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.

The right to bare arms

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(Yes, this was the dress I wore)

I know, I’ve written on this topic already but I believe in continuous comments on rules that are nonsensical. Even if no substantial changes are being made, rules such as the dress code implemented in so many buildings across Guyana should continue to be challenged.

Today, forgetting once again that we are a country still trapped with a colonial mentality when even our colonizers have grown from that, I went to the National Communications Network (NCN) for an interview in a dress that dared not have sleeves.

There I was met with two guards, one of whom told me that I could not enter the premises as my dress had no sleeves. (Yes, my arms were that arousing.) I pointed out to him that the sign he was so diligently referring to made absolutely no mention of armless clothes not being permitted.

The other guard after checking the sign told him that I was right, but the guard probably feeling as if I threatened the small modicum of power he possessed refused to hear reason and insisted I not go in.

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I began to speak to him like the fool he was because he could not understand the rules he was so tirelessly trying to uphold. I only later saw that Sonia Yarde, well known dramatist also had on armless and passed by the same guard but she had no problem entering. Why are we at the whims of irrational beings who cannot even stick to their nonsensical belief systems about how a woman should or should not dress is beyond me.

(See below photo of skunthole guard)

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Finally, an NCN staffer came down and offered me her blazer. Realising that I stood no chance in reasoning with an idiot, I pulled it on so that I could leave the guard hut. As soon as I was through however, I shirked it and dared him to come remove me from the compound and continued to refuse to don it again in spite of the many admonitions.

The thing that bothered me with the rule however, was not really the attitude of the airheaded guard, but rather, the attitude of the women who worked in the facility. Yes, they all agreed that it was a stupid archaic rule, but calmly advised me to don the blazer once again. After all, that was the rule and how dare I, a common citizen question that.

I await the day with glee when a government agency will begin turning away Sandra Granger or female parliamentarians from entering buildings just because they dared bare their arm to the public. Maybe only then will women earn the right to bare arms in public venues and not be condescendingly told that those are the rules because by then we would know that often, rules need changing.

 

Guyana: Culture & musings

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Often, whenever people talk about Guyana in a good light, they mention our diverse and rich culture and how it remains unmatched by many countries.

While this is true, not many of us realize the greatness that lies in our diversity and culture and as such, shun it. It was only last year in Haiti that I myself had a small glimpse of how various cultures can merge to create something truly wonderful when I bought plantain chips from a vendor who had no sour for me to pour on it. Haiti did not benefit from the same influx of Indians as Guyana did; as such there was never the chance for cultures to merge and people to figure out that plantain chips tasted better with sour.

Our cultural makeup goes far and beyond ethnicity and food though, and while we are a country of varying ethnicities, religions and customs, we are all unified in our shared history. This is not realized however, as we have sunk deeper into a culture of mimickery, superficiality, suppression and self-loathing as we cannot make links with our history and learn from it.

Knowing the History of one’s country and ancestors has its benefits, as it will show how the self-loathing of our culture is not something we are wholly responsible for as it was conditioned into our ancestors by plantation masters and then into us. Being aware of history will make one realize that every time they don American accents and upend their positive traditions for more Western ones, the plantocracy wins.

The plantocracy, suspicious of anything it did not understand chose to ban and denounce cultural practices and traditions different from their own, labeling them as being paganistic. As a result, we began to feel contempt for our culture as we were conditioned to think the “white man’s” own was better. So we adapted his God, his mannerisms and even his biases in an attempt to become more like him and have an advantage in the world.

The dying of languages, cultural erosion, diffusion and infusion all seek to upend Guyana’ already fragile cultural atmosphere. We have reached a point in which we seem to be struggling for an identity and grasping any one, which is dangled before us. While I do believe the state has a role to play in the preservation and promotion of varying cultures, the people have depended too much on the state to make changes regarding the values and attitudes of their cultures. Instead, we have traded in our own creole for that of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands and we twist our tongues to match that of the hackneyed Americans. We celebrate people “outside” making small ripples but do not celebrate our own who make large waves. We forget our mythology such as the Churlie and Water Mumma while celebrating the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween. We even thwart our Mashramani celebration to align with that of Trinidad’s carnival.

Then of course, Guyanese wonder why our country has such a low tourism rate. That is because tourists recognize that we have no real culture as we rush to mimic rather than create and embrace our own.

I know, nothing is fixed, changes are necessary and no one culture can claim to be pure as they have all undergone mutations when exposed to others but, these cultures have seemed to develop their own cultural uniqueness, a task which Guyana is yet to complete.

Guyanese need embrace their color, their creole, what’s left of our culture and release themselves from the shackles of colonial mentality as only then can we hope for a semblance of national identity free from biases and mimickery.

 

 

 

 

 

Hair shaming

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June of last year saw me cutting off my relaxed tresses and going back to my natural hair as I was going through the, “I don’t need society to tell me my hair is beautiful phase.”

