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Racism, Prejudice and Political Manipulation in Guyana

Mark DaCosta 30 March 2014


The problems of racism and prejudice are not easy to discuss and even harder to solve. If we want
to improve Guyana and stimulate national development, however, we must face our biggest
problems head-on, learn about them and come up with workable solutions. In this case, the solution
may involve changing the way we think. In a letter published by Stabroek News, I cited historical
facts to argue that Guyana's ethnic division is an artificially maintained tool used by some
politicians to gain and hold power. But can this thesis be proven by other means? Does it stand up
to scrutiny from a non-historical perspective?
Racism is a complex problem; sociologists do not agree on a definition of the term, let alone a
solution. Many thinkers, though, believe that it starts with political interference in our thought
processes. In other words, babies are not born with prejudice, and racism does not exist before
politics, or outside of the political context. Racial sentiments are not the cause of social and political
division. In fact, the reverse is true: political forces define racial lines in accordance with their
agendas. They manipulate the masses into identifying with groups which are defined by politicians.
Eventually, the cleavage defined by political forces becomes an accepted part of our thinking, it
influences our actions and social problems arise as a result of those actions. To understand this, let
us consider what happens when divisive politicians are removed from the picture. Good examples
of this are what happens in the diaspora, and at home when Guyanese are free of political influence.
When Guyanese go abroad and settle into 'Guyanese' or 'West Indian' communities in New York or
elsewhere, racial divisions tend to disappear; there are no more Indian, African or Amerindian
peoples; there is only 'Guyanese.' In this case, simply changing the geographical context and
eliminating divisive influences have a unifying effect resulting in positive developments. Closer to
home, at sports events, we cheer for our cricket players regardless of their race, or ours. Imagine
choosing and supporting our government leaders the way we support our national cricket players:
by merit, ability and national identity, instead of race.
We also see the breakdown of race divisions when observing from the opposite point of view: the
movement of diverse cultures from foreign lands to Guyana as was the case with Indians and
Africans.
India, whence Guyana's East-Indians came, is a country full of cultural and ethnic enclaves; they
were called castes. These castes have engaged in violent conflicts including the 1981 attacks of the
Mallah people against the Thakur caste, in retaliation for the rape of a Mallah woman. The divisions
exist to this day. Therefore we can conclude: there is no such thing as an East-Indian race as some
local political forces would have us believe.
Africa may be even more diverse; it is a whole continent of fifty-three countries with peoples of
different cultures, we sometimes refer to them as tribes; each with distinct beliefs, language and
geographical distribution. We recall the genocidal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis in
Rwanda in 1994. Those tribes certainly did not consider themselves a single, united race.
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So we see, as is the case with Indians, there is also no such thing as an African race or indeed with
any other similar grouping. Therefore, the idea that 'Indians' is a single group, or 'Africans'
constitute a single race is contrived and has no objective basis. The same can be said of
Amerindians in Guyana. Most politicians talk about our indigenous peoples as a single culture, and
many Guyanese find themselves believing this lie. The truth is, the Arawaks are different from the
Caribs, who are distinct from the Patamonas and Wapishanas; the other indigenous peoples are
similarly distinct. Clearly, racial divisions are made up by politicians to serve their purposes, and
these divisions disappear when political forces are not present to maintain them. At this point in
our history, it serves their political purposes to tell us that the Amerindians are one race, that
Africans are a single ethnic group, and Indians are one people undivided by castes. These artificial
groupings allow political forces to manipulate the masses to the benefit of the political elite. None of
those positions, however, withstands objective scrutiny.
So we see that a "modern" examination of the reality yields the same result as the historical view.
Now, what can we do about it? If we accept that ethnic or racial division stymies national
development, and we have established that racial constructs are man-made, we may start a process
of improvement by rejecting the racial construct and actively pursuing unity. So how can we do
this?
The experts say that when divisive political forces are successful in poisoning our minds, the first
result is prejudice, or preconceptions not based on reason or experience. When we learn prejudice
we tend to judge people as groups instead of as individuals; we see persons in stereotypical roles.
Prejudice can be based on religion, race, sexual orientation, or based on any number of other
arbitrary constructs. In Guyana, race dominates. Some politicians want us to believe that 'other
people' are bad or somehow inferior; they want us to draw a conclusion about persons without
getting to know them as people. Of course this makes no sense, but political interests use this
method to keep us divided so we will blindly follow, without thinking about the real issues that
affect us regardless of race, such as poverty, income inequality, and poor access to health care and
education.
Once prejudice is established in the mind, it manifests itself as racism, which is the use of power to
act on prejudices that are learned. Therefore, when employers hire persons based on prejudiced
thinking, that is racism. When we use our thinking power to define others as good or bad based
only on their ancestry, that is also racism.
Many of us have been victims of prejudice. We may have been denied a place in a certain school
because of our religion or social status; we may have been passed over for jobs because of our race,
gender or sexual orientation. We would agree that such experiences make us bitter. It is therefore
incumbent upon us to be better than that, to avoid such actions; to reject prejudice and eschew all
forms of racial discrimination. Unfortunately, many Guyanese have fallen into the trap of racism,
and are being controlled by divisive political forces. Such persons have fallen victim to political
manipulation, and are blind to the real issues because they see the world through a prism of race.
Guyanese would all agree that slavery as practised by Europeans in the past is evil. Indentureship is
equally wrong. How then can we honestly criticise European prejudice as was manifested in the
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racist practices of slavery and indentureship, yet practise the same thing, by maintaining prejudiced
thinking against our own countrymen? Is it not hypocritical to condemn the past wrongs committed
against us by Europeans, while presently teaching our children that our Guyanese brothers and
sisters are inferior or evil? Are we not doing the same thing to our neighbours that the Europeans
did to us?
We know that there is no biological difference among races; criminal behaviour, laziness and mean-
spiritedness are not unique to any group. Similarly, intelligence, industry, forgiveness and ambition
are not found only in one race. There are good people and bad people of every colour, gender,
height, weight and hair texture. We can only honestly judge individuals, not entire groups.
Once we accept that prejudice is learned and prevents national development, we must conclude
that racism is undesirable and must be corrected. Since it is clear that political forces have
negatively influenced our thinking, then we must reject further manipulation of our minds.
Politicians do not come right out and tell us to hate our fellow Guyanese; they imply things, they use
innuendo and manipulative rhetoric; they try to make us afraid of others. If we decide that we will
no longer remain in their racial trap, we must reject such messages and remove the politicians who
want to keep us fighting among ourselves while they fill their pockets and laugh at us behind our
backs.
Divisive, wealthy politicians will continue to spread fear in their efforts to widen the racial divide.
They will try to further define their arbitrary, artificial lines in their quest to distract Guyanese from
the real problem of the division between the rich elite and the poor masses. The question is: will we
let them get away with it, or will we choose to think for ourselves?

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