Talking and thinking race in Guyana

Talking and thinking race in Guyana

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by Vidyaratha Kissoon

To buy or not to buy

It is a hot afternoon in St Augustine, Trinidad. I had just stood in line to buy doubles from a stand which I told had been closed for public health reasons. The Caribbean was represented in the line to the doubles stand – black, coolie, creole, mix, whatever. There was something unifying in lining up for food at the place which might have been unclean.

After the doubles, I went looking for a shop to buy a big bottle of water. The man at the hotel told me to walk until I see a corner, turn right and see some shops.

The place is hot. It is a different heat from the one in Guyana.

I turn a corner and see a boarded up shop. A variety store. They are probably having a siesta.

The only shop which is open is a grocery. There is a Chinese name on it.

I feel a twinge – fear of the invasion, fake Caribbean nationalism – and keep looking for any other shop which might be Chinese Trinidadian, black Trinidadian, coolie Trinidadian or anything else.

Before going to the Chinese from China grocery store.

I do not own a business which cannot compete with the Chinese. I am told that capitalism is like that, that basically cheap and plenty will always win over any other thing.

So the small business landscape changes in Guyana, the Caribbean, Africa. China is impressive in how their goods go out to the world.

The grocery has black people and coolie people working in it. I get a bottle of Trinidadian water. The kind I would try not to buy in Guyana. There is no Guyana water to buy in the supermarket.

I tell the woman at the till Good Afternoon. I like to small talk. She does not smile at me nor does she reply. She calls the price. Just the price. I give the money. She gives the bill.

There is no “thanks. “

I should not be racial and say ‘dese Chinese people’. Come to think of it, the doubles man who had the public health violation did not say please or thanks either. Maybe it is a Trinidad thing.

I peep at the computer. The text on the terminal is Chinese. It is impressive. The Chinese have been trading for thousands of years.

I feel more disturbed about Chinese groceries and retail business than Chinese restaurants. I like seeing Chinese restaurant owners buying large quantities of produce from local farmers in the market.

I like the idea that Chinese can turn the regular vegetables from Guyana into nice alternative kind of food. I am in awe of people who do not know much English who come to strange places and try to make a living.

I am sure the Chinese groceries also sell Made in Guyana products. I do not know if the Chinese ever export any Made in Guyana goods back to China.

The Government of China though spends a lot of money in Guyana and elsewhere. Government officials get to go on trips and so. The Government of China does not impose things like democracy and human rights.

I keep telling myself.. I do not have a problem with the people themselves who also catching a hustle. If it was Nigerian, or Senegalese, or Israeli or ‘India coolie’ or Syrian, I would be nervous that this globalisation would be affecting the other black, coolie, other people who have to make their lives here.

And so I navigate and I justify my prejudices.

I am not in a position of power though to transfer those prejudices into any policy or national product. Fortunately, none of my fears would create a No-China-in-Guyana-except-restaurants-unless-there-is-a-reciprocal-Guyana-in-China policy.

My racism is not as bad as yours..

During the week of 15 September, 2017, a PPP MP Nigel Dharamlall shared private messages allegedly originating from Ms Lloyda Nicholas-Garret. The messenger of course was cussed down.

He has been condemned for the racist posts on social media, and his party has not fired him from the Parliament. He should also be condemned for sharing private messages. I should probably be condemned for reading them.

The last time I read about Ms. Nicholas-Garrett in the media was was about her work on what was apparently a nice cultural production ‘Juliana! A Celebration of Guyanese Culture.’.

If the messages on the screenshots are true, it is clear that there is more work to be done beyond producing nice cultural shows. There is need for accountability to the public.

Guyana’s ugly history and political culture do not promote public integrity and accountability.

Ms Nicoholas-Garrett has not issued any statement. There is some talk about a ‘probe’. The probe might also unravel some of the team issues which might have led to the racial comments.

A lot of Government supporter says thats if she goes, the MP who shares the National Assembly with slap-and-strip-bheri, the chatree coolie, the Ministers who supported their colleague who was accused of child sexual abuse on the City Council, should also go.

My reluctance to buy water from a China-Chinese grocer means I should shut up. It should end there.

It is unfortunate that there were no screenshots of any one replying to the racist comments and saying ‘aye gyurl, what wrong wid you, is only coolie people you got a problem wid?” .

What does redemption look like? It would be nice if the Press and Publicity Officer for President Granger issues a statement, if the screenshots are true, which says something like ‘There has been public discussion about comments I made about colleagues. I have no excuse for this behaviour. I have asked that I get a transfer to the Ministry of Social Cohesion/Department of Culture where I believe I can learn and teach others about moving from racial prejudices to a place of understanding and acceptance. It is not my intention to discriminate against anyone and I hope that my future work will be open to scrutiny to show inclusion. I also hope that Mr Dharamlall and others who think like him will join me on the journey to healing “

But is only a joke, is so we does talk…

The survey from the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs asks respondents to select an ethnicity. There is no option for ‘none of the above’. I am reading a book about East Indians in Barbados. The author is a descendant of Gujerati immigrants to Barbados. East Indian seems to refer to the people who came in the 20th century. There is another term used ‘Indo Caribbean’ for the other people of Indian origin who came from other Caribbean countries to Barbados.

If ‘coolie’ was listed, I might have selected it, though I like to select ‘mixed’ sometimes when asked.

Words are bandied about. Jokes are made about people to be minorities. Lots of Jehovah Witness jokes around. I cringe because if Hindu was in place of Jehovah Witness, I would not like it.

Lots of people talk about ‘chinee’ and ‘buck’ and apparently ‘don’t mean anything by it’.

