Monday, 30 November 2009:
It’s midnight and the eight around the table are speaking too loudly for the hour. There’s reggae for background, and the discussion about race is animated by free-flowing rum. We eight are part of the group that have been together at conferences through the past nine days. Tonight, the exhausting pace is finally over; thus the celebratory rum.
I had been partly responsible for setting the dicussion off, by asking, “What typically happens when an Indian girl goes out with an African boy?”
Trinidad’s population comprises two major race groups: those of mainly African descent, and those of East Indian descent. Generally speaking, the Africans were brought to the island as slaves and the East Indians, in the 19th Century, as indentured labourers.
Anton said it would be no problem at all, he even suggested it might be quite fashionable. Kareem strongly disagreed. “In Port of Spain, it may be no big deal, but go to the south [of the island] where the Indians are more numerous, and it is a different story.”
“The parents would object?” I hazarded a guess.
“The parents will tell the girl, ‘Don’t even think about bringing that Black boy home again.'”
Anton was not convinced. “Naw, that’s the exception, man.”
“Some of my classmates, they went south for a project,” Kareem got emphatic. “They came back almost in tears. The racism they saw there was unbelievable.”
Beverley was more interested in the cultural differences between Indians and Africans. Though light-coloured herself, she seemed to identify as part of the African group, saying something about how the Indians and Syrians have monopolised business. “The problem is that the Africans will never unite or help each other. When an Indian builds a house, other Indians will lend a hand. When an African builds a house, others come in as thieves to steal the materials.”
I thought that was way too stereotypical, but strangely, nobody else objected to her characterisation. Quite possibly though, no one really noticed, because they were all talking at the same time, offering their own views about the racial situation in Trinidad.
Undeterred, Beverley went on: “The problem is that the African here has lost his culture. Being deported as slaves broke the connection with the culture. But I’m not only blaming the Europeans; the fact is that it was Africans who first enslaved Africans and then sold them to the Europeans.”
She said more, mostly drowned out by the rest making their own points, before I heard her say, “Look at Africa. In all of history, have they ever united?”
“Well, that is a colonialistic way of looking at the question,” I chimed in. “Using the category of ‘African’ that is. That comes from the perspective of the European.”
I suspected that no one really understood me, so I tried harder. “I mean, why should the Zulus see the Fulani as less foreign as the English? Why should the Ibo see the Shona, Tutsi or the Kikuyu as any less foreign as the Germans or the Egyptians?”
Monica, here for the conference from Botswana, caught my drift. “Ya, why should I, as Batswana, see any affinity with other ethnic groups from other parts of Africa?”
Beverley persisted. “That’s just it. The Africans are fighting each other all the time. Other people can manage to unite, like the Indians, for example.”
Siddharth from Bangalore, India, was thoroughly amused. “But Indians fight each other all the time too.”
Somebody, I think it was Anton, pointed out a flaw in Beverley’s analysis. “But India is not united, if you consider the whole subcontinent. There’s Pakistan and so on.”
“Impicit in all this,” I ventured, though I wasn’t sure who was listening to me anymore, “is the belief that racial unity is the key to progress or advanced culture or whatnot, but I’ll give you one racial group that has never really been united: Europeans. And they aren’t the worse for it, are they?”
By now, the discussion, if you can call it that, had drifted far from the topic I was interested in – the racial and ethnic complexities of Trinidad. The way the conversation, robust but good natured, was going, it was unlikely I would learn anything more. I soon decided to bid good night to the group and went to bed.
* * * * *
It had struck me on my second day in Trinidad that, at least for Trinidadians of African decent (or partly African, for many are mixed to varying extent) the Black-White divide is still a little raw. At the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth People’s Forum, the cultural segment following the formal speeches included calypso, but all the songs chosen referred in some way to the Black-White racial divide. I thought it was a strange choice, especially when there were delegates from White Commonwealth countries, such as the UK, Canada and Australia. Then I read the program notes and learnt that in calypso, the lyrics are usually social commentary. If that’s the case, it appears to suggest that race is still considered something worth commenting about, and quite possibly, the best calyso works – and thus chosen to be showcased – may be the ones on this theme.
Yet, it’s not as if there is a noticeable White minority enjoying special privileges in Trinidad anymore. The visible racial groups are the Africans (and partial Africans), the Indians and a small community of Chinese. How does one explain the way social commentary foregrounds the oppressive or patronising behaviour of a racial group that is not present in the country today in any significant way?
* * * * *
Unlike the conference delegates from Trinidad and Tobago, Sheldon was from a very different social class. He was the night guard at the hotel we stayed in. I chatted with him a few times, not without difficulty because the less educated Black Trinidadians speak a tonal and condensed form of English, with unique syntax rules that can be extremely difficult to decipher.
“How is crime?” I asked him.
“It’s bad,” he said and went on to tell me about shootings and muggings.
“What’s the police doing about it?”
“Nothing. The police, they are the problem. They don’t do nothing. They ask for money, them do.”
I asked about drugs. Weed (marijuana) is apparently widely available. Even schoolboys smoke it.
“So what’s the government doing about all these problems?” I wanted to probe his view of politics.
“They cannot do anything about it.”
“Why not? They are the government? Aren’t they supposed to do something about such things as crime and drugs?”
“These are society problems,” was his explanation, reiterated a few times in slightly different forms. He appeared to attribute these social problems to moral failings of the individuals involved, to the lack of social and cultural censure and such like, all the while resisting the idea that the government should be faulted for this state of affairs.
A few days later, I checked with Colin, a fellow participant at the conference I was attending. Black Trinidadian himself, but far more educated than Sheldon, he confirmed what I suspected.
In Trinidad, there are two main political parties. One is more identified with the African or partly-African community, the other with the East Indian community. The former has a majority in Parliament and forms the government.
Sheldon, who is African, probably saw the ruling party and government chiefly as protectors of his racial group. That’s what a political party is for, to defend the racial group’s interests. Doing things like ensuring security, delivering social services or promoting economic growth may be quite secondary. If things aren’t right, blame is ascribed to “society” or others’ moral failure, rather than to the ruling party.
But then the result is a government that is not held responsible for delivering the public goods they are there for.
Here then may be an instructive lesson about the dangers of race-based politics, a lesson that is surely applicable to any multi-ethnic country.