Elections and post-election periods are difficult times for us in Trinidad and Tobago as in many parts of the world. They are particularly difficult because they reach deep down into our fears and insecurities, resulting from living in a racially polarised, post-colonial society.
Writing in 2004, Ralph Premdas observed:
“Each election that came tended to raise anew all the unresolved issues of ethnic equity.... An election campaign assumed the form of identity rivalry expressed in a collective, communal struggle, in which the claims of each community as a whole were reignited anew and expressed in uncompromising terms.” (Premdas, 2004:19)
The historic 1995 election, with the first UNC-NAR (United National Congress-National Alliance for Reconstruction) victory was a welcome development for many. It was seen as a fitting recognition of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indians to Trinidad and Tobago, and for Tobagonians, inclusion in the government of a Tobagonian political party.
While Indo-Trinidadians rejoiced, for sections of the Afro-Trinidadian community, there was a deep sense of loss. This was reflected in calypsoes of the 1996 season, e.g., Cro Cro’s “Black Man (Dey) Look for Dat”, Sugar Aloes, “The Facts” and Mystic Prowler’s “Sat on Top”. The onslaught of these “race” calypsoes in the tents during that period, it is argued, caused many calypso-loving Indians to stop attending calypso tents.
Politicians, whose core political base is a racialised one, are often unaware of the ways in which this racialised and generally divisive politics affect citizens. Even when overtly racialised statements are not made, the viciousness of the language and the imagery create deep wounds.
Attacks on political leaders become attacks on the people of those ethnic groups, and perpetuate the feelings of shame, anger, victimhood and even hatred, on which ethnic tensions and conflicts are built. Often, party leaders don’t apologise for the hurt caused by their words or denounce their members, followers and supporters who do so, so the wounds are left to fester.
The 2020 election
But 2020 brought something new. It was predicated on two key stereotypical narratives:
1. That Africans or Afro-Trinidadians are at the bottom of the economic pile. They have made no progress (since Independence or since slavery for some), their educational and economic performance has been poor because unlike Indians, they are lazy. They received no privileges, e.g., land, good schools, they didn’t go into business and could not access private sector opportunities because of their colour and race.
2. Whites and Indians, on the other hand, received certain privileges which allowed them to progress, and when in power, the Indian government supported its own. What is worse, the PNM (People’s National Movement) government, in power for most of the time since Independence, had failed Afro-Trinbagonians.
This narrative was presented by certain Afro-Trinidadian radio hosts, Black nationalist and Afrocentric leaders. The corollary to this was the argument that Indians have done better because their family system was stronger; they had worked harder; unlike “lazy” Afro-Trinbagonians who depended on public sector jobs, they opened businesses; they were given land; Hinduism includes a love for money and for land; they discriminated and continue to discriminate against Africans, etc.
This deployment of myths and stereotypes was also evident at the Indo-Trinidadian radio stations and their audiences, who accepted suggestions that Indo-Trinidadians were more intelligent and hardworking, hence their better educational and economic performances.
So powerful were these discourses that the UNC based its political campaign on elements of these narratives. Television ads presented economically deprived Afro-Trinidadians being ignored by the PNM and having to seek and receive help from what has traditionally been understood as an Indo-Trinidadian party.
While the ads were focused on the economically deprived working and lower-middle classes, I suspect that the educated middle classes, usually the ones comprising the swing voters, were the most outraged. It was okay when Afro-Trinis criticised their own, but it was not okay for those not in this group to engage in this discourse. Many forgot that it was Afro-Trinis themselves who were central to these discourses of victimhood.
These dangerous myths and stereotypes generate little real understanding of the legacy of historical socio-economic and cultural forces at work in Trinidad and Tobago. They also create boundaries for young people leading their aspirations of what they could become.
In divided and unequal societies, there is also the phenomenon of alterity where one group’s definition of itself is constructed in opposition to the other. Where, for example, if women become the majority of teachers, then men leave to find a place that continues to be defined as masculine. Similarly, if the girls do well in school, then it would be unmasculine for the boys to do well, unless they can do so well as to beat all the girls. Similarly, if educational success is defined as Indian, then Africans, especially boys, have to self-identify away from it.
In other words, our societies and our behaviours are complex and not the result of any single fact but the intersections of “race”/ethnicity, colour, class, sex-gender identification, geography and our socio-economic and historical context.
Post-election 2020 and, once again, the sense of loss is great. This was not just a political loss, it was a collective group loss, a sense of disappointment, shame and anger. While in 1995, the loss was reflected in what Gordon Rohlehr referred to as the “race” calypso, in 2020, it was social media. Persons groomed by popular media to see themselves as successful, as superior and as wealthy erupted in anger and a deep sense of loss at the victory of the less worthy and also ethnically inferior persons who did not deserve this. In other words, it was not a party that lost but a people.
The power of myths and stereotypes is that they often include aspects of truth which make them difficult to challenge. But they need to be challenged if we are to begin to make our way back from where we have arrived.
