Guarding against racial conflict

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THE news this week that the Ethnic Relations Commission will open an investigation in relation to racist statements made on Facebook by a woman is very disquieting.

In the video, the woman was heard making racially charged comments about Afro-Guyanese, describing them by several derogatory names. The video quickly went viral and the incident was reported to the commission. The commission stated that it is particularly concerned that the post can contribute to the unnecessary escalation of tension in the society. In addition, the ERC, through its Investigations Unit, said it is also probing a recent incident that occurred at Kissoon’s Furniture Store involving alleged racial profiling of a customer.

The customer, a newspaper columnist, shared her story in a sister newspaper regarding her recent experience while shopping at the well-known furniture store. The owners of the store have since made a statement responding to the young woman’s alleged racial profiling, stating that it is against any form of racism and racial profiling. Nevertheless, the ERC is reminding citizens to desist entirely from making racially motivated remarks which can incite others. In fact, the commission wishes to point out that persons can be prosecuted for offences under the Racial Hostility and Representation of the People Acts, as well as the country’s Cyber Crime Laws. The ERC continues to monitor Facebook and the various social media platforms.

The body is imploring all Guyanese to exercise tolerance and respect for each other throughout their daily lives. The commission is expected to contact the parties involved in the various incidents to further its investigation.

We live in a country that tasted the nasty brew of ethnic violence five decades ago, and, as a nation, we are still trying to overcome the legacy of that violence. We appreciate that there are very deep emotional responses to these reports. On the one hand, there are those who are enraged by the vitriol contained in the posts; on the other hand, there are others who are enraged that the police have moved to take action against those making the posts.

There are two issues at play here. First, there is the issue of racist speech. This matter has to be handled very carefully. Despite our great advances in ethnic healing, some of our everyday speeches in Guyana, made away from the glare of the public, are still characterised by our ethnic prejudices.

This is understandable, given our deeply charged ethnic rivalry, especially in the political and economic arenas. It is not surprising that some of this speech sometimes spill into the public arena. This is in no way excusing overt and even covert racist speech. The fact of the matter is that such speech should have no place in our society. Whatever the outcome of these matters, this is a wake-up call for Guyana. The issue here is whether the hate emanating from those Facebook comments is more the exception than the rule.

This can only be determined by consistent study of our behaviours in relation to ethnicity. While we hope that such sentiments do not represent the rule, we have to take cognizance of them. There is need for all our political leaders to come to the realisation that if we are not vigilant and responsible, our society could slip right back into that slippery slope of ethnic hostility that could quickly deteriorate into mindless conflict.