Let's have that conversation on race

Guyana Chronicle
May 12, 2000

FOR YEARS, various leaders and groups in this country have proposed in one form or another that a national conversation on race be held with the primary objective of bringing to light, and, in the process, resolving some of the tensions in the society.

And while most stakeholders in Guyana would agree that the racial-political divide is responsible for the uneasiness and in some cases deep hatreds that exist, there is no consensus about the method of bridging the rift. In reality, it is very often difficult to believe that racial harmony is a viable or desired objective when one listens to the utterings of some opinion-leaders and politicians.

In December 1998, there was another call for a national conversation on race and it came from an American, Dr Michael Dyson, Professor of Afro-American Studies of the University of Columbia in the United States. A Baptist preacher and an author of several tomes on the issues of race and colour, Professor Dyson was in Georgetown to participate in the `Conference on Race, Politics and Discrimination' organised by the Empowerment Agency of the Ministry of Labour and Health.

One recollection of that event is the range of rhetoric that characterised the discussions. There were the brusque, angry and confrontational presentations as well as the warm all-embracing paeans of survival that celebrate humanity and are the best symbols of hope for greater healing and understanding.

In his presentation, Professor Dyson painted in bold brush strokes, a mural of the historical realities of the New World with its terrors of exploitation and slavery. He narrated the myriad variations of perceptions based on colour and race in the United States and he even touched on the then recent revelation that a revered American President had fathered a child by his black slave woman; he also offered glimpses of the antagonisms and perceived distinctions that exist between blacks from the Caribbean and native-born Afro-Americans.

Dyson urged Guyanese to celebrate their cultural diversity while being wary of its potential to divide. He then proposed that the nation as a whole undergo a process of introspection, and then seek healing and togetherness through a national conversation on race.

He recommended that Guyanese honestly acknowledge the mistakes of the past and then move to the point of repentance and mutual forgiveness. Such a process, the Professor believed, would indicate "a transformative commitment to be dedicated to the principle that until we get it right, we will not cease in our efforts to transform ourselves and each other".

We believe that many of the deep-seated ethnic fears and suspicions that inhere in the Guyanese nation have their origins in the most negative manifestations of colonialism. As some historians at the December 1998 conference had noted, it was to the advantage of the managers of the plantation system to pit one race against the other through a series of carefully planned acts of discrimination such as forbidding the freed Africans to sell their farm produce, while the Indian indentured workers were encouraged to sell theirs.

If the mechanism of a national conversation on race could bring together persons of differing shades of opinions with the purpose of ventilating fears, suspicions and anxieties, and in the end, putting this nation on a committed path of healing and understanding, then there would be tremendous merit and validation in such a dialogue.