by Surendra Dhanpaul
The recently-concluded election in Guyana has drawn attention from almost every corner of the world. However, the fundamental problem of racism does not seem to get the attention it deserves. Racism in Guyana is dormant and resurrects every election cycle. It is a social problem that plagues, not only Guyana, but the world. In this opinion column, I seek to explore some fundamental roots of racism in Guyana and how we can be a model for getting rid of racism.
Race vs Ethnicity
Oftentimes, people confuse these two terms — to be one and the same. Race is a socially-constructed category rooted in the belief that there are fundamental differences among humans associated with phenotype and ancestry. Racial distinctions are more than ways of describing differences; they are also important factors in the reproduction of patterns of power and inequality. Ethnicity on the other hand are cultural values and norms that distinguishes members of a given group from another. The most common ethnic distinctions are language, history, religion and style of dress.
Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote about our “Sociological Imagination” and it is an important concept in understanding, but more importantly, in getting rid of racism. In a nutshell, “Sociological Imagination” is putting your foot in someone else’s shoes. Having a sociological imagination is, as Mills describes it “the most fruitful form of self consciousness”.
I moved to the city of Georgetown after growing up in a small rural community. I lived in Georgetown for about six years. During this time, I was robbed four times! Crime, whether petty as a pickpocket, home invasion or murder is a good example of how we can apply our sociological imagination. Had I no form of sociological imagination, it would be easy to say that the robbers were simply criminals and should be locked away for life! However, I have come to realize a few things.
First off, this type of crime is common. I am not the only person robbed, although I may have been the victim more often than many. The individual who commits such crimes is probably unemployed, with limited access to opportunity, education or jobs. The individual then decides to make a personal decision to commit a crime. These is a trouble the individual experiences.
Given the fact that crime, an extension of many people having trouble, is prevalent, it means that there is an extended issue in the society. It means unemployment is high, individuals do not have the opportunity to work, or even worse, access to education that makes their skills more marketable. It can also mean a stalled economy where even those with education may not have access to opportunity. The individual’s troubles are part of a grand issue of the society in which he or she interacts.
Slavery vs Indentureship
Now that we have established what Sociological Imagination is, we can try to apply it on a macro-scale. Personally, I am Indo-Guyanese and as such I cannot understand the difficulties that Afro-Guyanese face. I can try, but I may never be able to really understand. I can never try to do a Double Sociological Imagination where I imagine that I am an Afro-Guyanese trying to understand what Indo-Guyanese might be going through. I invite my Afro-Guyanese brothers and sisters to use their Sociological Imagination and let me know what you conclude.
Having said that, let us rewind to how both races came to be in Guyana. Europeans sailed the seas looking for a way to trade with the East. In fact, Columbus went west in search of China. The Spanish went west and the Portuguese went east. During this time, Europeans were not powerful. The Portuguese went up the Gambia River in 1446 and were defeated by the people of Niumi. A few years later, trade began in the Gambia River and Niumi itself did not participate in slave trading but collected tax from slave ships. (This is a separate discussion regarding Guyana’s tax revenue from oil.)
Slavery, is an extreme form of stratification. It existed in many parts of the world well before Europeans discovered the new world. One key difference between slavery and other systems of stratification is that an individual (slave) is a property of another individual. It therefore means that the slave can be traded for other commodities. It shocks me to know the price of a slave: between nine and fourteen horses. Horses were an imported commodity in Africa because they cannot reproduce in certain regions of Africa.
Using my Sociological Imagination, I try to imagine what it would be like in the shoes of a slave. I have little clothing, I am chained on both hands and feet, linked to the other slaves in front and behind me. I think to myself, how can I be owned by someone of a different race? Where are they from? Where are they taking me? What are the weapons that they have? I am uncertain, I want to run, I try to run but I am caught and beaten. My fellow slaves see this and they too become anxious and reluctant. Thus begins the cycle of slave oppression. This is a very sad scene and I realize that my fellow Afro-Guyanese brothers are a few generation descendants of the surviving slaves. Hence, I can never really understand that pain.
After slavery was abolished by the British, a new group of labourers were brought to the Caribbean. These included the Chinese but it was the Indians who were able to work on the sugar plantations. Indians are used to the Caste system of stratification, where a person is born into a caste and remains in that caste for life. It is important to understand, that unlike slaves, Indians walked onto and off the ships freely. They brought with them assets such as spices, pots, pans, clothing and most importantly, their family unit. Hence, as an Indo-Guyanese, I can appreciate that my circumstances were far better than the slaves (an ethnic identity). It is no fault of slaves or Africans, instead, I am simply saying that I acknowledge my circumstances as being different from slaves. Finally, indentured labourers have the option of returning to their home country.
I try to imagine what first contact between recently-freed African slaves and the Indian indentured labourers must have been like. The ethnic difference must have provided levels of culture shock. Two groups of people who have never seen people looking the way that either group did or speaking the way that either group did. Each having different clothing, and family structure. What was that first interaction like? To me, this is the best use of our Sociological Imagination in that we can try to understand that first interaction from the perspective of both groups. I am inclined to think that given the other social factors such as Slavery and Caste systems, there must have been some level of ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Unfortunately for us today, both of these manifest themselves into the racism we see. It is as if the first contact happens every election.
From Slaves to Independence
Britain owes the Caribbean much more that we get credit or recognition for. When the Spanish sailed west, they discovered that Peru had plenty of silver. Silver was important to trade with China because the Chinese paid their taxes in silver. The Spanish were once the most formidable power at sea. However, their strength now lies at the bottom of the sea after the British defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. After that, everything changed for the British. In the seventeenth century, sugar became the commodity that will transform Britain from the ultimate backwater to having Hong Kong as a colony.
