Whether Nicholas-Garrett was racist in her use of the word ‘coolie’ does not depend on malice on her part

Dear Editor,
A month ago, President David Granger’s Public Information and Press Services Officer Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett wrote in a leaked private Facebook conversation: “I got people in my office so I cannot listen to Les vn (voicenote) yet. Well she was in here making sure to try to turn my staff against me. She don’t know these coolie. They still friendsing she while kissing my a**.”

Reacting to charges that Ms Garrett was “racist” because of her usage of the word “coolie”, and she should be disciplined, President Granger promised to conduct “an investigation” and take action. Last week, the Stabroek News (Oct 5) reported he had concluded: “…the word that was actually used was not done with any malice…many people are aware of the language we speak in Guyana and you mustn’t try to separate it from the context in which it was used.” According to the report, he then made “reference to a recent article written by Ravi Dev in one of the daily newspapers in which the same word allegedly spoken by Garrett was used.”

The article referred was on the Devonshire Castle killings of 1872, ‘Killing Coolies’. It is ironic that even while insisting that context is crucial to discern the import of words, Mr Granger, a trained historian could still equate my use of the word ‘coolie’ with Ms Garrett’s. At the time of the Devonshire Castle killings, the British routinely referred to the Indian immigrants as ‘coolies’, much as they had used the ‘n’ word to African slaves, to deny their humanity. After listing the eight other instances when the Indian immigrants were shot in cold blood by the state (‘the leaden argument’) when they were protesting the violation of their conditions of labour, I concluded bitterly: “They were just coolies.”

As to whether Ms Garrett’s usage of ‘coolie’ was racist in her context, does not depend on whether she had “malice”. She attributed a negative social trait to an individual based on her race (“these coolie”) and asserted that unlike her colleague who was evidently naïve, she knew “coolies” well enough to discern their deviousness beyond their apparent bonhomie (“friendsing she”). This is almost the classic British definition of “the coolie” in the 19th century, when even his sworn evidence in court could not be trusted.

But to give Ms Garrett the benefit of the doubt at this stage, we can conclude she is at least ‘prejudiced’, a condition, her personal experiences might have stimulated. To be ‘racist’, this prejudice must have been so naturalised with her (and the coterie to which she was communicating) that she is beyond self-critical interrogation of her assessment when speaking either to, or about Indians. It is just taken for granted: “that’s just how those people are”. That Ms Garrett had an extensive stint at the Ethnic Relations Committee, which did not disabuse her from using the world ‘coolie’ with the meaning based on fixed essences of a group of people, confirms the normalisation. But even with this second level of scrutiny we can still give Ms Garrett the benefit of the doubt as to being ‘racist. In the US, for instance, it is commonly conceded that Blacks can yell “Honky” all they want coming out of their experiences and their essentialisation of Whites, but they can’t be ‘racist’ since they have no power to oppress the latter. I was in 6th form at Indian Education Trust in 1970 when Stokely Carmichael made that point. It still holds.

But in the case of Ms Garrett, who works for the President of this country, the negative essentialism she concludes constitutes Indian Guyanese, is given force by her or the group that shares her belief, to normalise and institutionalise oppression of the latter. For instance, since Indians are ‘coolies’ who constitutionally “kiss a**”, Ms Garrett and company can never give “these people” a fair shake in being evaluated in their work places or in governmental offices. This is racism.

The sickest part of this kind of racist oppression, which is what Gayatri Spivak called “epistemic violence” is that it not only silences the ‘Indian Guyanese’, but he accepts being a ‘coolie’ to get ahead and becomes even more adept at a** kissing.

We see them every day.

Yours faithfully,
Ravi Dev

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