By Leonardo March
BROOKLYN — When news broke about Karine Jean-Pierre, the recently-named White House press secretary, questions about her identify as a Haitian-American took aback some people who thought her ethnicity fairly obvious. In one TikTok video, several commenters said they are doubtful because she was born in Martinique.
Jean-Pierre was born in Martinique of Haitian parents and raised in France before her family moved to New York.
In the end, one comment on the thread stood out for summarizing how many second-generation Haitians feel about the culture.
‘Doesn’t matter where you have that baby they stil. Going to be %100 haitain [sic],” user janiamathieu posted.
Such exchanges bear exploring as the Haitian presence expands throughout the globe, Haitian-Americans, Haitian-Canadians, Haitian-Dominicans, Haitian-Chileans and other hyphenated diasporas grapple with their sense of identity, while exploring the implications of their own diasporic experiences. Conversations about who’s Haitian abound on social media threads, bringing to digital spaces dueling perspectives that have raged offline for generations.
Debates that are repeated across other national groups and rooted in a concept called gatekeeping.
On Puerto Rican Twitter, for example, runner Jasmine Camacho-Quinn’s identity was questioned because the 2020 Olympic Gold Medalist, who represented Puerto Rico, doesn’t speak Spanish. After Naomi Osaka’s 2018 US Open victory, The Japan Times took to the streets to ask Japan residents what makes someone Japanese.
Fueling the debates is the question: How are transnational identities, or those connected to a parents’ home country, developed and validated?
It’s a phenomenon experts call a form of gatekeeping, used to decide what someone’s nationality or identity should be. For example, declaring that those who do not speak Haitian Creole are not Haitian.
Steven Baboun, a Haitian artist of Syrian descent who grew up in Port-au-Prince, knows a thing or two about identity. To him, identity is a “fluid undefined idea.”
“You can’t tell somebody who they are,” said Baboun, 26, who also identifies as queer. “I don’t speak Arabic. I haven’t gone to Syria in so long. I can’t pitch in conversations happening on social media. So does that make me less of a Syrian? Does that make me less Arab? For me? I say no. It is still who I am culturally, bloodwise.
At the same time, because of his Syrian features, Baboun is not seen as Haitian.
“Just for my appearance alone, I would get my identity gatekept,” he said. “But when I open my mouth, and when I talk about my country, and I talk about what I do, and I speak Creole and I kind of prove myself, they’re like: ‘oh, ok.’”
Language can function as the key that allows access to metaphorical and literal cultural spaces. It can also function as a gate that keeps the person out of these spaces.
Haitians who travel back to Haiti can find this experience shocking, as their feelings of home can clash with the reality of their experiences.
“I have students who come to my class, who cry, who tell really painful stories about growing up or painful stories of their visit back to Haiti,” said Wynnie Lamour, founder of the Haitian Creole Language Institute, an educational space for learning Creole. “And a lot of it is tied to the language, because language is the quickest way to connect with the people anywhere.”
Various factors prompt transnational Haitian living between two homes —host country and cultural home— to speak or pass on Creole, or not. These could include stigma at the host country, parents that want their children to assimilate, or a disconnect with their parents’ world.
Back in February, a Twitter user by the name @antdonalson15 posted: ‘Being Haitian and not speaking Kreyol must be painful as hell.’
Replies to the tweet varied from laughing memes, jokes and digital nods of agreements. One Twitter user replied : ‘We should focus on teaching those who don’t speak it well or at all instead of shaming them cause then they really won’t speak it.’ [sic]
Lamour understands that viewpoint well. Some of the transnational Haitian students who approach her for courses have struggled with a life of shame and sadness due to the disconnect created by now knowing creole.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Lamour, “being told that you don’t speak Haitian Creole well enough. But you didn’t grow up in a space where the language was spoken all around you. So why would you speak Haitian Creole?”