I have held off to date from commenting on the remarks of Ms Walton-Desir that has precipitated such a heated debate on race and racism in Guyana. On a social media discussion with Dr David Hinds, attempting to explain voter behavior in Guyana, Ms Desir divided them into “PPP voters and PNC voters”. After the storm erupted, Ms Desir asserted that she never spoke about “Indian and African Guyanese”. While she did not do so explicitly, even if Ms Desir were not an attorney who studied defamation, she knows that if ordinary Guyanese listening to her could identify who she was referring to, then it’s rather disingenuous to sustain her denial. So let’s move on.
What did Ms Desir say? Pertinently, that PPP voters are “a bunch of mentally lazy people” for whom, “the burden of sorting things out for themselves is too great” and they remain “trapped and in bondage”. “Contrastingly” she asserted, “supporters of the PNC are far more inquisitive, and enquiring and who have a greater appreciation of the democratic process.” The question therefore, is whether this statement is “racist”? It certainly is since, at a minimum, it attributes an impaired mode of thinking to a whole group of people based on their race (Indian Guyanese). In contrasting this racial group with another racial group, African Guyanese, who she claims are superior in their thinking process, Ms Desir removes all doubt as to her the import of her statement about Indian Guyanese. It was, and is, racist.
The irony is that Ms Desir’s statement on Indian Guyanese is a rather inelegant statement of what political scientists have discovered as far back as the 1960s – but for all voters. Using research drawn from psychology on the limits of rationality when applied in everyday decision making, they came up with the notion of “bounded rationality” and the use of “heuristics” or shortcuts in voter decision making. They explicitly explained that it had nothing to do with being stupid or “mentally lazy” as Ms Desir proposed. Back in the 1990s, Prof Michael Dyson, used the concept as the “Black Utility Heuristic”, to explain Black American voting patterns. He postulated that the heuristic was related to their knowledge of their condition and one of the elements of their heuristic was the acknowledgement of a “linked fate” as a group. From this perspective, their behavior was quite rational. These are matters I have written in extensively over the years to explain Guyanese “ethnic” voting.
All Guyanese, being humans, utilize heuristics to make decisions in politics and in life. I have proposed that because of their lived experience which had sedimented to make them perceive their linked fates ethnically, the structural basis of the heuristic for the major ethnic groups are their “Ethnic Security Dilemmas”. And the “knowledge” that actuated them is embodied in the narratives each group have about themselves and other groups. Ms Desir was merely regurgitating her heuristics from her “people’s” narrative. As I wrote to Vincent Alexander a few months ago in our discussion on the subject, African-Guyanese stressed their “earlier westernization”, of which, Ms Desir’s rationality and democracy ,are integral elements.
I continued that “The Indian-Guyanese narrative, on the other hand, proposed that they saved the sugar industry – and hence Guyana as a viable entity – since a peasant economy could not generate the funds necessary to maintain the hydraulics”. That they remained rural bound to accomplish this task and away from “westernization” longer allowed African Guyanese to inflict epistemic violence on them with they claim that they were “mentally lazy” and “not rational”
So yes, Ms Desir was being racist in her explanation but, in my estimation, not intentionally so. However, since she uttered words that made an entire group of fellow Guyanese feel insulted, her intention does not matter. And in fact it is privileging her as the perpetrator of the racist statement to make that argument rather than focusing on the feelings of the persons who have been harmed.
I conclude with what I had told Vincent: “notwithstanding our several ethnic orientations and truths, we have to craft a common narrative that infuses a Civic Guyanese nationalism to deliver justice and equity through its institutions to all Guyanese.”
We must be careful with our words in Guyana: they have consequences.