Paula-Mae Weekes

‘Hurdles to

be overcome’: Paula-Mae Weekes

President Paula-Mae Weekes is disgusted and dismayed by the level of racism displayed by supporters of both the government and opposition in the lead-up to the August 10 general election and its immediate aftermath.

The President spoke out on the issue for the first time in her Independence Day message released yesterday, saying racism was not completely divorced from the issue of Independence since its roots lie in this country’s colonial past and its branches have reached far beyond 1962 and were still entwined in national life.

President Weekes also explained why she opted to remain silent on the issue even as calls were being made for her to respond to the racist rants on social media and on the streets.

She said, “Many people wondered why I, as President, did not immediately add my voice to the calls for restraint, unity and respect. They were hopeful that salutary words from the Head of State would bring calm and soothe hurt feelings on both sides of the divide, thereby diminishing the number of caustic exchanges, especially on social media—the kumbaya effect, in operation.”

But, as the Head of State, Weekes said she was being careful in deciding both content and timing of her statements in order to avoid provoking more heat than light.

She said, “Appeals to the nation are not likely to find fertile ground when passions are inflamed, intellect and reason decamp, and parties remain mired in their entrenched positions.”

The President said she understood that a President’s words were seen to carry great weight and were subject to close examination and individual interpretation. And given the climate, she thought it best to await the final result of the election and make all relevant appointments before issuing a statement.

“This had the serendipitous effect of allowing for a cooling-off period,” she said.

Ugly side of T&T

Weekes said the 2020 general election flipped Trinidad and Tobago over and exposed what can be described as “its ugly underbelly”.

Generally, and particularly at Carnival, cricket and public holidays, citizens present a reasonable facsimile of perfect harmony, she said. But the recent election laid bare seething tensions that have simmered between ethnicities, in particular Indo-Trinbagonians and Afro-Trinbagonians, albeit below the surface, she said.

“The lead-up to the election and its immediate aftermath saw political differences couched in vitriolic racist rants, complete with the most foul language. Because we supported one party, we cursed, insulted and demonised supporters of other parties, often people we never met, tarring them with the same all-purpose brush; notwithstanding that we all know, and have interacted with, individuals who do not conform to our offensive racist stereotypes. While some of these exchanges may have taken place at close quarters, social media provided a convenient and safe vehicle from which to launch attacks. Even while not considering ourselves racist, we were prepared to spew at strangers things we would never say face-to-face. The anonymity offered by the keyboard allowed us to vent, we thought without consequence, and we did not have to witness the shock and hurt we caused to unidentified persons,” she said.

President Weekes said she noted that numerous organisations, prominent individuals and the man in the street called for supporters of the main parties to stop their toxic exchanges, put aside their differences and come together since all have to live in Trinidad and Tobago and their personal trajectory was very much tied to that of the country.

“These appeals are proof positive of the many patriots who will speak up in support of and defend our twin-island Republic when circumstances warrant,” she said.

Leading the charge

The President said she was now prepared to lead the charge in developing a programme to erase racism, starting from the root.

She said, “Our only hope of treating with this scourge once and for all is to attack it at the root, recognising that it is the result of our histories—our origin, our arrival, our incorporation into the society and our politics. One-off initiatives, such as the one organised this weekend by The University of the West Indies in collaboration with the Catholic Commission for Social Justice, are a good start, but by their very nature, will not suffice as a long-term solution.”

Weekes said a practical and sustainable programme under the umbrella of a national framework must be developed with all urgency. The programme, she said, must be adequately resourced and have established protocols formulated with contributions from all sectors.

She said a foundation of accurate, historical information was critical and safe spaces needed to be created to facilitate the conversations, which ought to be cross-generational.

“Vital to the success of the programme is a single coherent scheme with digestible modules which can be disaggregated for use in schools—from early childhood to secondary—universities, workplaces, places of worship and other fora where citizens congregate,” she said.

Every individual, she said, also has a responsibility in tackling discrimination in the meantime.

The president identified the use of Christian prayers at secular events and assemblies, where there were invariably people of other faiths.

“I do not think that having individual prayers said by representatives of multiple religions is the solution. I recommend that, where appropriate, non-denominational invocations acceptable to all religions are used. We must always opt for inclusivity and be alert to the possibility of giving inadvertent offence in our day-to-day affairs,” she said.