Ethnic solidarity and political power

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When analyzing Guyana’s curious politics and the ethnic relations between Indo and Afro Guyanese, there are some things in our history that we need to consider. Any attempt at an analysis that begins at our march for sovereignty and democracy is ignorant/dismissive of the intricacies of our history. We need to acknowledge how race was weaponized by the colonial state to break the possibility of a united afro/indo class/labour struggle against the plantation system, as our struggle today is still rooted in this.

There are those who don’t understand the dominant role ethnic insecurity plays in our historical and current political impasse. They use the mythical veneer of multi-ethnic party unity to claim that ethnic based politics is gone and now there only exists a political struggle for power.

It must be noted that our politicians did not create our racial/class divisions, but from the beginning they have fed and strengthened it, even now. Our ethnic political premiers Cheddi and Burnham would solidify ethnic rule and create distinct narratives for their individual support bases. Their legacies of racially polarized and consolidated power would become cemented and remains even today. But let me circle back on the point of the colonial state a bit…

It is well understood that class is a barrier to group cohesion due to unequal distribution of wealth/power but class has also become intricately tied with ethnicity/race due to colonial divide and rule tactics and cementing of ethnic power domination by those whose legacies still haunt us. As two minority groups in the colonial context, should the newly freed Africans and the newly arrived Indentured servants join together, it would mean an overpowering of white power and rule.

But the colonial state, well skilled in the art of divide and conquer, would use various tactics to instill fear, mistrust and hate. Indians were taught that Africans were lazy and untrustworthy and Africans were taught Indians were conniving and clannish. A lot of this was easily spread due the ethnic/cultural differences of Africans and Indians that saw them regarding each other as strange…

To add, the Indo population replaced the freed slaves not because ex-slaves no longer wanted to work on the plantations, but because they began collective bargaining and demanding higher wages than plantations wanted to pay. So the arrival of the Indo population undercut Afro labour power and fostered resentment. So from the beginning, there were stereotypical/ethnic/economic divisions that prevented them from forming a class alliance.

Given the different systems under which the two major groups came (Enslavement/Indentureship) the different benefits they received from the colonial state also fostered fierce class divisions that became ethnicised and strengthened. Land was a big source of contention as Indians were given land by the colonial state so they did not have to spend as much on repatriating them. Repatriation and monies given etc. were also a source of contention. Coupled with the ethnic mistrust, this would cement ethnicized conflict and thoughts as the main reason for the division, without acknowledgement of the unequal power/resources the two groups possessed.

Circling back to Cheddi and Burnham now – In understanding that class would be ineffective in gaining a large base, politicians would utilize race to enchant large voting blocs. Class solidarity ideology at this point served more as a Band-Aid holding together a multi-ethnic group rather than any driving force behind it. With the splintering of this brief interracial unification, the idea of ethnic political dominance and control was solidified as an ideology between the two groups. Rigging of elections would be and is still used to maintain this grasp on power and would further cause divide amongst ethnic lines.

The brief instances of cross-ethnic solidarity between Afros and Indos during the periods of (1920-1940s and onwards to 2011 to 2015) have splintered not only due to political corruption, rigging and mismanagement, but is also driven by our ethnicised economy and systems of governance. Similarly, in countries such as Trinidad, we see how despite brief cooperation between the two ethnic groups, this was always followed by increased separation amongst racial lines. It’s almost as if you know, race and power has become intricately tied in postcolonial multi-ethnic societies such as Guyana and Trinidad…

Something that must be acknowledged is that despite the PNC being an afro dominated government, (1964-1992) this did not necessarily equate to increased wealth and power for afros. Under the PPP/C indo dominated government however, indos benefited and prospered due to centralized ethnic power of the state, leaving many afro-Guyanese cut off economically with only a few able to benefit. This ownership of the economy and indo-dominated rule would marginalized afros further and solidify them as a minority group.

In refusing to analyze our historical insecurities that led to our current political impasse, we are blinding ourselves to how ethnic dominance politics is the one responsible for our repetitive problems. How do we transcend ethnicity when our politics are driven by it? How do we ensure racial justice without questioning racist power systems and structures? How do we move on when limited resources are still divided along racial lines?

I am very suspicious of those who ask us to move on from our ethnic/racial history because it no longer impacts us, or those who adopt a color blind approach to our nation’s political problems and solutions. Classicism and the ruling class are the root of the problem they say – yes, well acknowledged – but classicism and racism is intricately tied together due to ethno-driven systems of power that have formed and persisted.

Politicians will for as long as we allow them continue to promote racial ideas and narratives to gain political mileage and we should always be careful when listening to elites speak of our race issues. However, this does not mean that our ethnic insecurity should not be thoroughly discussed and analyzed. It is our long held refusal to seriously discuss race and the tensions amongst us that has seen us relying on the same well-worn narratives not grounded in history or current systems of power.

Why “Hidden Figures” matters

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Katherine Johnson- Physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in NASA’s journey into space and their landing on the moon

I’ve long since become accustomed to seeing leading black women in movies as slaves, love interests and/or maids. Other times, I’ve become accustomed to seeing them as caricatures; either they are women who do too much or too little, women who act but don’t inspire because their characters are one dimensional and overdone.

