THIS time last year, I was settling into my first semester at the University of the West Indies (UWI). I didn’t expect that during my first week on campus I would be on stage talking about race relations in Guyana (which, I know now, are not too different from the relations in Trinidad and Tobago).
A friend I knew from my Queen’s College days, let’s call him Joseph, recruited me as part of his performance on behalf of Guyana at Guild Fest, the Student-council led orientation activities for students at the beginning of the academic year. He is a wildly talented, creative person and he doesn’t take his talent for granted. At every opportunity he got, he used his words to speak out about issues very prevalent in our country, and among us Guyanese (even those unique to us in Trinbago, but that’s a column for another day).
That time, he was very passionate about emphasising the need for national unity in our country and he requested that I write about the stereotypes and prejudices I have heard about Afro-Guyanese. And, he asked an Afro-Guyanese friend to write about the same, but for Indo-Guyanese. We both got into characters and acted these out on stage. My Afro-Guyanese friend spoke about the cunning Indians who came to Guyana and benefited from the development of the country by enslaved Africans; the same Indians who like to fight with each other for land and drink rum. I interjected, telling him about the laziness of the Africans and how it was the Indians who saved and diligently studied to become the intellectual leaders of Guyana first. We both said things we grew up hearing; these were prejudices and stereotypes that are pervasive in our Guyana.
I remember looking down into the crowd and seeing the faces of my Principal, Guild President, and other Guild Councillors in the front row. I can still picture how uncomfortable they were while we expressed ourselves.
Joseph stopped both of us. He voiced how divisive our society had become with our racial groups — the same six beautiful races we love to boast of having — competing with each other for superiority and victimhood. He emphasised how this divisiveness was not only perpetuated between the two larger groups (Indo and Afro-Guyanese) but also among the minority groups, the Indigenous Peoples, the Chinese and Portuguese. He came to the centre stage with a simple but profound message: “Ubuntu — I am because we all are.”
He urged us to recognise that our country is only our country because of the contributions of each group. His was not a call for colour-blindness and repudiation of race, but, a recognition that we each contributed, in some way or the other, to forging our nation.
If I’m honest with myself, the seeds of my deep interest in understanding race relations in Guyana were nourished (but not planted) then, at the UWI in Trinidad. It is not an exaggeration when I say that, being in this space has allowed me to think more about the damaging race relations in Guyana, and understand just how important national healing is to this process of development in Guyana we are so desperately trying to achieve.
Ubuntu was a simple message understood by myself and most (if not all) of my Guyanese colleagues here. We are in a position of privilege here, because we have the space and perhaps, resources, to navigate how we have been interfacing with race in Guyana all the while. We are also privileged in this regard because we can understand how we need to interrogate our biases and learned prejudices and stereotypes of each other.
I am cognisant, however, that our privilege is not universal. I wonder how many Guyanese — our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc — are aware of the learned biases, prejudices and stereotypes we may have and may be perpetuating? How many of us would be willing to interrogate those? How many of us are willing to think about what makes us so insecure about demanding justice for one group, or insecure about sharing resources? And importantly, are we willing to honestly speak about why we continue with our tribal voting patterns?
Race and race relations are such uncomfortable topics to talk about in Guyana. It involves a level of honesty and a willingness to interrogate those not-so-nice thoughts and feelings we might have for each other. But I will continue to say that we need to talk about them if we are serious about national healing and the development of all Guyanese. We cannot just enjoy each other’s celebrations and food and think that we are a blissfully cohesive society, because we are not.
In a Facebook group, “Guyana Unite Now,” a woman asked for a “candid and civil discussion” about some of the misconceptions members of the group have of other races. The post has been up for four hours now and the sentiments expressed have been genuine and civil. This is the kind of honest discourse I believe we need across Guyana. A Facebook group isn’t going to solve our problems, but it gives me hope that we are not bad, hateful people.