Is it ok to be black in Guyana?


PRIOR to returning to Guyana in 2015, I lived in Antigua. After a short period of being in Antigua my Afro-Guyanese wife began signalling to me that she liked the island and would not mind settling there long term. I was curious by this, as Antigua, hospitable, warm and welcoming as it was, was not our home. I yearned for Guyana. I enquired of her as to the reason for her conclusion.

Her, simple, distressing response haunts me still.

“Because it is ok to be black here,” she said.

The rest, she did not need to say. It was not ok to be black in Guyana.

Here, a Guyanese, born and raised in Guyana, felt like an outsider in her own land and felt comfortable elsewhere. It was this more than anything else which drove me to be deeply involved in politics. I could not ignore the cry of my wife and do nothing to try and help fashion a Guyana in which she could at least feel comfortable in her own skin.

Prior to leaving Guyana, as an inter-racial couple, we had developed certain systems to help us navigate our way in this society. We knew how it worked, and when we needed certain common things done I would front up, when we needed certain other common things done, she would front up. We would ‘get through’ either faster, or with less hindrance that way. We knew what the likelihood of success was if one or the other of us sought a loan for example.

To this day, particularly when we approach cashiers together, we are asked whether we are cashing separately or together. The sight of an Indo-looking man and an Afro-looking woman as a couple still unsettles some Guyanese. That they could be married revolts more than a few. This is our unavoidable reality and until we have an open and frank discussion on it we will not get over this perpetual hurdle.

Recent events illustrate that we have much distance to cover.

The deeply troubling case of two Afro-Guyanese Georgetown men being brutally beaten in the Canal No. 1 Polder area on Phagwah Day, presumably under the suspicion of pilfering car mirrors does not exist in a vacuum. The views and convictions of the perpetrators are formed over a period of time by information they are fed, quite possibly from leaders to whom they look up and revere.

The perpetrators are not reported to have been alien barbarians from another planet or another era but seemingly ordinary village people who took an abhorrent course of action. Why would seemingly mild-mannered, country folk exhibit such dastardly conduct against their own brothers from just across the Demerara river?

What would have caused them to form such opinions about their fellow Guyanese and resort to brutality? This issue demands more than emotional or cursory examination. What is the origin of this volatile hatred?

When national leaders, political, religious and others stoke ethnic fear, hatred and insecurity there are consequences. When this is done during political campaigns, and in bottom-houses, the effects are not transient and simply evaporate when the campaigns conclude. The effects are lasting and play a not insignificant role in shaping the opinions and frames of references of the people to whom these divisionist messages of vengeance are distributed.

Political campaigns and politics as a whole do not allow those who are actively engaged in them to be exempt from the consequences of their actions and thus are free to say whatever they wish for whatever political gains they are after. The Guyanese public must demand that their political leaders especially, act in a manner consistent with molding and maintaining an enabling environment for public order and lawfulness.

Political leaders who nonchalantly stoke ethnic fear in pursuit of political power must be subject to harsh and unrelenting reprimand from the court of public opinion. They must not be allowed a free pass simply because it is the national consensus that such debasing and lowly conduct is to be expected from a certain quarter.

To cast a blind eye is to be accepting that such signals, sent from the political platform to the constituents, help to germinate and shape sentiments of raw hatred for our fellow Guyanese on the basis of ethnicity. How can this be helpful in building a progressive nation?

Those who are engineering and perpetuating animosity and intolerance must not be allowed to operate with impunity. The quest for political power cannot be executed at any cost. Guyana and Guyanese must come first, always. There can be no compromise on this.

We are a rainbow nation of several ethnicities, religions, political persuasions and sexual orientations. We are 750,000. We do not have the luxury of picking off each other on whatever spurious grounds politicians urge us to. Our political leaders cannot be allowed to contrive an environment in which members of the public who ascribe to their political convictions begin to cultivate hate and bitterness and resentment to persons of another ethnicity.

We cannot aspire to, nor can we partake, even if by our silence, in any effort in which a single Guyanese feels ethnically vulnerable to travel to any part of Guyana, near or far. We must all unequivocally condemn those who contribute to such an environment and must zealously embrace the campaign to bury hate and intolerance of every kind in Guyana – ethnic, gender, political, age, sexual orientation, geographic and all others. But it must start with a frank national conversation on the reality which we find too comfortable ignoring until it boils over as it did in Canal No. 1 this past weekend. What happened in Canal No. 1 is not superficial, ephemeral or spontaneous. It is deep-rooted, cultivated and nurtured by elements in our society. We ignore this fact at our own peril.