Dr. Gibson's book is the lightning rod of our times
November 11, 2003
Dr. Kean Gibson's book "The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana", has become the lightning rod of our times, attracting loud thunderbolts of condemnation from Indo-Guyanese and glowing coronas of commendation from Afro-Guyanese. This was to be expected since in our local racial discourses we have a cultural tendency to support our own and criticize the other.
Because of this tendency, subjectivity is threatening to overwhelm objectivity and so instead of speaking with each other we may end up shouting at each other. We all know what shouting at each other can lead to.
Nevertheless, Dr. Gibson's book is here and it is an event that we have to try and deal with. Being neither Afro-Guyanese nor Indo-Guyana (I am a Guyanese as those who know me can confirm ( I will essay (I hope) an objective comment on the book.
Searching for the book was a mini-adventure in itself and a lesson that civility in Guyana is not dead, as I was treated with the utmost courtesy and helpfulness in my quest. The only sour note was that a speeding minibus driven by a reckless driver almost struck down my wife; I pulled her out of harm's way in the nick of time.
The Angel of the Lord encamps round about them that fear Him, and delivers them. I checked at a number of popular city bookstores and one owner helpfully suggested that I contact Mr. Roger Moore at Channel 9. I did so and was directed to a certain office in downtown Georgetown. After navigating three offices and being misdirected twice, I was finally able to locate the place where the book lay.
Alas, it was lunchtime and I was told to return at one o'clock. At the appointed hour I was then able to procure a copy of the book at a price high enough to keep it out of the hands of most Guyanese, but low enough to ensure profitable evacuation for the seller. A controversy certainly does improve sales á la Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.
The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana is a book of 97 printed pages and not a booklet as one political commentator so unkindly wrote. If Dr. Gibson's book is indeed a booklet, then Dr. Basdeo Mangru's "Indians in Guyana" (108 pages) can be also deemed a booklet. Bro. Eusi Kwayana's Next Witness (26 pages) and Guyana: No Guilty Race (57 pages) are definitely booklets.
The book is a highly readable page-turner (I read it at one sitting) and the author seems to have a fine and incisive mind, except in those instances when her cultural biases and prejudices come to the fore and her language descends to the level of the rag media instead of maintaining a scholarly tone. I have a strong feeling that she is a very good lecturer, but then we all have our weaknesses, for nobody is perfect.
I call Dr. Gibson's book a lightning rod as it has attracted lightning comments from Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese and in doing so has exposed the fears, hopes, insecurities and aspirations of both groups. Like a lightning rod that is properly grounded to safely dissipate dangerous atmospheric electrostatics into the earth, Dr. Gibson's book can serve as a safety release for perilous ethnic tensions. However, if the lightning rod is not properly earthed it can result in the Amerindian-named, African-built, Indian-maintained Guyanese-owned house being burnt down from the explosive discharge of ethnic electrostatics. Let us examine how well it is grounded.
As others have already noted, the book was not peer-reviewed and I find this rather strange for a book that purports to study the sensitive issue of racism. In all the books on "race" and ethnic relations and Guyanese history I have read so far, there is at the very minimum a publisher's note on the back cover. Even this minimum is lacking in Dr. Gibson's book and one is left in the dark about the author's academic credentials and past publications.
By the way, is she a Guyanese, Mr. Editor? Dr. Mangru's book, for example, was reviewed by at least four of his peers and includes a foreword by one of them and a brief academic biography. Forbes Burnham's selected discourses A Destiny to Mould has the preface, foreword and introduction written by Kit Nascimento, Reynold Burrowes and Martin Carter. Even Kwayana's booklet Next Witness has a very brief biography, while Guyana: No Guilty Race has the foreword written by Fred Parris. We expect no less from Dr. Gibson. Why was her book not peer-reviewed?
