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Eyes to See, Nose to Smell Everyday Injustice

4:05 AM. I flung my hotel door open, bleary-eyed but determined to be on my way home.

Exhale.

I stepped out of the frigid air of my room and into the predawn Dominican humidity.

Inhale.

It’s still hot. It’s August in the Caribbean. It’s kind of always hot.

But I also smell something familiar for the first time on this trip. Charcoal burning. And charcoal burning nearby most likely means two things:

  1. There are Haitians. Even though the DR & Haiti share an island they have very distinct cultures. And one point of separation… even a point of discrimination… is that Haitian prefer to cook with charcoal instead of natural gas or propane. That might not seem like a big deal to Americans but it’s kind of a big deal on the island. (Read this to learn more about charcoal. This photo essay is good, too.)
  2. Haitians are close. The deep breath of humid, smoke-filled air, wasn’t a distant lingering smell. It was clear that I was close to the fire.

As I walked to the front of the hotel to catch my ride to the airport my eyes squinted through the dark to try to see the source of the fire. The truth is I didn’t see it. But, forgive me for the conjecture, I imagined that somewhere nearby– probably just on the other side of the wall surrounding the hotel complex, I’d find a few Haitian families.

In the Dominican Republic, Haitians are to Dominicans much like Mexicans are to Americans. (Let’s agree that’s a big generality, OK?) Much of the economy of the DR is reliant on cheap labor that is often filled by Haitian. And the citizenship/resident status of Haitians in the Dominican Republic is often a political issue. In 2013, a judge ruled that 210,000 Haitians, many who’d been born in the DR had no legal status and might be subject to deportation. Then in 2014, the congress created a pathway for legal residence and citizenship.

Agriculture and the tourism industries depend on the labor of a voiceless, invisible people.

Sound familiar? Yeah, we’re no better in the United States. Not one bit.

Everyday Injustice

Yesterday, I posted this question on my Facebook profile:

Worldwide, tourist areas are places where sexually exploited women/children are trafficked for commercial purposes. If you were on vacation somewhere where this were the case, would you go on an “excursion” from your vacation to learn about the sex trade, what’s being done, what to look out for, etc?

It was just a random thought. Clearly, I’m in no position to start something like that or even know if it’s a good idea. But that’s what Facebook is for right, just asking my Facebook friends what they thought about that idea.

I wasn’t surprised that most of the responses were “not while on vacation.” It wasn’t that my friends didn’t care– not at all. It’s that they wanted to go on vacation somewhere and vacate. For them, it wasn’t the right time to think about or learn about injustice. You kind of want to know and not know at the same time. Like going to Disneyland… we all admit that going on vacation is often the acceptance of a ruse. We exchange knowledge for pleasure.

This is cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we care deeply about issues of justice. We want to know. On the other hand, we don’t want to be bothered thinking about everyday injustice, especially when we’re on vacation. We don’t really want to know.

But it begs the question… many of our everyday activities benefit from everyday injustice. For instance, you buy tomatoes for $.99 per pound and don’t think for a second about the person enslaved in Florida who planted, cultivated, and picked those tomatoes. You don’t think about the person in Tijuana who is raising his children next to a river full of heavy metals so he can make money by assembling a TV you buy on sale at Costco.

And here I was. On a trip to learn about injustice in the DR. And I’m walking across the beautiful grounds of a hotel and something deep inside of me both cares and doesn’t care that the people who made my stay wonderful probably live in squalor just on the other side of the wall from my room.

Seeking justice is complicated, isn’t it?

Photo credit: Haitian Students Breathe New Life into Depleted Pine Forest by UN Photo/Logan Abassi via Flickr (Creative Commons) 

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

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