I ENDED my previous article by asking where our race relations were today, nearly 30 years after my address at I.J Bahadur Singh’s memorial gathering. Better? Worse? About the same? It’s we, as a country, who have to reflect and decide and plan. Take the following three examples.
First, the scuttlebutt has it that the calls for Chief Justice Ivor Archie’s departure aren’t inspired by principle so much as by race: the “Indians” have this “African’s” job in their sights. Since I too have invited him to resign, I wonder if I’m an “Indian”? Rajiv Dumasingh, perhaps?
Second, Mario Sabga-Aboud’s triumphalist assertion that his Syrian/Lebanese-origin community, though a mere “one per cent” of the population, is “the most powerful” in TT has cast a negative spotlight on the community, which was already viewed with reserve.
Third, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has charged that Keith Rowley is owned and controlled by the “one per cent” (whose clutches she and Patrick Manning avoided, she says), and has described him as an “oreo”.
Named after the famous cookie, this is an insult from one black American to another: you have a black skin, but you are uncomfortable in it, and you try to internalise the thinking and behaviour of the very whites who are exploiting you. (Frantz Fanon comes to mind.) So, given his physical appearance and that of the “one percenters”, and his alleged relationship with them, Rowley is, for her, unquestionably an “oreo”. (What does Sabga-Aboud say?)
Persad-Bissessar is neither black nor American, but I considered her jibe a racial, even racist, putdown of Rowley, and, by extension, of the Syrian/Lebanese-origin community. It was a genuflection to societal divisiveness in the name of clearly retrograde platform politics. “Here every creed and race finds an equal place”? I see. Astonishingly, there were blacks who thought she was complimenting Rowley – “I like oreo,” they chirped. “Oreo sweet.” Lord, have mercy.
In reaction, Rowley accused Persad-Bissessar of calling him a “ni***r”. The term “oreo” has a different connotation, however. But she might have been tarring him as a “house Negro”, which in certain US circles is, I’m told, a more offensive epithet than “ni***r”, what with its “Uncle Tom” associations of subservience. Remember the recent case of a local politician calling a black journalist that, and naming a “one percenter” as Massa? Which brings me to the word “Negro”.
The word was in wide, respectable use in America during the 1960s civil rights movement; just read Martin Luther King’s speeches. Towards the end of that decade, however, it was largely supplanted by the word “black”, in a break from what younger blacks saw as its humiliating slavery and plantation connections. Black Power ensued.
Later came “African-American”, which has officially replaced “Negro” in some US federal legislation. But in TT, many blacks prefer to call themselves “Negro”, apparently because it sounds nicer than “black” (ironically, it’s the Spanish word for “black”), and also because they’re really mixed bloods, aren’t they. Our colonisers did an effective brainwashing number on us.
Race in TT is further complicated by religion. I was very surprised at the PM’s admission that he had never heard of the Mahabharata. It tells you something about the inadequacy of our education system and the shortfall in our inter-group understanding and buttresses the position of those who complain that the state is insufficiently sensitive to the concerns of non-Christians. This year we have experienced protests from both Hindus and Muslims, who are nearly all of Indian origin. Do they have “an equal place”?
In my 1990 address I said also: “We must acknowledge that a problem exists, and that hand-wringing and appeals will not make it go away. We must deal with it, and we must make a start by communicating better and by speaking to one another instead of shouting at one another. If we remain within our separate bunkers, there will be no solution. Rather, there will continue to be the megaphone diplomacy and the fretfulness that have become a characteristic of recent exchanges, and that run the risk of leading only to a re-drawing of the battle lines and a hardening of attitudes. In such an atmosphere, we all lose.
“If this is a plural society, our school curricula must reflect this, assuming they do not already. The dominant Christian majority…must take into consideration the susceptibilities of the smaller religious denominations. There is no State religion here…
“We must constantly bear in mind that ‘multi-racialism’ does not necessarily mean ‘non-racialism’, and that cheerful references to our ‘rainbow country’ do not a nation make. We have to work at building our nation … (T)here is no single culture here…”
Nearly thirty years on, where are we today?