The classification of race and its invidious effect of racism are terms that are endemic in Guyanese social discourse, and need to be understood with greater clarity. All classifications are based on some schema that presuppose some value. “Race” was justified by the European classificatory schemes of science, dictating a hierarchical ordering of phenomena and objects from the plants of Linneaus to the atoms of Mendelev.
Race was a key concept formulated during the seventeenth century, and it is not coincidental that it arose during the rise of modern slavery, in which the “Negro race” were the main victims. The concept of race was used as one of many hegemonic elements to convince the subjugated groups 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”.
At its logical conclusion, it was used to justify the extermination of whole groups, 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 that the reasons for the inferiority were given as physical characteristics. This invidious notion of race still survives in Guyana, and it is this usage that must be eradicated.
In Guyana, race has been used in the invidious sense from the moment the European arrogantly announced that they “discovered the New World” – implying that the Amerindians living here were not “civilized” enough to appreciate their “discovery”.
This premise was used to justify the seizure of the land of the Amerindians, and paper over the raw use of naked force that accomplished the conquest of groups such as the Incas and Aztecs that had very advanced civilizations. “Race” was being introduced as a discourse to define a group of people as a social formation, in which physical, phenotypic and biological differences were given a social significance – that the Amerindians were inferior in culture and ipso facto inferior as a people. The physical characteristics supposedly determined the group’s behavioural attributes, which were inevitably “inferior”.
This 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. Race and racism were born as inseparable twins: racism could never be disjunctured from race (in the sense that the latter could merely be a neutral descriptive term). The paradigmatic use of racism, of course, was used to justify the slavery 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.
To maintain consistency with the overriding need to define themselves as a superior group, the Europeans in Guyana performed all sorts of semantic convolutions. The categories of race, supposedly immutable, were adjusted in the colonial milieu as needed, and terms such as “Caucasian” – used by the British in other contexts, were jettisoned, since they could have lumped them with the Portuguese and, horror of horrors, the Indians!
The dominant Europeans have oppressed all non-white groups, to one degree or another. Not in the sense that they were merely disliked by the white majority (exhibiting prejudice or racial discrimination), but that they were forced into certain roles by it – roles of subservience. Where the principle of domination (stated or unstated) of the use of power was based on race, it was racism, and this is one of the major legacies that have to be eradicated in the construction of a just and democratic Guyanese state.
“Racism”, it is said, “is racial discrimination backed by the power and resources to effect unequal outcomes based on race.” Sadly, today, racism is now being used by those that suffered from its effects during colonialism to oppress others.