On August 30 this year, in what was for some the immediate afterglow of the results of the general election on August 10, and the depression for others, our attention was called to an event at St Augustine campus of The University of the West Indies.
Many of us had by then got engaged in heated discussions about the state of racial animosity, one major group versus another. This was based on a clear case of overwhelming disappointment from a young lady who felt a severe sense of loss that her side did not triumph at the polls, as she clearly had expected. She called people names. She was unable to hold back the anger and the sense of devastation she felt as a result.
Her animus triggered days of mud-slinging, one person to another, in the traditional as well as the so-called social media, so much so that it led to the staging of this seminar at the campus. It was titled “Understanding and Reconciling Race Relations in Trinidad and Tobago”.
There was an impressive line-up of speakers. They included rights advocate, academic and gender equality campaigner Prof Rhoda Reddock; chairperson of the Equal Opportunity Commission Justice Donna Prowell-Raphael; clinical psychologist Dr Katija Khan; president of the Media Association Dr Sheila Rampersad; writer and cultural historian Dr Raymond Ramcharitar; political scientist Dr Bishnu Ragoonath; and justice advocate and campaigner Leela Ramdeen. It was held under the auspices of the Faculty of Law at the campus, and presided over by the faculty’s dean, Prof Rose-Marie Belle-Antoine.
In addition to all that was said, written and talked about, what is important is that the organisers posted petitions to interested parties, asking for them to put down in writing their own personal experiences with racism and racial discrimination in Trinidad and Tobago.
It would be extremely useful to find out what has been the response to this invitation, because the one-day gathering at the campus would never have been nearly sufficient to plumb the depths of racial sentiments prevalent in our midst. They tend to surface most prominently around election time, but they remain dormant in hearts and in our minds, despite the best efforts of those who know how to bring them out into the light and in the open, so they can be addressed for exactly what they are.
We continue to suppress this instinct, while at the same time we go about calling each other names, sometimes dressed up in ideological, class or other sectional disguises.
But within months of that event in the backwash of the election and its results, we are faced with another incident in which a medical doctor is caught on tape revealing his true feelings about those he sees as inferior to him. Before that, we remember there was the lady objecting to her cable television provider about the kind of local programming she was being offered, as distinct from that which was her preference. She couldn’t care less about what some leading personalities had to say, notwithstanding the position they hold in the society.
With his publication in 1972 entitled “Race and Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago”, the now-retired Professor Selwyn Ryan produced what has been described as research and analysis coming from “one of the most exciting laboratories for the study of race relations”. We have been tiptoeing around this issue for dangerously too long now, but bit by bit it is coming to haunt us, pushing its way into the open, as if barking at us that something is wrong here and we better set about fixing it, if at all it can be.
We are not alone. And this itself ought to provide us with the courage to begin systematically addressing our house, as so many in different parts of the world are reaping their own whirlwinds born of racial and ethnic rivalry of one kind or another. Current developments in China, India, in Myanmar, across large swaths of the Middle East, in Eastern Europe and in parts of South America, the situation is the same. In the US, it is what led to the rise of what we now call Trumpism, as part-counter to the Obama presidency.
It is time, therefore, to recall the aspirations for what led to the formation of the Centre for Ethnic Studies, on the inspiration of the late prime minister Patrick Manning. This was partly how we had responded to the challenges we envisioned at the dawn of the 21st century. What happened with it, exactly why it stuttered and stalled after barely getting off the ground, we must make sense of it, and summon up the will to go again.
We just cannot continue to exist in this deep sense of national denial, on a fire stick which keeps reminding us it is waiting there, either to be effectively doused, or to ignite at the right moment, by virtue of a wilful lack of attention.
• Andy Johnson is
a veteran journalist