One such myth is that unlike Africans, Indians were given land at the end of their indentureship period. The historical evidence is that between 1869-1880 (11 years), Indian men, on completion of their indenture, were granted five acres of Crown land in return for forfeiting their right to repatriation to India. A total of 2,643 adult males received a total of 19,055 acres of Crown land under this scheme. It was poor-quality land, far from services, close to sugar estates, poor access roads, so much so that some Indians felt they were tricked to defraud them of their return passage (Brereton, 1979:181).
Africans accessed land in varying ways—by directly occupying it as peasant farmers (i.e., squatting) immediately after Emancipation; through land grants, e.g., the Merikins in Moruga and demilitarised WI Regiment soldiers in various parts of the county. Between 1880 -1920s, Crown lands were opened up for sale in ten-acre plots at £1 per acre, and Africans and all other ethnicities purchased land, many involved in cocoa production and cane farming.
On another occasion, we could similarly deconstruct the myths surrounding education and the lazy n----- myth and stereotype. The question now is: how did we get here? How do we understand and make sense of our situation and how do we begin to transform it?
Understanding ‘race’ in T&T
• Race is a feature of the modern history of Europe and was central to the conquest of the Americas. It was a central organising principle of colonialism. Our T&T story begins with the near decimation of indigenous peoples and forced transportation and enslavement of Africans. Indentured Indians therefore entered an already racialised, colour-coded, hierarchical social structure, and like later entrants—Chinese, Portuguese and Jews fleeing persecution; and trading communities, e.g., Sindis from India and Middle Easterners (popularly known as Syrian-Lebanese), and others were inserted and located within this ranking system.
• Today, racial meanings permeate all social, political and economic relationships, and an ethnicised consciousness shapes our dominant world view (Zavitz and Allahar, 2002:135). In other words, we see and understand almost everything through the prism of “race”. “Race” becomes an explanation for all failure, achievement, economic decisions, marriage decisions, education decisions, employment decisions and, of course, voting decisions.
• Whereas the black-white (African-European) binary dominated T&T’s racialised structures in the colonial era, this was replaced by the African-Indian binary in the post-Independence period, but with both groups understanding themselves in relation to whites/Europeans.
• Trinidadian Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, in 1962, the year of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence, in his essay in The Middle Passage, put it well when he opined:
“Like monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be whiter than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise one another. They despise one another by reference to whites; and the irony is that their antagonism should have reached its peak today when white prejudices have ceased to matter (Naipaul, 1962).
• Other antagonistic binaries emerged in other parts of the colonial world—e.g., Sikh/Hindu and Muslim/Hindu in India; Pathan/Muhaji in Pakistan; Tutsi/Hutu in Rwanda; Sinhala/Tamil in Sri Lanka; Hausa/Igbo in Nigeria (Ibrahim 1998:43)—the cause of continuing tension and conflict.
• Ethnic identities are therefore constructed in opposition to each other, and cultural practices are constructed as much in response to the other as in relation to some inherited tradition.
• At the same time, while all the public noise and divisive talk is taking place at a public level, there is evidence that populations in Trinidad and Tobago have “become increasingly similar in important ways, without being somehow reducible to one another,” (McNeal, 2011). So while there is a strong movement to highlight difference and distinctiveness, we are actually becoming each other.
• Racialised experiences in T&T are shaped by a number of intersecting frames:
1. Colourism and anti-Blackness
2. What I have termed competing victimhoods
3. Ethnic dualism
4. Hybridity and mixedness.
I explore two of these today.
• In 1970, like many of my generation, I was influenced by the Black Power movement. At my prestigious Anglican girls’ school, white girls began to acknowledge their African ancestors, Black girls were forced to confront the internalised racism that existed within themselves and to become proud of their colour and hair, finally. I do know that the leaders of the movement spoke of the unity of all “Black” people, with the slogan “Africans and Indians Unite”.
• I also recall in 1990 when an Indo-Trini colleague said to me, “Rhoda, I think there should be a 20-year commemoration of the 1970 Black Power revolution.” “Why do you think so,” I asked? Because, he said, “That was an important turning point in my life. After that, I was able to take my Indian food to school without feeling ashamed. It made us appreciate who we are.” Yet I am also aware of colleagues who sought to distance the Black Power movement from Indians, reducing its national significance for the entire society.
• The racist and colour systems of the colonial plantation era established a hierarchy of colour and phenotype and hegemony of “whiteness”. All groups were evaluated in terms of their closeness to Europeans in colour, phenotype and culture.
• It took a revolution to make Afro-Trinidadians and Afro-Caribbeans challenge the internalised racism of our own anti-Blackness and to de-negativise notions of blackness, African practices, belief systems and even the continent of Africa. Despite this, colour and phenotype continue to be visible markers of difference and of class and ethnic stigmatisation. For Tobagonians, their dark skin colour was an additional factor contributing to the tensions with Trinidad.