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My identity crisis began in chemistry lab. The class required a clean white coat and safety goggles. I was instructed to wash my hands for two minutes. The soap made my palms feel brittle while the latex gloves stiffened my muscles. My good eye would squint into a microscope that I could never figure out how to adjust properly. Slides covered in splotches of red and purple stains made me lose my appetite. All of this, three times a week.

My Microbiology professor, a Brooklyn native with a thick Puerto Rican accent recognized my struggles early on but judging from the red marks all over my assignments, had zero sympathy for me. But thanks to Rita, my lab partner, I still passed. Her penchant for getting high right before class made her overlook my incompetence and she gleefully did all the work for the both of us.

Rita’s ability to breeze through each assignment despite her marijuana-induced brain was all the more proof that I was not fit to be a dietician.

I switched my major the next term.

Growing up, the common images of Haitian women in the workplace were in hospitals, nursing homes and medical offices. My mother was a nurse. My aunts were medical practitioners. And almost all my Haitian peers were planning on going to medical school upon high school graduation. Unbeknownst to me, I made a life decision based on an internalized cultural stereotype.

Many people of different racial and ethnic groups will internalize positive and sometimes even negative stereotypes about themselves, even when those perceptions limit their worldview. Although I preferred writing and literature over the periodic table and scientific method, I felt tied to the cultural specific labels placed upon me as a Haitian-American woman. Not to mention that I aimed to please my parents who saw an education in medicine much more respectable than one in liberal arts.

I, like many second-generation Haitian-American children, faced conflicts with my identity. The crushing stigmas, stereotypes and careless media reporting about Haiti and its people played a huge role in this. But my desire to be “outside the box,” or separate from the norm conflicted more with my dual identity. Pressure from my parents who I wanted to please and peers who I wanted to prove my authenticity to, all made me struggle with my identity. But my contention eased when I finally left home.

In  2002, I moved from Florida, which boasts the highest population of Haitian immigrants in the United States, and relocated to Georgia. Once there, it slowly became easier for me to define myself. While my nationality is and will always be a part of who I am, I no longer feel tied to all the cultural norms and traditions typically associated with Haitian-Americans.

Living alone and surrounded by mostly non-Haitian people, I rid myself of the “model minority” mystique. My Cringlish could fall off my tongue without embarrassment. I could dance badly to kompa without looks of confusion.  And despite my below average griot, it was still a hit with my American friends.

The most important lesson I learned is that I can never be one without the other. I am very much Haitian as I am American and both components make me who I am today.

annabella

Annabella Jean-Laurent is a Haitian-American writer who explores race, media and culture in society. Her current project surrounds an important but little known exhibit called the Negro Building at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. Follow her @militantbarbie on Twitter and Facebook. 

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