In the first chapter, the author writes: "This study attempts to account for African puzzlement about being defined as "criminals" by East Indians...This study is an attempt to understand racism in Guyana. It is an attempt to understand and characterize racism in the past and the present, (from the pre-colonial era to July 2002), and attempts to predict where the country may be going in the future." Four times the author uses the word "attempt" and this is an indication that the book is not the final word on racial oppression in Guyana; it is merely an attempt, not a completed deed, and we should take it in this vein.
Dr. Gibson identifies the three types of racial oppression in Guyana: "European oppression", "African oppression" and "East Indian oppression" (p. 4). From pages 4 ( 21 she gives a clear and concise scholarly description of the bases and effects of European oppression. There is little to complain about and much to praise in the first two chapters. The following, for instance, is standard historical fare: "The economic and population policies of the colonial government led to the growth of suspicion and hostility among the several ethnic groups which made the formation of a stable integrated society very difficult...The result was that there was a high level of suspicion, tension and violence which characterized inter-group relations...But the scars of social segmentation persisted reinforced largely by cultural differences. It is these cultural differences which have provided groups and individuals with a consciousness and identity that has helped to define both their perceptions of themselves and their place in society" (pp. 12 - 13).
However, a tiny seed of discrepancy was planted on pages 17 - 19: "Although the Africans and East Indians disagreed on which of their groups should be at the top of the hierarchy, they agreed that they gave the most." Dr. Gibson goes on to describe the claims of each group for the top position and then she refers to Brackette Williams' Hierarchy of "Givers" and "Takers" in which Indians are magically placed on top of Africans in the future stratification of "Givers" and "Takers."
Williams' hierarchy was published in 1991. How could he have known to place Indians in the top position when the 1992 elections were one year in the future? Or perhaps it is Dr. Gibson's interpretation of Williams' hierarchy that is faulty. This seed of discrepancy then blossomed into a tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the remaining chapters of the book.
The bulk of the third chapter, pages 23 - 53, is a description of Indian oppression replete with all of Dr. Gibson's theoretical underpinnings. African oppression is given short shrift and is only briefly mentioned in pages 36 - 38 & 56. In the case of European oppression and Indian oppression Dr. Gibson provides some theoretical support, but she offers no theory at all for African oppression.
Just implying that Africans oppressed Indians because Indians oppressed Africans is an unsound and circular theory that leads to no solution of the problem. This is where her cultural biases and prejudices are clearly evident.
Like many of us she seems to find it culturally unable to criticize her own but easy to condemn the other. Because of this obvious bias, the title of her book is actually a misnomer as what she describes for the most part is European oppression and Indian oppression in Guyana, not a cycle of racial oppression. One is hard put to find any cycle of oppression in her writings.
Throughout Chapters 3 and 4 the author relies heavily on a few personal anecdotes, letter columns, talk shows and call-in programmes as primary sources. Many of her references are from vested African or anti-Indian interests. As early as on page 2, she mentions the term "neo ethno-supremacists" used by a social commentator. When I turned to the notes, I found that a fellow traveler in the letter columns of Stabroek News had penned the term!
I would hate to think that a learned doctor would quote my letters against federalism printed in the newspapers five years ago as evidence that Afro-Guyanese are firmly against federalism! I am not even an Afro-Guyanese and I now believe that federalism is one of the viable options for Guyana. It would no doubt make me feel nice that some erudite professor has quoted me but it is so unscholarly and embarrassing. On page 1 she employs the phrase: "if you are not East Indian you are nobody," which has no reference; however, note 21, p. 90 reveals that the phrase was taken out of the mouth of a single Chinese individual.
Well, I am often mistaken for a Chinese or an Amerindian, yet from 1992 to the present not once have I ever been treated as a nobody!
Select any reference at random from Chapters 3 and 4 and there is a very high probability that it is a quote from the letter columns or a talk show or some such similarly biased and unverified source. Imagine using "Voice of the People" as a reliable source! If I were asked the famous question, "How long have you been an Amerindian," I would have given up, not my age, but the ghost laughing.
