The identification of a guilty race is a big mistake
November 1, 2003
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I have read Dr. Keane Gibson’s book, The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana, very carefully. I have also followed very closely the not unexpected heated debate over the book. The debate has centered on the ‘what’ of the book but has generally downplayed or ignored the ‘why.’ I gather from some of Dr Gibson’s writings that she is concerned about the African Guyanese condition. I refuse to join the Gibson-bashing, but I have to say some frank things about the book only because the book deals with an issue whose resolution or non-resolution will determine Guyana’s future. I will not comment on the quality of the scholarship in the book for that has little to do with the conversation. Nor will I comment on Dr. Gibson’s thesis that Hinduism has motivated Indian racism, for I know little about Hinduism and in any case, Dr. Gibson does not give me much to chew.
Dr. Gibson’s book deals with race and racism. But in Guyana, as in all racially segmented societies, race and racism (the what) are themselves racially defined – what Africans see as racism is seen as something else by Indians and vice versa. Note, most of the Indian observers see the book as negative and dangerous while most Africans see it as positive and helpful.
There are four things I want to comment on about the book. First, Dr. Gibson identifies a guilty race in much the same way that Ravi Dev’s 1998 work, Aietology of an Ethnic Riot” did. Ravi Dev has since avoided that thesis. My question is how the identification and indictment of a guilty race in 2003 advances the cause of racial justice and peace in Guyana. How does the guilt of Indians advance the condition and cause of Africans? Guyana is at a stage where interventions on race must be careful not to further muddy the already nasty waters. Race has to be discussed frankly, but that discussion has to strive for understanding and resolution. If one race is put on the defensive or is accused, tried and found guilty, there is hardly room for discussion and resolution. The identification of a guilty race is a big mistake.
My second observation has to do with the definition of Indian behavior as racist. One of the problems with our “talk” about race in Guyana is that we are quick to label people and actions as racist. Dr Gibson sees Indian behavior towards Africans as racist and Indians in turn call her book racist. Such throwing of dead dogs over the fence has become a staple in Guyana, but it is very unhelpful. I believe that there are some people in both the African and Indian communities who believe in racial supremacy and would exercise it, if and when they get the opportunity. But for the most part we mistake racial insecurity and fear for racism.
There is something else that is important to this discussion of race that Dr Gibson ignores—the role of authoritarianism and authoritarian culture on racial behavior. There is a political culture in Guyana that sees domination as the only legitimate form of governance; there is always the need to win and control. The origins of this can be traced right back to slavery. As CY Thomas has pointed out in his still relevant work on the Authoritarian State, every period in our historical development has been characterized by domination of one group by the other. The penchant for domination also springs from that well of insecurity and fear that has evolved over the years and which has been urged on by the fierce competition for the prize of government and state control. In our post-colonial experience white domination has been replaced by Indian and African domination that masquerade as democracy. The group that controls government and state determines who gets what, when and how.
I am driving here at a political explanation of not only Indian attitudes but also African attitudes. I am locating Indian attitudes to Africans and vice versa within the context of the zero-sum contestation for power. I see these attitudes not as the cause of the impasse we experience but as consequences of it. I don’t know that there is something inherent in African and Indian cultures and religions that propel them in the direction of domination, but if there is, then the political landscape and its rules provide them with fertile ground.
It is this culture of domination that I suspect Dr Gibson sees. She reaches for religion to explain the Indian strand, but I contend that there is a political explanation for this behavior that applies to both Indians and Africans. There is the need, as some of us have argued, to rethink and reconstruct the “democracy” that exists and construct one that places constraints on this culture of domination.
My fourth observation is that Dr. Gibson ignores whole chunks of Guyana’s recent history of race and politics. Most glaring is the omission of the role of the WPA, including its Indian members, in confronting the politics of race and the race of politics. One’s conclusions must by necessity be compromised if one ignores crucial evidence. The author also ignores the power sharing debate, which is essentially a debate about race. My sense is that these two pieces of evidence are most crucial to any discussion of race and politics in Guyana, but my suspicion is that their investigation would have caused problems for Dr. Gibson’s central thesis. For instance, the author sees Indian opposition to the PNC governments as religiously motivated but she ignores African opposition to the PNC—what motivated that behavior?
