With elections imminent, “race” has inevitably taken centre stage. In Guyana, the concept of “race” is a legacy of European rule. And it is not coincidental that its modern usage is bound up with the history of the West Indies: “race” and “African slavery” are modern twins, as are “White” and “Black” as racial categories.
The early civilisations such as Greek, African and Indian, etc, did not distinguish so much on physical characteristics, as on cultural characteristics of peoples. For instance, outsiders were “Barbarians” to Greeks. When Europeans first encountered Africans, the latter’s physical characteristics were not evaluated negatively even though they obviously had to be aware of those characteristics.
“Race” was a key concept formulated during the Renaissance and was used as one of many hegemonic elements to convince the groups they encountered and subjugated in their explorations, starting with Africans, to accept their subordinate condition. After all, the “inferior races” were being done a favour as the White man laboured mightily to lift up his “burden”. The paradigmatic use of racism, of course, was used to justify the enslavement of Africans, after the Spanish clerics purported to discover vestiges of a soul in the Amerindians (after they died off like flies and proved unwilling to labour for the Europeans) as so possibly capable of receiving salvation. The Africans were adjudged to be beyond this pale.
A classification, we must always remember, is an analytic tool. In itself, distinguishing between individuals on physical or other criteria is not a problem – but becomes one when we make a social evaluation on the physical characteristics. By the 19th century, the European classificatory schemes of science were imbued with the evolutionary paradigm proposed by Darwin in “the origin of species”. This presumed a hierarchical ordering of phenomena and objects from the atoms of Mendelev to the races of man in a great “chain of being”, where the African was at the bottom.At its logical conclusion, it was used to justify the extermination of whole civilisations since, if evolutionary theory showed that only the “fittest” survived, maybe it was the duty of the self-selected fittest to move the process along. While conquerors have always concluded that the conquered were in some way inferior, it was the first time the rationale for the inferiority was given as physical characteristics. This invidious notion of race still survives in Guyana, deeply embedded in all of our European enlightenment-centric education that deepened the Renaissance concepts. It is this usage that must be eradicated.
This racist discourse encompassed all other non-white groups as the colonial expansion spread exponentially and is the beginning of “racism” in the modern sense of the word. Indians, for instance, were “wogs” to the British – indistinguishable in its import from the “N” word. Race and racism were born as inseparable twins: racism could never be disjuncture from race (in the sense that the latter could merely be a neutral descriptive term). It is for this reason I have preferred to distinguish humans on the basis of their cultural characteristics or ethnicity, which is fluid and contextual.
To maintain consistency with their definition of themselves as the superior group, the Europeans in Guyana performed all sorts of semantic gymnastics on “race”. Terms such as “Caucasian” – used by the British in other contexts – were jettisoned since it could have lumped them with the Portuguese and, the horror of horrors, the Indians! The Portuguese were not even classified by the geographical term “European” by the British colonials since this would have signalled the commonality of race.
The hegemonic European paradigm continues to oppress all non-White groups, to one degree or another in Guyana. Not in the sense that we were merely scorned by the Whites but were oppressed by being forced to accept subservient, inferior, internalised roles. This negative evaluation coupled with discrimination and oppression constitutes “racism”. We all deploy absorbed European prejudices and their terminologies to evaluate each other – as that UG student demonstrated. Happens every day with most of us, let us not be hypocrites.
But while he was “racist” in his views – judging Africans socially by their physical characteristics; he could not exhibit “racism” by our usage. He did not have the power to oppress African Guyanese. On the other hand, the PNC coalition government has persistently discriminated against Indian-Guyanese based on their race, to dominate them.
This is racism in action but has not been denounced across the board.