Clyde Edwards is a young Amerindian man.

Clyde Edwards wrote a poem and posted on social media. He and other young Amerindians are fed up with being called ‘buck’. He wrote the poem in response to a racial slur which was shared on social media. He took the poem down after a barrage of abusive comments.

He gave permission for the poem to share here.

“They call me buck”

By Clyde Edwards

I walk on the street, they call me buck

I ride in a bus, they call me buck

I go to the restaurant, they call me buck

I sleep in a hotel, they call me buck

I go to the supermarket, they call me buck

I study at university, they call me buck

I graduate with distinction, they call me buck

I earn PHD but they still call me buck

I become government minister, they call me buck

I fly an aeroplane, they call me buck

Even the mixed ones call me buck

I work in a store, they call me buck

I work in the office, they call me buck

My boss and colleagues calls me buck

My committee members calls me buck

Don’t listen to him, he’s just a buck

I fight to be heard, they call me buck

I try to contribute, they call me buck

I live in the city, they call me buck

Even the Day girl calls me buck

She try to send me back saying I am a buck.

Anywhere I turn, they call me buck

Even in hell, they will call me buck

But thank God, only in heaven there will be no more buck.

Who is responsible for fixing this?

Heaven should not be the only place for there not to be “buck.”

The Constitution of Guyana allows for the creation of an Ethnic Relations Commission. According to Article 212D, the functions of the ERC are to :-

a). provide for equality of opportunity between persons of different ethnic groups and to promote harmony and good relations between such persons;

b). promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity;

c). discourage and prohibit persons, institutions, political parties and associates from indulging in, advocating or promoting discriminatory practices on the ground of ethnicity;

d) foster a sense of security among all ethnic groups be encouraging and promoting the understanding, acceptance and tolerance of diversity in all aspects of national life and promoting full participation by all ethnic groups in the social, economic, cultural and political life of the people;

e) promote educational and training programmes and research projects which provide for and encourage ethnic peace and harmony;

f) encourage and create respect for religious, cultural and other forms of diversity in a plural society;

g) promote arbitration, conciliation, mediation and like forms of dispute resolution in order to secure ethnic harmony and peace;

h) establish mechanisms and procedures for arbitration, conciliation, mediation and like forms of dispute resolution that would ensure ethnic harmony and peace;

i) recommend to the National Assembly criteria to be considered for the purposes of deciding whether any person has committed acts of discrimination on the ground of ethnicity;

j) Investigate complaints of racial discrimination and make recommendations on the measures to be taken if such complaints are valid, and where there is justification therefor, refer matters to the Human Rights Commission or other relevant authorities for further action to be taken;

k) monitor and review all legislation and all administrative acts or omissions relating to or having implications for ethnic relations and equal opportunities and, from time to time, prepare and submit proposals for revision of such legislation and administrative acts and omissions;

l) immediately report to the National Assembly and to all relevant authorities any proposed legislation, which the Constitution thinks, may be contrary to the constitutional provision relating to ethnicity;

m) promote equal access by persons of all ethnic groups to all public or other services and facilities provided by the Government or other bodies;

n) promote and encourage the acceptance and respect by all segments of the society of the society identity and cultural inheritance of all ethnic groups;

o. promote cooperation between all bodies concerned with the fostering of harmonious ethnic relations;

p) investigate on its own accord or on request fro the National Assembly or any other body any issues affecting ethnic relations;

q) identify any analyse factors inhibiting the attainment of harmonious relations between ethnic groups, particularly barriers to the participation of any ethnic group in social, economic, commercial, financial, cultural and political endeavours and recommend to the National Assembly other relevant public or private sector bodies how these factors should be overcome;

r). monitor and report to the National Assembly on the status and success of implementation of its recommendations;

s) study and make recommendations to the National Assembly on any issue relating to ethnic affairs, including conducting studies to determine whether race relations are improving;

t) monitor and make recommendations to the National Assembly and other relevant public and private sector bodies on factors inhibiting the development of harmonious relations between ethnic groups and on barriers to the participation of all ethnic groups in the social, economic, commercial, financial, cultural and political life of the people;

u) consult with other bodies and persons to determine and specify the perceived needs of the various ethnic groups for the fostering of harmonious relations;

v) train and enlist the aid of such persons and acquire such facilities as the Commission deems necessary to accomplish its functions;

w) make recommendations on penalties, including the prevention of any political party or any persons from participating in elections for a specified period, to be imposed for any breach of provisions of this Constitution or of any law dealing with ethnicity;

x) do all other acts and things as may be necessary to facilitate the efficient discharge if the functions of the Commission.

Prime Minister Nagamoottoo who is in charge of these things has talked more about his former comrade Jagdeo, than about the Ethnic Relations Commission.

There is no urgency to forming the commission.

The people have elected leaders who thrive on the black/coolie/whatever separation. Many people believe that their leaders are better than the leaders of the ‘others’.

It is really up to citizens to hold each other accountable for racist behaviour. Instead of nurturing and believing ‘this is how we does talk but we aint mean nutting by it’, it is about learning to talk differently.

It is also about listening when we think is only ‘joke we mekin’.

It is about knowing that while things good, we can sing, dance together and eat one another food, but when things get bad, when things are most critical, it is easy to draw on race as another reason for whatever problems exist.

It is also knowing about, beyond claiming offence, to identify what the next steps are to restore or repair relationships. It is about resisting the urge to respond to racism with racism.

It is about acknowledging how actions can be deemed racist even though they were not intended to be so, and we can only learn by listening. It is about questioning everything and expecting and providing answers which are not about denial.

It is not going to be easy.


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