunteered at clinics. They were the epitome of decorum and thoughtfulness in the community, their name recognizable and a ticket to any point of access one would want. Yet, the lessons, the messages, and the silence in many ways informed who I became. I learned early on that one can be altruistic and bigoted; that one’s station in life defined one’s worth; that wealth determined worth; that one could support someone and be condescending and that, most damaging, it was normal.
In my teens, I became a class conscious young man who was condescending to “the poor”. A polite but classist young man who thought he was better and was quick to dismiss the concerns of the poor, or argue that it was all exaggerations, laziness, and hysteria. I was smart, always at the top of my class, and confident. I thought, and was often told I was brilliant, but in fact knew little about life. I was the product of my environment—where politeness, courteousness, benevolence, and being deferential were important and expected. I was a good person within the context of my exposure, informed by the lessons I had learned, and the messages I had received. I did not know any gays, but learned clearly that they were not the kind of people one associated oneself with from my very religious Catholic family. I was lucky to have been raised with powerful women who ran their businesses, traveled the world, and did not put up with sexism. In my world, men and sexism did not dominate but classism did, yet, I was not immune to the sexism of the world outside my familial realm.
I did come to learn that some of the messages that permeated my world were not so good, and have long ago embarked on a journey to unlearn those messages that damage others, and most assuredly, myself. My blindness became apparent to me but the road to recovery has been hazardous. In retrospect, it was all there for me to see and understand, but I did not, I could not … I lacked the critical perspective, the lenses conducive to self-reflection, a clear-eyed perspective on my own experience. I had all these opportunities to see and understand; I was an avid reader, hung out with scholars, lawyers and poets whose writings debated those fault lines. I lived in a society whose foundation is the unequivocal equality not of men but of all human beings… There were all these people bearing witness and I did not see or hear them, I could not see them… I needed someone to point out the obvious to me but there were none – someone to say “Look here, have you thought of this? What about that? Have you read this? This is wrong and this is why.” I needed someone to both call me out and call me in.
How many of us have been influenced by similar lessons that draw walls between us and them? How many of us, “good people”, are working around blindly and confidently unaware that we are dehumanizing? How many of us have been shaped by the cost and/or benefits of silence? And how many of us are role modeling silence and dehumanization to our students and each other?
My path to awareness began with my own experience with otherness when I moved to the United States to study as an international student. I learned to my dismay that people thought all Haitians were poor and illiterate! I learned for the first time that Black people were not smart! As an engineering student, I was told I could not take calculus because I would flank it. My first year in college, white students wrote “n…r go home” on my best friends’ door, and we spent the semester rotating who would sleep in his room to make sure he would be safe instead of focusing on our studies because the University was tone deaf and did not show enough care. Some professors seemed surprised that I was smart and well read, while others low-balled my grades. Some assumed that having an accent meant I was dumb, when in reality I spoke four languages. The police were stopping me sometimes three times a day for driving a nice car while Black. I continue to live this painful experience with otherness, here on our campus with, at times, debilitating consequences, and most recently with Donald Trump’s comments about the country of my birth and its people. My experience as the other has given me some insights into my own life. I was luckier than some to have had that chance however painful the experience.
More importantly, though, it was the courses I took and the people I met that were most valuable to my awareness and my continued journey out of bigotry and blindness. It was Karen and Linda, two Lesbian women who supported me as a student, even while, I am sure, my homophobia was apparent to them. My experience with them helped me understand that I had been drawn a caricature and those who had drawn it for me had not considered the real person. It was women professors like Edie, Sharu, Deschamps, Zuniga, and Peterson who mentored and challenged me, and the classes on gender and feminism that exposed me to new ways of seeing, thinking, and resisting sexism. They offered me new lenses and new perspectives. It was also male professors like Bracey, Robinson, Wiarda, and Ross who challenged my views and understanding of the world, of my world. My understanding of race, class, and gender was codified in the halls of my African American, Political Science, and Social Thought and Political Economy departments. In those halls and with these role models, and breakers of silence, I found a new place from whence to locate myself and understand my position as a Black man, an immigrant, a father, a scholar, and most importantly, a human being. I learned how to speak anew and see anew. My college experience gave me the lenses with which to see, the critical perspectives to understand, and the motivation to draw my own conclusions and craft my path into the world and into wholeness. I have been blessed with people and opportunities for exposure that have helped me use my experience as a trigger for self-reflection, transformation, and liberation. In many ways, it is to them, that I owe my commitment to be the best person I can be, as helpful as I can be, and try my best to do no harm. My love and patience working with students come out of that journey into wholeness and liberation. In their struggles, I recognize myself, and their honesty and suffering give me a clear understanding of the urgency of having a world where everyone is valued, respected, and treated with care and dignity.
