The First People and the politics of disrespect

Do you believe that if the African child pictured at right had followed the missive sent by Mae’s Primary to parents stating that on the day of Guyana’s independence anniversary 2018 ‘pupils will be allowed to dress in their cultural wear, depicting an ethnic group of their choice’ he would have been prevented from attending classes?  I will attempt to answer this and some important related questions after outlining my understanding of the specific problem.  

A national conversation having to do with child ill-treatment and ethnic discrimination broke out when an Amerindian child, dressed in normal traditional attire, was prevented from attending classes so garbed because it was thought that he was too exposed.  Stabroek News’ editorial (30/05/2018) focused on the traumatisation of the child and one protester voiced well the anger of the parents of the child and the First People community: ‘I think it’s totally disrespectful to the Indigenous people of Guyana. That child is an example of who we are; he is a representation of the entire race of the First People of Guyana and I don’t think that they have been respectful to him and, therefore, they have not been respectful to this race because he represents our culture.’ The school rejected these positions, claimed that the entire issue was blown out of context and stated that in the absence of a national policy of the level of exposure allowable in schools it had devised its own standards, which are evenly applied. ‘We recognize that our first duty is to look after the best interest of the children we serve. We are particularly conscious of fostering social cohesion and encouraging children to be proud of their heritage, as well as learning of the different ethnicities that make us one Guyanese family, hence the willingness to host Culture Day.’

Since independence, a path has been set of our being liberal in trying to find the uniqueness of a Guyanese culture in the dress and landmark activities of all its people, and the Amerindians have contributed significantly to the national ethos, e.g. the Golden Arrow Head, Mashramani, the Cacique Crown, Timehri community and airport (now Cheddi Jagan) and the Umana Yana. The general outrage that the school’s action has caused is itself an indication of the existence of an unwritten understanding among all our peoples that ethnic groups should be allowed to express their uniqueness without undue restraint.  Maybe there should be a written national policy on the level of exposure allowable in school, but Mae’s does not exist on Mars and thus in making its rules it should have been sufficiently cognisant of the expectations of its environment.  Putting aside any untoward behaviour by the staff, over which there is controversy, it is difficult to deny that given the missive it sent to parents and the policy it devised, which was not properly communicated to parents, the school was responsible for the traumatisation of the child and an apology would be appropriate here. ….