Black and white are ‘colours’: the Caucasus is a mountain range in Russia
--Dr Joyce Jonas muses on the absurdities of racial categories
Guyana Chronicle
October 14, 2002

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RECENTLY I needed treatment at a City hospital -- nothing serious, but I had to go through the routine filling up of forms that takes place on admission. Date-of-birth? Embarrassing to answer that one, but yes, they might need to know how old I am. Next-of-kin? Hmmm. If things go wrong they'll need someone to bury me -- or at least, pay the bill. Religion? Ok, they won't offer me pork if I put Muslim in that box, or beef if I put Hindu -- but I'm Christian and eat both, giving thanks always.

“Your race please?” Suddenly the smooth flow was interrupted. Race. Why that question? Mischievously I asked the nurse what she meant. “Oh, you know, are you black or white?” I suggested that black and white were maybe colours. She fumbled a bit and then said. “You know, things like Indian, Chinese or Guyanese.” Those are nationalities, I thought, but here at least was a way out: I'm Guyanese, I said. But it was clear from her look that she wasn't satisfied. My pinkish brown skin, green eyes and funny accent required that we put the ugly word Caucasian in that little box, but I chose not to help. After all, I've never even been to Russia, so how could I be categorised by reference to a mountain range there. And most of my fellow Guyanese have never been to India or Africa or China either. So why on earth do we still subscribe to those meaningless labels when scientists are telling us that the very concept of race is a fiction?

To complicate matters, which of us can claim purity of race -- whatever that may be. Somehow a little bit of this got in with a little bit of that, so that the only thing we can write in the nurse's ‘Race box’ is ‘mixed’. What arrant nonsense! Ask me about my blood type if you like: I wouldn't like to get the wrong transfusion. Ask me about my weight so you can calculate how much anaesthetic I need. But please, don't ask me about race. Not now! Like you and everyone else in Guyana I belong to the human race - and to the best of my knowledge, that's the only race existing on planet Earth.

It was a small incident. The nurse and I laughed together and parted friends. But racism is no laughing matter. Whenever things get difficult in this country, we start this ‘Us and Them’ kind of talk. Foolishness! I'll bet you that every single person in Buxton could relate an incident in which he received kindness from a Guyanese with straight hair, and similarly, I'll bet every single person in Annandale can tell you of a trusted friend or valued co-worker who has kinky hair. Listen to me: The politicians are not going to move to stop the racism because racism fuels their selfish cause. But you and I as individuals can refuse to subscribe to racism in all its forms - institutionalised and private.

I challenge you; the next time you are tempted to make a generalisation about ‘Them’, think again and consciously change your language. No, I'm not going to get starry-eyed and talk about the brotherhood of man. I'm just saying we all need to confront our prejudice -- your prejudice, my prejudice -- and start treating everyone out there as a fellow human being. You want to stop the violence? Then understand that you too are involved, and cut out the racism -- and you know full well where to start.

(First aired on the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation.)