Haiti: Lessons in racialized language

This post is part of the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance‘s response to the situation in Haiti. We encourage other Millennials to get informed and get involved.

It happened after Hurricane Katrina, too. No obvious Canadian example is coming to mind, but I’m sure one (or many) exists.

I’m speaking of the racialized language that media and public commentary use to describe the actions of black people in the midst of a devastating catastrophe.

Take the verb “loot”. Media are using it to describe what is happening as Haitians access food, water, and other materials necessary for survival.

Some recent examples from my local paper:

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines looting as:

1 a : to plunder or sack in war b : to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption
2 : to seize and carry away by force especially in war

Firstly, this isn’t war. Inciting language relating situations to war is a strategy used to increase approval of war-like tactics, often by governments – “war on drugs” and “war on terror” are two recent examples. I personally don’t want to see war-like tactics used on a devastated country without the infrastructure to defend itself.

Secondly, survival isn’t criminal. I hope that you and I would share an instinct to protect our own lives and those of people close to us by accessing basic supplies needed for life. I don’t know exactly what’s happening on the ground in Haiti. I’m really grateful I don’t have to experience and I hope I never do. But I’d be pretty pissed if anyone described my survival instinct criminal.

Some related headlines that criminalize the situation in Haiti:

Post-Katrina behaviour was similarly criminalized. Sarah Kauffman notes that “for the first days after the hurricane, news outlets focused on what we now know to be greatly exaggerated individual acts of crime and violence (Dwyer and Drew, 2005).” In addition to magnifying the actions of a few, language used was blatantly race-based. The loot vs. find photo controversy demonstrated that black and white people exhibiting the exact same behaviour were reported on differently by the media.

Fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance member Rosetta Thurman shared some discussion about this on Friday…

Criminalized languageand more…

Criminalized language 2

So, what do we do about it?

My small part was a workshop on interpersonal communication I facilitated on Friday to a group of youth volunteers from a local hospital, many of whom intend to enter the health field as doctors, etc. I facilitate a similar one in my work at SFU (developed by the lovely Wendy Norman) as part of a Passport to Leadership series of workshop.

While the workshop starts off fairly predictably (e.g. importance of listening) I soon veer into the intersection of power and words. How language and word choice can further marginalize people who face barriers. How intent doesn’t matter when perception of word choice is harmful. We did an exercise where I gave them fairly controversial statements and asked them what assumptions were made by the speaker, how power was embedded in the words, who benefits if people agree with the statement, and if a positive intention might exist behind the statement.

These youth are going to be on the front lines, dealing with a diverse public coming to them in vulnerable situations. Interpersonal communication isn’t just about being nice and listening closely. It’s about checking your language and critically examining that of others.

Like the media currently isn’t as it criminalizes black people.

Other Haiti-relevant posts by the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance:


  1. I respectively disagree. Why jump to a racist conclusion. It seems that all (save a few) Haitians are black so when referring to Haitians I acknowledge that they are black. I also acknowledge that in all societies there are elements of good people and those that are not. Haiti is no different. It even appears that in Haiti they seem to blessed with a culture of hard working, family oriented, law abiding citizens given that their crime rate is low and their police force tiny. (We have much to learn) All that being said, in the midst of all the tragedy, in the midst of all the heart warming outpouring of random acts of kindness of the devastated population, there are people who are looting. The fact that they are black is just the fact that everyone is. Please do not excuse their behavior by the tragedy. There are certainly many, clearly the majority, who are not ransacking business and stealing groceries. Those that are, are looting. Those that aren’t are law abiding citizens. Both are black. Referencing looting is not a racial issue, just a sad fact of a disaster.

    1. Thank you for starting off the commentary Jeff.

      I agree with you when you say that there are some good and bad people in all countries, and that Haiti is no different. However, when reports on what is happening in Haiti talk about a “lawless” city with rampant “looting”, it casts the entire population with the same brush. The media greatly exaggerates individual acts of crime (these few bad people you speak of) as if this has become the norm.

      I might harbour a guess that majority are taking/finding/stealing/looting groceries, but I do think that its OK to excuse these actions by the tragedy. It sounds like the infrastructure is so severely damaged that emergency aid in the form of water and food isn’t getting to many residents of Port-au-Prince. If the only access to those items is by ‘stealing,’ as you say, I say go for it. It is “just a sad fact of disaster”. On the other hand, if someone was taking big screen TVs, I’d agree with you on the stealing point.

      I don’t think the language is intended to be racist, but I do think it’s racialized, meaning certain words are more often attributed to certain races. The unfortunate natural disasters of Katrina and this earthquake happened to have happened to (mostly) black populations. When compared with other natural disasters that impact other races (not just white, but persian, asian, etc), I don’t see evidence of the “lawless” “looting” language being used in the same vein. But I’m open to being corrected on that.

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