THERE is understandably a lot of chat about the issue surrounding the young lady, Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett, who referred to her Indian-Guyanese colleagues by the term that is both officially derogatory and to some extent informally accepted and used even by some Indian- Guyanese.
Ms. Garrett apparently used this term while chatting with others in a private online chat room. Another fact worth noting is that she was exposed by an Indian- Guyanese young man who himself was accused of derogatory language and sentiments against African-Guyanese.
I have described most of the commentary surrounding Ms. Nicholas’s comments as “chat,” largely because they have tended to skirt around the real issue, while at the same time attributing interpretations to the young lady’s comments that are more in keeping with people’s partisan feelings rather than their concern about ethno-racial dignity of all our ethnic groups. And this is precisely the problem with public discourse about race and ethnicity in Guyana—it is simultaneously simplistic and partisan. In fact, it is simplistic because it is partisan and worse, because it is generally not grounded in any understanding of the meaning of race and its history.
For example, most of those who chat about race confuse the meanings of race and ethnicity—although they are in some instances related, they are not the same things. In Guyana, we use the two terms interchangeably. While that is not problematic for those who know that they are different constructs, it leads those who don’t know the difference into empty conversations. So, for example, we hear charges of racism levelled against Ms. Nicholas. What nonsense! Only someone who is ignorant of the meaning of racism would translate mere reference to Indian- Guyanese as “coolies” to mean racism.
We in Guyana are not historical enemies—no group enslaved the other. In that sense, our relations are not historically grounded in race. But given our quest for ethnic, political and economic domination, we employ race as a tool in pursuit of that goal. That’s where the problem is and that’s where we should focus our energies. Do we have ethnic prejudices? Yes—all groups harbour those. It would be surprising if we didn’t have those. But prejudices by themselves are not the problem. It is when we give meaning to those prejudices through bigoted policy, politics, economics, laws and religious teachings that we transform them into racism.
I am not defending Ms. Nicholas here—she or anyone should avoid the use of such terms, especially in formal and semi-formal settings. In that sense, she was out of order and should be told so. But Ms. Nicholas is the victim of a kind of shallow collective attitude to matters of race and ethnicity by young Black professionals. The truth of the matter is that Ms. Nicholas’s generation of Black professionals is very superficial about Blackness and race—they don’t demonstrate the same sense of Black cultural pride as their parents. They are more likely to say” I am not African- Guyanese, I am Guyanese.” That generation of African- Guyanese only become African for a day—Emancipation Day. They are likely to stay very far away from a Hinds or Phillips or Ogunseye—they see us as too Black. They wouldn’t attend a Cuffy250 Forum or appear on an African TV programme. They care little about 1763 or 1823 or 1838.
I was part of a group that unsuccessfully tried this past week to put together a panel for an African-grounded TV show on the issues arising out of the Garret-Nicholas issue. The show collapsed because the young invitees either felt the issue was not important, or that they could not speak on an all-Black panel—they insisted on getting Indian -Guyanese on the panel. Here are young Black people who do not feel confident speaking publicly among themselves on an issue that threatens to lynch a young black woman—they are seemingly afraid of articulating an African-Guyanese perspective on the issue.
I say the above not to belittle the young people in question, whom I happen to love and admire, but to point to the nature of our political culture when it comes to ethno-racial discourse. While it is laudable to reach for a multi-ethnic perspective, that perspective would be hollow if it is not informed by a sense of groundedness in identity. Our multiracial icon, Walter Rodney, was deeply grounded in a sense of his Blackness. You simply can’t feel for others in a deep, ethno-racial sense if you do not feel the same for yourself.
But these young black professionals live in Guyana and are socialised here. They experience anti-black prejudices and racism every day. But they don’t know how to deal with it, because the first step in answering anti-black prejudice and racism is Black Self-Love. And since they run away from that, they are left defenceless. They then resort to ethnic and racial name-calling in private, while publicly parade as non-racial. It is a bind in which a lot of Black people — especially the young professionals — find themselves . They often mistake Indian- Guyanese self-love or clannishness for racism, because they themselves lack those qualities. And because the society denies them and they deny themselves a public expression, they lash out in private
So here is my point. I do not believe Ms. Nicholas’s comments were driven by any deep hatred for Indian-Guyanese. Her comments I think reflect the superficiality of the public discourse on and understanding of race and ethnicity that pervades our elite culture. When people cannot sensibly talk about race, they resort to clichés such as “race don’t exist”, “we are all Guyanese,” “them coolie people”, “them buck man”, “them blackman” etc. Further, if you are deeply jealous and prideful of black dignity, you are less likely to utter words that are injurious to the dignity of other ethnic and racial groups. The truth of the matter is that young black people cannot cope with Indian-Guyanese Self-love, anti-black prejudice and political and economic racism at the institutional level. So, they do as the young lady did, hide in the shadows and throw ethnic stones.
There are, therefore, large lessons to be learned from the Nicholas-Garret incident. First, we must liberate our public discourse from the shackles of ignorance and fear. Second, we must make it easier for our people, especially our young people, to express ethnic and racial pride without feeling guilty of some social sin. Third, we also must educate our younger population about race and racism—their meanings and manifestations. Fourth, we must talk about ethnicity, race and prejudices in the open–discuss, debate, educate.
It is only through that process that we will discover our sameness in difference and our difference in sameness. Anyone who speaks as we in Guyana do about our sameness (Guyaneseness) as something outside of our differences is fooling the country and forcing the Lloyda Garretts to resort to private name-calling. We must stop equating expressions of ethnic and racial pride and dignity to racism.
Racism involves a sense of ethic superiority of your group and using political and economic and other forms of institutional power to normalise such feelings. In that sense, we do have some racists among us, but Ms. Garret is not one. But Ms. Garret and her generation must come out of the shadows and confront ethnicity and race in an open, sensible and grounded manner both as African- Guyanese and Guyanese.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org