For years, we would ask for not only minority representation but strong minority representation that doesn’t reduce us to either eye-candy, sassy black woman and/or a mammy characters. We were told that what we wanted just was not possible. Our underrepresentation in films were not a result of some active and implicit bias but simple Mathematics. We were told that movies with lead black women would just not do well at the box office. Only movies focused predominantly on white heroism, pains and struggles would. So, they would give us things like Madea, The Help and so on, not yet knowing that their argument would soon be riddled with holes as “Hidden Figures” (based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly), has even beaten Rogue 1 (as it well should because Star Wars is crap) at the box office while having far fewer theatres available to it. Now that their argument is demolished, I hope that this movie will represent a tide of changes to come within the film industry.

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Mary Jackson- Mathematician and aerospace engineer at NASA. She was the first black black engineer at NASA

I went into the movie the day it opened at Giftland, excited but slightly skeptical. Would this movie fall prey to the common trope of the tiara syndrome and that of the white savior? Would this be NASA’s version of ‘The Help’?

While on surface level there might have appeared to be elements of both, there weren’t, not really.

Harrison, the leader of the mission in a nice scene breaks down segregated washroom signs. I was a bit dubious about this part until I realised that he did not do it because he feels particularly sympathetic to Katherine, he did it because it was in his and NASA’s best interest to do so. They could not have their lead mathematician running off everyday for close to an hour because she did not have access to bathrooms close by. Meanwhile, the women are not silent persons waiting to be recognised, but actively pursue and adapt themselves to achieve what they want and that is highly refreshing.

People often shirk at the idea about positive representation in the media. Entertainment is entertainment and in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter. While that may be true to an extent, seeing not only one but three trailblazing women who look like you accomplishing so much in a much more oppressive system, does wonders on the minds of little black girls everywhere and lets them know that they too can do great things.

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Dorothy Vaughn- Mathematician who was the first black woman to supervise staff at NASA

Within five minutes, I was in tears. This silly tear spilling over the women, their triumphs and their struggles continued sporadically throughout the film. I was thankful that it being day, not many persons were in the theatre, but I did gain a strange look from the ticket collector on my way out because of how red my eyes were. If such a movie can matter to me, someone who has by and large been very privileged and grew up hearing that I could be whatever I wanted and throwing away my family’s lofty ambitions and aiming to become a writer, then imagine what it means to those less privileged and who are told that their stories and lives do not matter. Just imagine.

I liked that the movie was not this idealogical pipe dream which saw the white people all realising that, “Oh, they’re just people like us and as such we should treat them equally.” No, it is a movie rooted in reality and as such, the evolution of the central white characters are subtler and one gets a sense once again that they are not being accepting because they particularly like these women, but because it is in their best interest to have the best minds working for them. The movie offers a very sobering question about equality, biases and the implications these have for our advancement as a people. While we see the barriers the women face with regards to advancement due to their race and gender, we begin to wonder how many persons never got a chance to make their genius known due to the prevailing biases surrounding them.

Of hot suns, picketing and black cars

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Earlier today, my university friend and I, along with one who recently graduated decided to ditch our afternoon lectures and go to a Red Thread picket opposite the Ministry of Social Protection and show our support.

We arrived about 15 minutes late and immediately noticed the small band of women standing in the hot sun. In their hands they held placards denouncing Minister Volda Lawrence and her statements regarding the alleged child molester Winston Harding and accusations leveled against him as being a “family issue.”

The sun was no longer an issue for me and I walked over with renewed purpose and stood at their side with a placard expressing similar sentiments. Regardless, I was still in a state of disbelief over the small number of persons willing to call out wrong when they see it and whether they even understood what they would be allowing to continue if they leave transgressions unchecked.

I slowly began to realize that there were several reasons why not many people were there in protestation as I began to sense the general feelings of unease and anger from Afro-Guyanese passing us and the feelings of amusement from Indo-Guyanese and the disinterest in the others.

(1) They do not want to stand in the sun (I can get behind that);

(2) They believe that criticism against the government and its ministers is a criticism on their ‘people’

(3) They believe that we got the ‘change’ we deserved

(4) They did not grasp the importance of the Minister’s comments and what it represented.

I can understand these varying views, even if I’m not in agreement of them (except number 1). Living in a largely divisive country in which politics and race have seemingly become one, I understand why many persons who would have voted for the coalition believe people are just trying to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake. They fail to realize that while we are allowed to like our leaders and expect them to do great deeds, they should not be coddled when they have erred lest they grow into the familiar monsters we have all come to despise and fear.

Child rights and issues, I would like to believe, go far and beyond race or class and very few seem to realize how dangerous their silence on issues such as men, women and children rights can be in the future.

As the minutes went on in our picketing, our placards screaming about the injustice and insensitivity from Lawrence who now seems to be on a redemption tour despite never offering an apology or explanation, our numbers grew.

About half hour into it, a black, fully tinted vehicle pulled up to us. In it, was a man who was clearly annoyed as he surveyed us and our placards. After offering an explanation as to what we were doing there when he asked, we told him to park his car and join us as he was holding up the traffic, he said that he would not come as “they (coalition) is my people.”

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We explained that they were our people too and the reason we were out there was because we want them to learn from their mistake of protecting an alleged child molester.

Scanning our faces and placards, he went on to ask, “Is who paying yall?…Is got to be the PPP paying yall to come here.”

I felt defeated as it began to dawn on me how stupid most Guyanese are and how they have allowed race and politics to cloud their judgement of what is right and wrong. The man sat in his car, eyeing us menacingly and hurling derisive statements until he was told to move or wait until the police came. He left but shortly after that, another man passing in a car, shouted out, “Yall leave the woman alone and go home.”

As the protest ended, I felt dissatisfied as I realized that not much had changed from us standing there and most likely, not much will change the next time but I know that I must continue, because victims of abuse deserve more than silence.