The question then, particularly in these times of hate, intimidation, and confusion, is how are we as an institution and as employees providing the same vehicle to wholeness and liberation to our students?
I have been both blessed and cursed--blessed for being trusted with students’ honesty and vulnerability, and cursed for too often being a witness to their pain… too much pain. I often sit with students as they cry and bear witness to the ways in which they are harmed as much by what we do as what we fail to do, by what we say or fail to say in the moments when they needed us most to do and say the right thing. I have encouraged students to speak up, and often find myself engaging with those who cause harm or trying to provide resources to limit the possibilities for harm because all of us need help seeing and unlearning. Too often, my heart aches for us-- not just students but all of us--because what I and many of us often suffer from is a paralysis of dehumanization when we fail to speak with moral clarity against marginalization, exclusion, and bigotry to allow the space for learning, unlearning, and healing. Pollock once observed that “If evil is banal — a set of ordinary, mundane decisions day by day …then maybe we have to start living differently day by day.” What would living differently day-by-day look like for us individually and our community? What kind of community and relationship would it create? What would it take for us to ensure that every interactions on our campus, especially with our students and between them, are empowering and not dehumanizing? What would it take to live out the mission of “enhancing the human person and advancing human culture” in our Catholic institution whose founders escaped the silencing and have a history of social engagement? What kind of institutional vision would frame the experiences of our students?
This past two years more than any others, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-poor sentiments seem to dominate our spaces and our nation. Even those who regularly deny their existence or try to diminish their importance as major societal problems, find themselves having to engage in a process of denial or defensiveness or both. The denial is often unmistakable. Black Lives Matter, a movement that emerged to decry the killing of unarmed Black people and police brutality, is met with All Lives Matter, not as an affirmation of all lives but as a rejection of Black lives. Taking a Knee for equal justice and treatment is deflected with accusations of anti-military and anti-country, even treason. Claims for equal rights by our LGBT brothers and sisters have been characterized as societal decay with laws designed to roll them back. Affirming the rights of our Muslim and our immigrant neighbors to live without attacks and harassment has been met with increased xenophobia and accusations of being unpatriotic and anti-Christian. Too often, these responses are attempts to silence people advocating for their rights couched as free speech to convey an air of legitimacy. It seemed that the more fearful people become, the more emboldened their attackers.
If those whose lives depend on their ability to speak and voice their concerns can be silenced and demonized, what would that mean for them and for us who are watching it happen and remain silent? What does our unwillingness to speak mean for the silencers and demonizers? And, what does the silence mean for an institution that believes in social justice in terms of engagements with those issues and giving students and community members the lenses and critical perspectives for their own liberation and the humanization of their peers and others? We know the benefits to some of those who silence, continue with things as usual - enjoy their lives and the status quo that leaves others at risk of psychological and physical harm, at worse, dehumanized or dead. For some of us, silence is highly prized because it quiets our conscience while we protect our benefits. Silence also represents our blind spots informed by our life experiences and exposure. It often leads to the deepening of bigotry, discrimination, dehumanization, and indifference as it did for me. We are all victims and perpetrators of it. It is the blindness and casual indifference it creates, which is most damaging to others and to us for it conveys a level of depravity of spirit that places our lives above others, our interests above others, and most importantly, our humanity above others. It diminishes us in imperceptible ways, each time we act out that indifference… Each time we silence… or remain silent… But for those who experience that indifference and our silence, for those on whom we impose silence, the cost is immediate, often permanent, and for sure debilitating, if not deadly. The reality is that silence is a facilitator and an inhibiter of injustice and oppression.
Our goal for this collection of essays is to help break the silence and paralysis of dehumanization. We hope that by peering through the lives and experiences of members of our community, some of us might find our ways out of blindness toward wholeness or gain encouragement to continue on our journey of humanization toward liberation. The author and Poet Yolo Akili once wrote, “Oppression thrives off isolation. Connection is the only thing that can save you. Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about your struggles is the key to your liberation. Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life. Your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we can all be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now. We need you.” We are blessed to have community members who braved vulnerability to foster growth and self-reflection. I have always been encouraged by the beauty and potential of this SMC community. May the stories you are about to read move you toward your own path to reflection, humanization and liberation.
As we say in Haiti, Ayibobo! (Blessed be!)