Race and Racism

Race and Racism
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

With elections on the horizon, “race”, of course, has taken centre stage once again. In Guyana, we have been very generous with the use of the word “race”. This is another legacy of the British who defined us as “the land of six races”. Many Guyanese in the pre-independence era actually boasted about this classification. "Race" has been a very fluid, changing concept and it is not coincidental that the modern usage of the term is bound up with the history of the West Indies since “race” and “African slavery” are modern twins, as are “White” and “Black” as racial categories.  

The early civilizations such as Greeks and Indians, etc. did not distinguish so much on "race" as we know it today, as on cultural characteristics of peoples: “Barbarians” - Greeks, “Anarya/Ignoble”- Indians. All classifications are based on some schema that presuppose some value or other.  During the 19th century, the European classificatory schemes of science were imbued with the evolutionary paradigm proposed by Darwin in "the origin of species".  This presumed a hierarchical ordering of phenomena and objects from the atoms of Mendelev to the races of man in a great “chain of being”.

A classification, we must always remember is an analytic tool.  In itself, distinguishing between individuals on physical or other criteria is not a problem – but becomes one when we make a social evaluation on the physical characteristics. Race was a key concept formulated during the Enlightenment and was used as one of many hegemonic elements to convince the subjugated groups, starting with Africans, to accept their subordinate condition: after all the “inferior” races were being done a favour as the White man laboured mightily to lift up his "burden".

The paradigmatic use of racism, of course, was used to justify the enslavement of Africans, after the Spanish clerics purported to discover vestiges of a soul in the Amerindians (after they died off like flies and proved unwilling to labour for the Europeans) as so possibly capable of receiving salvation. The Africans were adjudged to be beyond this pale.

At its logical conclusion, it was used to justify the extermination of whole groups since if evolutionary theory showed that only the "fittest" survived, maybe it was the duty of the self-selected fittest to move the process along. While conquerors have always concluded that the conquered were in some way inferior, it was the first time that the reasons for the inferiority were given as physical characteristics . This invidious notion of race still survives in Guyana deeply embedded in all of our European Enlightenment-centric education and it is this usage that must be eradicated.

This discourse encompassed all other non-white groups as the colonial expansion spread exponentially and is the beginning of “racism” in the modern sense of the word. Indians, for instance, were “wogs” to the British - indistinguishable in its import from the “N” word. Race and racism were born as inseparable twins: racism could never be disjunctured from race (in the sense that the latter could merely be a neutral descriptive term). It is for this reason I have preferred to distinguish humans on the basis of their ethnicity or their cultural characteristics.

To maintain consistency with the overriding need to define themselves as a superior group, the Europeans in Guyana performed all sorts of semantic gymnastics. The categories of race, supposedly immutable, were adjusted in the colonial milieu as needed and terms such as “Caucasian” – used by the British in other contexts were jettisoned since, it could have lumped them with the Portuguese and, horror of horrors, the Indians! The Portuguese, were not even classified by the geographical term “European” by the British colonials, since this would have hinted at the commonality of race.

The dominant Europeans have oppressed all non-White groups, to one degree or another in Guyana. Not in the sense that they were merely disliked by the White majority (exhibiting prejudice or racial discrimination), but that they were forced into certain roles by it – roles of subservience. Even the “Coloureds/Mixed group who lorded over the rest were accepting their “place” beneath the Whites.

Where the principle of domination (stated or unstated) of the use of power is based on race, it is “racism” and is one of the major legacies that has to be eradicated in the construction of a just and democratic Guyanese state.