A year and a couple of months later and this is no longer a phase but rather, an act of self-love, not the fun type though, as if it is one thing natural hair teaches you is that you should never use small combs. Before the big chop, I would often hear and read stories about naturals and how they were made to feel shame towards their hair, especially in the work environment. Never being a victim of this, I could not relate. I remember having a conversation with one of my friends before I cut my hair saying, “she’s just being a stereotypical angry black woman,” in reference to a woman who was complaining about hair shaming. I said this because at the time I could not understand the difference between an “angry black woman” and an empowered black woman who did not yield to the whims of Eurocentric ideals. I had been conditioned to believe that any woman, regardless of race who protested and spoke against injustices, should be termed “angry.”

After I cut my hair and after the initial shock from family and friends, there came the criticisms veiled in questions. “Are you going to wear a wig?” “When are you going to straighten it again?” “How your boyfriend feel about you cutting your hair?” “How your hair look so?” These were all questions I was faced with upon cutting my hair and despite being a self assured person, I often in the beginning stages would wish I had not cut it. As it grew however, I learnt that learning to love oneself in a natural state should be something which is promoted. In a way, I guess my comfortability with my hair caused a lot of persons to become comfortable with theirs also and I feel proud to have at least in a small way help with that.

Due to my mixed parentage, my hair is curly and often soft, as such I have not faced as much negative remarks as those who may not have mixed parentage or took more from one parent than the other. Earlier tonight however, I realised that maybe there is some truth in the belief that a female social commentator is always an angry person as that was the exact emotion I felt when I was berated for not fitting the ideal of a “polished” looking worker.

“Aye you,” he shouted from across the room to me as I was about to leave, an expression of annoyance on his face, “muss comb your hair.” Uncharacteristically, I said nothing and quickly left, partly because I was hurt as this was someone I had a modicum of respect for, but mostly because I was angry and I have learnt to fear my explosive temper.

I spent the drive on my way home furiously tapping away into my phone, writing this post because I felt as if I did not get this out of me now, tomorrow i would turn into work and shout at him, “aye you, comb YOUR hair!” with an expression of anger on my face because I can hold grudges for very long. My inability to forgive is not something I am proud of, but I often feel as if it should be acknowledged, just so people know.

Now, this is someone who is constantly haranguing me to “dress properly,” “walk properly,” as “presentation is important.” I would mostly listen to these suggestions in silence and ignore them as I do dress “properly” and despite my tendency to slouch, I walk straight when I feel like I should. I can understand his reasons for his suggestions which come across as orders but that does not make them excusable. No one aside from him seemed to have a problem with my hair, in fact just today I was complimented on it  in an interview with one of the country’s Ministers. So of course my question is, why in a multiethnic society in which we have every hair texture possible is this still an issue?

Race and hair are in my mind, inextricably linked, as such, due to my overactive mind I quickly wondered, is he being racist? It should be pointed out that my co-worker who said this to me, is Indian. In our office, there is an Indian girl and an Amerindian girl whose hair also was visibly not combed. Yet, due to their ability to blend more easily with Eurocentric ideals and my evident “kinks,” I was singled out. I realise that while I can blame him, I cannot heap everything on him as he too has been exposed to social biases as it relates to black women and their hair from a young age.

Had he bothered to ask however, rather than giving me an order about the state of my hair (which in my opinion was not much worse than it usually is) he would have known that due to poor sleeping habits and time management skills, I had neglected to wash and comb my hair that morning. Had he bothered to ask, he would have known that I had planned on washing and combing it tomorrow as having thick hair with small pores, I normally do this every two days in an effort to keep it properly hydrated as it loses moisture very quickly. Had he bothered to ask, I would have done my best to respectfully educate him on why he should not be asking a black woman to comb her hair while other straight haired ethnicities were not asked to do that. I would have told him of the biases he appeared to have and I would have told him that often, very often, naturals doubt their self worth as they are constantly being asked to conform to what is considered “acceptable hair,” and that was what he was doing to me.

On the surface, it might appear a small thing to be worried about but it all goes back to Eurocentric ideals of beauty which labels natural hair as abnormal and out of place. This is sadly seen in many businesses who refuse to hire persons if their natural hair is “very” evident and also in their reluctance to hire those who may have dreadlocks due to the biases associated to Rastafarians.

The order to comb my hair, made me realise that the stereotypes we have fought against for years are still thriving in the most “tolerant” parts of our society. That order sadly made me realise that naturals may never be fully accepted due to underlying biases and prejudices ingrained within the minds of those who surround us. I guess I can eventually forgive him, as humans we are all prone to spew nonsense every once in a while but after being taught through socialisation and the mass media for years that our hair is unacceptable in its natural form, I do hope he can come to realise where he has erred. I hope he does this independently as I do not believe in educating people on issues which should be basic knowledge.

As an act of rebellion, tomorrow I will again not wash and comb my hair despite knowing I will have the time to do so. I will however wash it the next day because the reality is, my hair is really dry and needs to be washed.