Britain had the joint stock company setting the stage for mass capitalism. It is on the backs of slaves who grew sugar in the Caribbean that led to excess capital enabling investment into more trade, and increased capital led to the the cycle of investment. “Sugar and Slaves” provided Britain with excess investment into technology leading to the industrial revolution. The steam engine was invented 1698 that catapults Britain into a new era of controlling the sea. In 1842, the Qing Dynasty gave up Hong Kong after the first opium war. None of this would have been possible if it was not for Sugar and Slaves in the Caribbean.
A fair question is: what does any of this have to do with racism in Guyana? It is simple. Our secondary school social studies class teaches that it was Burnham and Jagan who fought for our independence. This is untrue. There were merely the representatives of the two major groups of people in the country: descendants of slaves and indentured labourers. Our independence was derived from World War II. Through sugar and slaves, Britain had many colonies which made it the largest empire in the world. In addition, colonies helped Britain in World War I and after World War II, Europe and the United States realized that colonies and empires were not the best way forward. Instead, nation-building was introduced as the new technology to avoid their wars. Hence, countries gained their independence. In fact, India and Pakistan were the first in 1947 and during their negotiations split to become independent India and Pakistan. The notion that it was Burnham and Jagan who fought for our independence needs to be removed from social studies in Guyana and focus on World War I and World War II having led to independence. Our current school of thought is like fuel to an already burning fire of racism.
The escalation of race relations is also fueled through social media. Back in the sixties, people relied on the radio and newspaper to provide them with information. It was slow and edited. Today, a video can be posted on Facebook and viewed by thousands in a matter of minutes. This mobilizes people and drives up emotions. It is therefore important that those who publish on social media do so responsibly.
I was asking a few people last week for updates and I received links to “news” articles and videos. As I was looking at the video and reading the article, I realized that I am only getting information from Indian people. I wanted to see both sides. Being in an inter-racial marriage and sharing the same Facebook profile with my wife helps me to see both sides. I saw videos of Indian people behaving the way the “news” articles described APNU supporters.
Our Facebook circles are limited to who we are and if we are to use our Sociological Imagination then we can ask ourselves, what feeds do other people view? We can then draw our own conclusions, read into the words and language used by certain profiles to understand what emotions the writer is trying to draw from you. A simple example is this: when black people protest, some “news” agencies call it bullying or hooligans; however, when Indians protest they are fighting for democracy.
Publishers must be responsible in their posts, especially if they have larger than five thousand followings. Facebook needs to do more to remove fake news. Get your news from credible, edited sources with unbiased opinions.
We explored how we can use Sociological Imagination to understand each other. We explored the false notion of independence (more like in-dependence, a thought for another day) that has fueled racism. The question then becomes: what is the solution? My simple solution is a three party system and Constitutional Reform. Five years ago, I wrote that a minority government is the best form of government in Guyana. I stand by that analysis today. Let us assume that the entire population votes. Let us also assume that based on what I described about race relation in Guyana, that people vote based on who they see in the mirror. By those assumptions, we can conclude based on the 2012 Bureau of Statistics census that the Indian party will always win. This is given by the data provided by the census that Guyana has 297,493 East Indians compared to 218,483 Africans.
If we consider that not all people in Guyana are racial or racist, that there are many like myself who are in inter-racial marriages and see the good in everyone, then we can see how a third party can strike that balance between extreme racism. In fact, the census of 2012 shows that there are 148,532 people of mixed races. Compared to 1980, there were 84,764 people of mixed races, a massive 75% increase. This is very promising. In addition, besides the two major races, Amerindians are the next largest group. The fact of the matter remains this: it is, unfortunate to see the numbers add up to where Africans can have a majority government alone. In the absence of their representation, I therefore recommend that a third party needs to strike a balance between the political divide. One fear of a minority government is that budgets will not be passed. My response is that scenario is perfectly reasonable. It means that the people in parliament will then need to work together to compromise which benefits Guyanese equally.
Let us now consider the declared results on Friday March 13, 2020 and compare it with our census data. Since my letter is about racism, I will analyze this data on the basis of race.
Total population was 746,955 and total votes cast between the two major parties was 466,339. This means that 62.44% (cell G1) of the population voted. Column H spreads the percentage across the different races. If we assume that all East Indians voted PPP and all Africans voted APNU, the number of non-Indian/non-Black votes needed to arrive at the declared results are in B5 and C5. I am not writing to dispute or agree with any of the results, I will leave that to the political parties. My point here is that the African population in Guyana is outnumbered and requires a strong coalition between mixed races and Amerindians in order to have balance.
My constitutional reform proposal is that each parliament member should be voted in by the people. Each member needs to work for his or her vote from the people they represent. The question then becomes, will the one hundred parliament members be distributed based on population in a region or based on geographic size of the region. Maybe both can be taken into consideration when distributing. I do not have the answer to this question and I invite Guyanese to consider it. Would you rather vote someone into parliament or simply have your party decide who is best for you?
Bureau of Statistics. (2016, July). The Census Road: 100 Years Ago: Compendium Two. Retrieved: March 13, 2020. URL: https://statisticsguyana.gov.gy/publications/.[Final 2012 Census: Compedium 2].
Carter, J. and Richard Warren. (2018). Forging the modern world: A history. [2nd ed.]. Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press.
Giddens, A.; Duneier, M.; Applebaum, R. P., and Carr, D. (2018). Introduction to sociology. [10th ed.]. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Mills, C. Wright. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wright, Donald R. (1997). The world and a very small place in Africa. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.