It is just over one year since I started my academic journey here at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine. In a year, I’ve learnt a lot. And, I don’t just mean through my formal academic pursuits.
More often than not, when some of my colleagues and friends first heard that I was coming to the ‘Twin Island Republic’, they told me that I would feel right at home- because the similarities between the two countries are many. I agree; I have seen and experienced many of those similarities. One of the more striking similarities, however, has been the Indo/Afro binary. Much like Guyana and unlike many other Caribbean countries, T&T has a large Indo population.
The dynamics of a post-colonial, Caribbean society with an Indo population is an interesting one. Following the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, the Caribbean became a “black and white” space, framed in a “black or right” power structure. White supremacy was positioned at the top of a social, political, and economic hierarchy; they brandished and consolidated power and left the dehumanised enslaved Africans and later, the descendants of Africans at the bottom of the hierarchy.
The introduction of Indian immigrants into countries like Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago and even in Suriname, and to a lesser extent, in Jamaica presented a new dynamic. These immigrants entered into an already established hierarchy, replete with its overt anti-blackness. The Indian immigrants (and later, the other immigrants who came in much smaller numbers) created another level in this hierarchy- they could not be white, but they did not want to be at the bottom, either. And so, they found themselves in the middle, cultivating their anti-blackness, subscribing to white supremacist ideals. (Note: I am not ignoring the hardships faced by Indian immigrants, or Indo-Caribbean people)
Even now, as the Caribbean encompasses (many) Independent nations, that white supremacist power structure permeates our societies. The legacy of colonialism has left Caribbean people always having to “play catch up” or to clean up the “colonial mess” (as Professor Sir Hilary Beckles calls it) left behind. In our post-colonial societies, Professor Emeritus of the UWI, Rhoda Reddock contends that while there are many intersectional components to navigate, race is the “prism” through which Trinidadians view social, political, and economic life.
“The European presence continues to be an overarching framework for the antipathies between the Africans and the Indians,” the Professor said at a recent National Symposium organised by the UWI.
Trinidad and Tobago held its 2020 General Elections on August 10, just about one week after our own 2020 Regional and General Elections had finally ended (or, “ended”). I was in Guyana for the commencement of the campaigns, and I keenly followed the post-election developments, even while here in T&T. On the other hand, I have been forced to stay here for an extended period, which led me to become immersed in the political campaigns in Trinbago, as well. One thing was clear to me: both countries have two dominant political parties which mobilise their ethnic Indo and Afro bases.
The same vitriol which engulfed Guyana this year, and which always seems to be more pronounced at elections time, also engulfed Trinbago. While in Guyana, the traditionally Indo party won, in T&T, the traditionally Afro party was re-elected. Both cases presented an opportunity to understand the ethnic insecurities from each of the respective groups when they perceived that because “their party” lost, they too had lost. Professor Reddock articulates that the loss in Trinidad and Tobago was not only seen as a political loss but the loss of an entire group of people- who, worse yet, lost to a perceived inferior group. I would love to see an in-depth, academic analysis of Guyana’s case.
My time in Trinidad has allowed me to think deeply about this scourge in my country. It allowed me to think about the layers of these relations which need to be unpacked. Gender and race, for example, is perhaps (in my opinion) the least discussed dynamic. There is the factor of class struggles and our navigation of a white, capitalist system which continues to disadvantage us. I wrote before about geographical considerations, too (policing the Agricolas vs the Prashad Nagars, the Laventilles vs the West Moorings).
I don’t think T&T has a better handle on these relations than we do. The ‘Zessing’ anthems during the elections campaign illustrated that clearly. What I do think Trinbago is better at, is channeling its academic energy. The UWI hosted a Post-Election National symposium, on race relations and reconciliation last week. Academics, political leaders, youth, and other stakeholders were brought together. A single symposium isn’t going to solve the issue, but, it does get the process moving along.
President Mohamed Irfaan Ali has committed to fostering a National Healing agenda. I do hope that he too will look at Trinidad and Tobago, and the UWI, and recognise that we need to embrace this agenda with much alacrity.