Some of her sources are incredibly bizarre. For example, she writes that a "leaflet criminalizing and demonizing the PNC and African-Guyanese was circulated in North America and Guyana in August 2000"(p. 44). According to note 102, the primary source of the leaflet was the New Nation! Is this a mistake or an invention? She further states: "African are defined in Guyana as "harataki," that is, "demons," whose sole aim in life is to commit every kind of atrocity against East Indians" (p. 69). Note 59 gives the primary source of this statement as a press statement of the PNC!
Explanations, not obfuscations, are required for these peculiar references. At least we can be thankful that Dr. Gibson was honest enough to include copious references so that while reading we can consult the notes. This is the safest way to read her book.
Dr. Gibson tries to justify her use of anecdotes by quoting Goldberg in the Notes, p. 84.
Fine. But won't it make better sense to use hundreds of verified anecdotes to establish a pattern or trend of behaviour in order to support a theory? I would not have been surprised if Dr. Gibson had employed gossip from marketplaces, rum shops and barrooms in support of her theory. Sometimes, however, you do get more truth from those places than from the platforms of most religious and political bodies.
The gist of Dr. Gibson's book is encapsulated in a single sentence: "None would belong to the Shudra (sic) caste since this caste is now reserved for African-Guyanese" (p. 25). This is the theory that she propounds. All her other assertions of Indian oppression are hinged on this one statement.
Strangely, although she gives references for many other such dogmatic statements, there is no reference for this one. Note 7 is several lines above this sentence and Note 8 is several lines below. This statement stands alone and un-referenced, giving rise to a strong suspicion that this is Dr. Gibson's personal opinion, formed by her cultural perception of reality as seen through her own ethnic lenses. Hence, her use of unreliable and unverified sources is understandable: she must confirm her theory at any and all cost.
The primary sources for her ideas about the caste system are the works of two non-Guyanese Indians, Ed. Viswanathan (1992 book & 1998 Web page) and G. S. Ghurye (1969). (The Web address she gives as http://www.indialinks.com is actually that of a Web engineering company. But I still sent them an enquiry and am awaiting a reply. The full address given in Note 9, page 83, I found to be unavailable.)
Why didn't she consult the updated works of Guyanese Indians? She admits: "Some Hinduism scholars consider the system of caste to be a disgrace to Hinduism. There is no spiritual justification for it - it only helps Brahmin domination of the lower castes" (p. 29). Disappointingly, however, she chooses not to expand on this vital point.
Dr. Mangru's Indians in Guyana would have informed her thus: "Caste distinctions became very difficult to keep up. The cramped conditions in the depot, on the voyage overseas and in the logies forced high castes to mingle with low castes. Inter-caste marriages were often the result of such mingling. D.W.D Comins, Protector of Emigrants at Calcutta, visited Guyana in 1891 and found little evidence of caste distinctions. He reported marriages between high and low castes and between Hindus and Muslims.
The caste system was also weakened by employers allotting work without regard to caste. Very often low caste drivers were put in charge of high caste immigrants. The weakening of caste, however, helped Indians to take up different occupations which the caste system in India did not permit" (2000, pp. 44 - 45).
Nevertheless, I do believe that her page 25 statement has some validity in that it now forces Indians in general and Hindus in particular to further re-evaluate their ideas of caste. For example, in his Aetiology of an Ethnic Riot, Mr. Dev writes: "By the end of indentureship the Indian had moved very far towards re-evaluating his caste system and incorporating all castes into a unitary system of "nation" or "jati" and allocating the outcaste position to the African."
Five years later in a letter to Stabroek News "Africans were never classified as Sudras" (2003-10-27). He now informs us: "The African was neither Sudra as Dr. Gibson asserts nor "outcastes" as the term is used in the Indian context." According to Mr. Dev, in 1998 Africans were "outcastes"; today they are not. Other Hindu scholars and leaders also need to tell us whether the Sudra caste still exists in Guyana. If it does, then who are those Sudras? They need to say clearly and unequivocally like Mr. Dev: "Africans are neither Sudras not outcastes."