Having said the above, I want to draw attention to the ‘why’ of the book. Why this book and why now? Dr. Gibson’s book cannot be seen in isolation from the politics of exclusion, racial triumphalism, insensitivity, bullying and stubbornness that have plagued Guyana, especially since December 1997. This politics of the last six years created the conditions for this type of book. The book is a particular response to the Indian political leadership’s preoccupation with monopolizing power or what I call ‘democratic payback.”
So long as the PPP continues to hold on to the notion that they are entitled to rule Guyana alone because Westminster tells them so, as Mrs. Jagan reminded us recently, there will always be a particular kind of strident African response that targets the Indian masses. Racial stridency breeds racial stridency. One may disagree with Dr Gibson’s book on many counts and call her all the racist names in the world, but that does not erase the uncomfortable but blatant fact that the book is a product of African Guyanese fear and insecurity: a real fear of being reduced to “political slavery” in a country in which they have no say in the big decisions that affect their lives.
The indecisiveness of the African political leadership in dealing with African fear and insecurity has also helped to create the conditions for Dr Gibson’s book. In the process of power contestation, the African Guyanese political leadership has contributed to African Guyanese fear and insecurity. If there is to be racial peace in racially segmented societies, power contestation has to be characterized by negotiation, compromise and consensus, for at the end of the day, domination of power by one group is counter-productive. By stubbornly holding on to the notion of winner-take-all up to a year ago, and not vigorously fighting for Power Sharing since declaring a preference for it, the African Guyanese leadership has afforded the Indian leadership the political space it needs to in the name of the Indian masses consolidate its domination of state and society. It is this political lock on power and its inevitable facilitation of triumphalism among sections of the Indian community that understandably alarms Dr. Gibson and most Africans.
Both sides in a struggle have the right, and perhaps the duty, to chronicle their causalities and highlight their fears. The tendency is usually to ignore the causalities and fears of the other side. This is problematic. It is, therefore, left to neutral voices to tell both sides of the story. Dr Gibson does not set out in her book to be a neutral voice and there is nothing that says that a scholar has to be a neutral voice. In any case in a racially charged situation neutral voices are either deemed racially biased based on the race of the author or are shoved to the sidelines and ridiculed as crazy people.
Every book has its merits and demerits and I am sure Dr. Gibson’s book has both. But for me, the importance of the book is that it is yet another reminder of how close Guyana is to social disintegration—it’s yet another wake up call. Whether Dr. Gibson’s arguments are premised on myths or not is no doubt important, but the fact that those myths are seen as reality by Africans should also concern those of us who want an end to the racial madness that we find ourselves in. We have in the name of contestation for power and office allowed our racial problems to go too far for too long. So long as the PPP and the PNC continue to fight over political power, books such as Dr. Gibson’s will continue to come off the press.
My challenge to all those Indians who see danger in Dr. Gibson’s book is to stop for a moment and look at the bigger picture – fight more than ever to change that picture. Fight the PPP to come off their dangerous high horse. Don’t simply ask why do they attack us without examining and treating the conditions, which give rise to the attacks. This book is yet another warning to the Indian masses that political domination in their name does not guarantee them peace and security.
And to those Africans who see the book as an endorsement of their fears, I ask you to stop for a moment and think what your response would be if an Indian author comes out with a book that locates the origins of African violence against Indians in some inherent African cultural disposition for violence. The last time an Indian writer suggested that the African Guyanese race is guilty, one courageous African Guyanese, Eusi Kwayana, stood up and said: “No guilty race.” Do we believe that? I also call on Africans to fight the PNC to come off their dangerous high horse.
Indians will not be secure in Guyana until Africans are secure and Africans will not be secure until Indians are secure. Our security is intertwined. That is our historical burden and we continue to gamble with it at the political table to our eternal peril.