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A Haitian-American Finding Herself

By jlorthe

“If Haitians don’t think I’m Haitian and American black people don’t think I’m really black, then

what am I,” I asked my friend who looked back at me with a completely blank face.

I was in the midst of completing the analysis section of my freshman thesis for my UW class

when for the first time ever, I realized I had no idea who I was. Up until that point of my paper, I

was analyzing the significance of the word black among the Haitian culture versus the American

black culture. When it came time to provide a three-page reflection on the 18-page analysis I

had just written, I was beyond lost for words. As I tried searching for the answer through my

friend’s destitute stare, I remember beginning to feel the ache from my throat swelling up as I

tried to fight back the tears.

How could I come this far and not know how I self-identified? I had beaten the odds against me;

I was accepted into of the most elite private high schools in the world. I graduated among the

top of my class. I was the first in my family to get into one of the most competitive colleges in

the country on my own merit. But I couldn’t figure out which box to check off? In that moment,

I had never felt smaller and more lost.

Growing up in a Haitian-immigrant family that had made numerous sacrifices for my future, I’ve

always known that I would have high expectations to fulfill. My parents instilled the value of

education and success into my sisters and I at a young age, and in their own effort to advance

themselves, they spoke to us exclusively in English. Although I often heard Haitian-Creole

around the house, I always responded in English. Consequently, a language barrier was formed

between me and the rest of my family.

It’s not emphasized enough how much language, culture, and identity closely intertwine and

the extent of its interdependent relationship. Without the ability to comprehensively

communicate through one’s native tongue, then its nearly impossible to deeply penetrate and

fully understand another culture. If a language barrier sets an obstacle to cultural

understanding, then is it really possible to identify with said culture? According to my

experiences with the Haitian community, the simple answer is no.

I don’t speak the language, I wasn’t born in the country, and I still have yet to visit. So, do I then

have the right to claim that identity? If I can’t say I’m Haitian, then am I black? No. I’m ignorant

to much of the black American culture because it’s not the culture I was raised in. I grew up

with and was surrounded by the Caribbean American community, thus my experiences, beliefs

and customs are much different to that of black Americans. If I’m neither one or the other, then

where do I belong?

At the end of that paper, my freshman self didn’t have an answer to that question and neither

does the junior who I am today. I still deeply struggle with how I self identify because the world

around me just needs to see the color of my skin to know who I am. But that isn’t enough for

me because within the American black population, there exists such a vast diversity of black


I shouldn’t have to know which box to check to know who I am. As a society, we have a

tendency to categorize and to compartmentalize to establish logic and order. But I’m not too

sure anymore if that’s all we’re doing in the end. However, what I have concluded is that I’m a

person of color, I’m a Haitian, I’m black, and I’m an American.