Instead of trying to destroy Dr. Gibson's book by banning, burning or 'busing' it, why not destroy her central argument by coming out with a statement like Mr. Dev's? He is only one voice. Let us hear the others. If they can convincingly refute Dr. Gibson' central argument, then the rest of her book will automatically fall apart.
Christian Indians, too, need to consider whether they still carry vestiges of the caste system. I do know among some Christian Indian churches there is a hidden colour-coded racism that goes something like this: "Don't mix with or marry he or she, they are too dark."
The danger in Dr. Gibson's theory is that some Africans might unquestionably believe it without requiring proof and use it as a cudgel in their dealings with Indians. In the minds of many people such a sociologically explosive theory requires no proof; merely saying it, defining it and repeating it are proof enough.
As Ashley Montagu puts it: "No matter if words and beliefs are false, if men define them as real, they will be real in their consequences" (1997).
I hate to think of the book being used by non-Guyanese in America and England as a reference material on Guyana since it gives such a lopsided view of this country. For instance, the author omitted to mention that the magistrate who was assaulted and whose car was burnt by Indians at Albion was himself an Indian (p. 42). Also no mention was made of the destruction of Indian businesses in Regent Street in 2001 and 2002, although much detail was given of anti-African activities on those terrible days (pp. 42 & 60).
A most glaring omission is that Dr. Gibson did not account for the looting of Regent Street stores and some New Amsterdam stores on October 5, 1992 and the stoning of polling places (I witnessed one and one was broadcast live over the radio by Mr. Christopher Holder) that occurred at various parts on the coastland on that day of the changing of the guard from PNC to PPP.
She redeemed herself somewhat when she mentioned some anti-Indian violence and also wrote: "No fuss is made about crimes by East Indians on East Indians, or Africans on Africans, or East Indians on Africans; but crimes by Africans on East Indians are seen as a travesty...There was no mention of the Africans who were also robbed and assaulted...African are also the victims of violent crime and execution-style killings, but no anger is expressed by the East Indian community with respect to these events" (p. 61). Dr. Gibson ought to have realized that selective sympathy is an ethnic phenomenon that both Africans and Indians are guilty of.
Dr. Gibson also states: "The PPP fail to see their complicity in the violence that is prevalent in the society and blames it on the inherent evil qualities of Africans" (p. 72). Right or wrong, Dr. Gibson's book now forces Indians, Hindus and the PPP to answer this vital question: Do you believe that Africans and the PNC are inherently and incorrigibly evil and thus unfit to rule? Africans and the PNC must also ask themselves the same question about Indians, Hindus and the PPP.
The political parties must stop calling each other evil, as this implies that the accused party and its supporters are intrinsically and irredeemably evil and thus unworthy to rule.
Dr. Gibson complains about the negative stereotyping of Africans by Indians. She then concludes Chapter 3 by negatively stereotyping Indians: "East Indians justify corruption by dividing the practice into "good thiefing" and "bad thiefing." "Good thiefing" is done by East Indians ... "Bad thiefing" is done by Africans." Her basis for this stereotype is a conversation with a solitary Hindu acquaintance. She makes no distinction between individual Indians, Hindu, Muslim and Christian Indians. She lumps them into a single monolithic bloc and stereotypes them as condoning corruption. She complains about Indians demonizing Africans; but parts of her book, as in the above stereotype and in Chapter 4, demonize Indians as killers of Africans. She even has a shocking stereotypical anti-Muslim sentiment hidden among the Notes: "Money is the route to God for Muslims" (note 28, p. 84). Dr. Gibson ought to have known that you cannot use a single point to plot a graph and derive an equation and a law thereof.
