Mr Benn’s ethnic conundrum

Dear Editor,

I see that we, the Guyanese people have at last found ourselves where we deserve to be – in an ethnic conundrum. I am referring to the great discrepancy between the observations of Mr. Benn and those of the Guyana Elections Commission.

From the time I heard of this claim I have been asking what is the definition of “Indian” and what is the definition of “African” or “Black”. Generally I get silence as a response. I suspect the persons I ask are thinking “Everyone knows what an Indian or African is”. That is exactly the problem. Only the collective Guyanese genius could think we are safe with such a belief. Einstein once said that it takes genius to undertake the analysis of the obvious. So we will now put this collective genius to work. But somehow I don’t expect the numbers of the GECOM and the opposition to reconcile anytime soon.

First of all there is an act of discrimination that needs to be sorted out by the Ethnic Relations Commission first. It is the definition of only one race of people in our laws. The Amerindian Act actually defines the term “Amerindian” when no other race is defined anywhere else. It provides

“2. In this Act —”Amerindian” means any citizen of Guyana who —(a) belongs to any of the native or aboriginal peoples of Guyana; or (b) is a descendant of any person mentioned in paragraph (a);”

This is in itself an act of discrimination. Proceeding further to define who is an Indian and who is an African will now further compound the discrimination unless we define the other “races”. But that is exactly what will have to be done in order for the claim of Benn to be confirmed or rejected. In fact, it is he who has the problem since he made the claim and therefore has the burden of proof. 

Of course, even if we did a similar update of laws for the other races we still have a big problem. It is that the definition of an Amerindian is no definition at all for the purposes of Mr Benn! The fundamental question that remains is “Can you identify an Amerindian when you think you see one?” And what criterion do you use? Anyone who has seen the Caribs of Dominica (some came with a boat in 1992) knows that there were what looked like black people among them.

Was Dr. Ivan van Sertima, our noted Guyanese historian of “They came before Columbus” fame, African-Guyanese or Amerindian Guyanese or mixed? He expressed pride in both his African and his Amerindian heritage. How would he have been counted for Benn’s purposes?

But the word “mixed” seems to be reserved for Guyanese of African and Indian  combinations mainly. Just look at any breakdown of the Guyanese population by ethnicity and you will see the mixed group just following Indian and African. Then follow Amerindian, Portuguese, Chinese. One Canadian website providing guidance on Guyanese culture says ‘Mixed race are referred to as “dougla” while the aboriginals are referred to as “buck”. It must be noted that though the local designations are not politically correct, only the very sensitive consider them offensive.’

So will Indian/Chinese, or Indian/ Portuguese, or Indian/Amerindian combinations get counted as Indian? Or mixed?

Given the solution imposed some years ago at the Guyana Revenue Authority, that is, a lie detector test, I suggest that the only objective test is a DNA test. That should help. Especially in light of Indranie Deolall’s article last week which said “Only some eight or ten Coolies may probably desire to remain behind, having made connexions (relationships) with black women, or who have lost caste, or are fearful of their comrades…”

So all we will have to do is establish what proportion of genetic makeup being African will determine the classification as African. Ditto for Indian. Good luck, now, Mr. Benn!

Yours faithfully,

F. Collins

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