Race is still a viciously divisive issue

Dear Editor,

Last week, after the incident between two public office holders, one a parliamentarian, the other a support staff member at OP, the following thoughts came to mind. Reading Vidyaratha Kissoon’s ‘Coil’ was a far more precise rumination, reminding us about what’s actually in the Constitution, but acknowledging the socially friendly racial undertones to our interactions, which are rarely as benign as we think.

Excellent poem by Mr Edwards; I have the same response when I hear the word ‘buck’ used. Of all the races/ethnicities we have, it is my belief that we are most discriminatory and prejudiced in our speech and treatment of our indigenous people. Hands down. Even the most racially polarizing speech I’ve heard from Indo-Guyanese bigots will make some deference to other ethnic groups, as they are at the very least, considered the same species. Not so the indigenous people, who are treated and spoken about as though they’re somehow on another evolutionary branch.

It’s sickening and insidious.

There is literally an entire library that could be written on the subject of race and ethnicity in Guyana. I am only now seeing Ruel Johnson’s post about the fracas surrounding Ms Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett’s private conversation with a friend, and wondering if this is the biggest problem we have for MPs to address.

Let’s be realistic for a second and acknowledge that just about every Guyanese at some point or the other has had a racist thought or two flutter across their brain. Does that mean we’re an unredeemable, ethnocentric people? Perhaps there are a few, but I really don’t think so.

Do we discriminate based upon any racially disparaging thoughts that may make their way to our consciousness? Because that is the core issue of any prejudices we may have as individuals. What, if any, action stems from this?

Personally, I am far more concerned about institutional biases that deliberately, maliciously isolate and subjugate based on race, gender, religion, etc. I use the word ‘coolie’ all the time, because it really rather succinctly describes us.

Our ancestors from India came here as labourers, field workers, ‘coolies’ in effect. We were not kings and queens in those faraway lands. Had we been, we certainly would not have signed away our lives and boarded a ship bound for God-knows-where. And, more than likely there were significant numbers of lower caste Indians that came, because despite the hardship and uncertainty, it was a better option to leave and find work and sustenance in a foreign land.

That the word ‘coolie’ describes me, my ancestors, my family, and many others, is not something to be ashamed of or take umbrage to. Because despite the circumstances under which we arrived, we managed to struggle and sacrifice and preserve what we could of the culture we left behind; and a few generations later, we have produced doctors and lawyers and engineers and artists and musicians and parliamentarians and have become so much more than we ever could have imagined, when first we arrived.

While I, my children, my siblings, etc, may not be ‘coolies’ in the original use of the word, it should be a badge of honour knowing that this word no longer accurately describes who we are, but instead is an archaic reminder of our humble origins across the distant sea.

Having said this, and emphasizing that it is distinctly my own view of a particular ethnic description, not everyone feels this way. Among our Afro-Guyanese brethren, for example, there are racially-charged words that some are comfortable tossing about, whose usage others are horrified by. As race is still such a viciously divisive issue, and even though we have arrived at a more enlightened and nuanced understanding of it, we should never assume that everyone will be comfortable with others using the same potentially offensive word or phrase.

Those holding public office have to be especially sensitive and cautious about the language they use, because it can be exploited to create a situation whereby the ethos of an entire organization or government is somehow perceived as condoning racially derogatory language and actions, even if the intention is not to do so by a specific individual.

With regard to the current issue at hand, it is my humble opinion that the person at the centre of the fracas should apologize and tender her resignation, demonstrating the moral courage that she no doubt possesses. Something the parliamentarian-turned-detective would never understand or consider doing. The public officials who comprise her supervisors/bosses, in recognition of her genuine remorse and decision to take the moral high ground, should deny her resignation and instead take whatever disciplinary action is reasonably warranted, (In this case, probably a letter warning her about the consequences of recurrences) and the potential for adversely affecting her work in PR.

The clamouring MP should direct the outrage machine closer to home, as there is ample fodder well within their immediate environs.

Yours faithfully,

Scheherazade Ishoof Khan

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