Dr. Gibson castigates GIFT for soliciting "questionable and unverified" claims of assaults on Indians during riots on January 12, 1998 (p. 58), failing to notice that many of her references are likewise questionable and unverified. In March 2000 I carried out an ethnic relations random survey of thirty UG students comprising fifteen Indians (eight males and seven females), fourteen Africans (seven males and seven females) and one Asian female. Three Indians stated that they were harassed molested or beaten in the aftermath of the December 1997 elections and on January 12, 1998. Three Africans complained of having to endure discrimination in Government offices, jobs, employment, interviews, land distribution and other opportunities. (There were other very vague claims of harassment and discrimination by both groups. Also it would be unwise to extrapolate from such a small sample.) Instead of criticizing GIFT and trying to deny January 12, 1998, Dr. Gibson should have done some slogging fieldwork to find out what really happened on that fateful day.
Like many others, I do not know the real reason for Dr. Gibson's book. Is it a justification for the anti-Indian violence of 1997-1998 and 2001-2002? If it is, then it can be used as a justification for future violence. I can only speculate. Whatever its raison d'etre, it is undeniably an African perspective of Indian oppression and Indians should take careful note of its message. While reading the book, I got the distinct impression that Africans are a docile people who would silently accept oppression and to me this is an insult to the African psyche, as we all know that African people have a proud history of resistance to oppression.
Only on the final page is there an abrupt about-face and an implied threat to the triad of "Indian-Hindu-PPP oppressors": "Rarely do the oppressed accept their unequal status thus the violence will continue until the oppressors realize that they need to come to some kind of agreement with Africans rather than attempt to enslave and exterminate them."
The book is an embarrassment to Africans, an insult to the tradition of fine African scholarship, a demonization of Indians and an academic misadventure. It is an improperly grounded lightning rod. It is long on complaint and grievance, but extremely short on solutions. Barely half a paragraph of the last page is dedicated to a solution of sorts. One of its few redeeming features is its capacity to force a near-future re-evaluation of the caste system and thereby improve Hindu attitudes towards Africans. Indians should ask themselves: Would we have condemned this book if the author were an Indian? It also forces Africans to ask themselves: Do we really need this kind of book to justify our present state of being and future plans or should we look for something better? Will this book help to alleviate ethnic tensions or will it aid in further rupturing of the national fabric come 2006? What is the true purpose of Dr. Gibson's book? Would this book have been written if the PNC were still in power? The book also serves as a warning of future event and is an indication that all is not well in the state of Guyana. We should at least take this part of its message very seriously.
How I long for the day when we can all have a genuine empathy and social love, not only for our own, but also for the other. "To love my fellow citizens." Do we really mean that? Or do we just mouth it for mouthing sake? Maybe we should declare a moratorium on that part of the National Pledge until we start loving one another. Why shouldn't Africans speak out and care when Indians are being oppressed? Why shouldn't Indians speak out and care when Africans are being oppressed? Why do we only speak out and care when our own are being oppressed but deafeningly silent and careless when the other is being oppressed? Maybe I am being naïve and simplistic, but I cannot help it, that's the way my Creator made me and that's how I plan to meet Him. If anyone can think of a better way of living, can they please tell us? This land has been my home for over 36 years and the homeland of my Amerindian ancestors for over 10,000 years. I know no other earthly home. Regardless of the outcome, I will share in its future joys or sorrows until I reach the heavenly home.
The penultimate paragraph of The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana closes with a chilly and gloomy outlook: "If inclusiveness fails then the people may have to consider partition as in the case of Cyprus."
I prefer to close my first comment on Dr. Gibson's book with two brighter lights.
"It tells us that there were at least six African Guyanese who exposed themselves to risks to help Indian Guyanese during the events of this terrible day. In one of these six cases an African male took a wounded Indian boy to the hospital, waited until he was treated and then ensured his safe exit out of the city. There must still be hope" (Dr. M. G. Rambarran, GIFT Report).
"It is not yet too late for a just peace" (Eusi Kwayana, Next Witness).