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Racism has always been a difficult problem to discuss, much less attack. Regardless, ongoing events around the world, including in Guyana, have, once again, brought the issue of racism to the forefront of the minds of political and social observers as well as the attention of many ordinary citizens. The recent disregard of the human rights of a number of Haitian nationals — predominantly black people — at the hands of Guyanese authorities has, with good reason, elicited widespread outrage. Similarly, President Irfaan Ali’s refusal to meet with the Leader of the Opposition Mr. Joseph Harmon, or even acknowledge Mr. Harmon’s constitutional office has also added fuel to the racial fire.
It has been pointed out by various analysts that President’s Ali’s obstinacy is of particular interest and concern. That is so because, the president is on record, repeatedly calling for racial and national unity even as he, officials of his government, and many of his party’s followers act in ways that directly undermine and erode the possibility of such unity, and, in the process, hinders individual, community, and national development. All peoples are affected and should be offended by those indisputable realities. As such, everyone has a duty to speak out against all forms of injustice, particularly racial prejudice and unfairness.
The ongoing racially-based discrimination being observed in the U.S., particularly during the Donald Trump presidency, the unjust treatment of Palestinians in the Middle East, the caste system in India, and the marginalisation of many indigenous peoples around the world are but a few examples of racism, and serve to illustrate the widespread, deeply-rooted, and virtually universal nature of the scourge. While the majority of Guyanese may be powerless to affect the course of events in the international community, perhaps, Guyanese can aspire to change our own attitudes, thereby, contributing to the development of our own country.
Racism is, according to the Oxford dictionaries, “the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioural traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different race or ethnicity. Modern variants of racism are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These views can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems in which different races are ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities. While science has definitively and conclusively proven the fallacy of the existence of biological races; racial biases are so deeply entrenched that they have, so far, resisted all efforts at eradication. That is most unfortunate since racism has been known to be the cause such deep fractures in society as to result directly in absolute developmental stagnation.
Sadly, racism may be largely misunderstood, thereby hampering the fight against it. On December 2, author and historian Ibram X. Kendi made the case that much of the conventional thinking about racism misses the point. First, he argued, it is power and policy, and not people, that keep racism firmly entrenched in society.
During an online conversation sponsored by the Yale Alumni Association, Kendi began by confronting the notion of what makes a person “racist.” He showed that racism has long been regarded as part of a person’s identity, he noted that if someone supports a policy disenfranchising Black voters, and is called out, their typical response is “I’m not racist.” “They understand ‘racist’ and ‘not racist’ as fixed categories,” he said. “‘This is who I am,” such persons would respond.
That concept, argued Kendi, is incorrect; the term “racist,” he said, should instead be understood as a descriptor. “It literally describes what a person is being in any given moment, based on what they are saying or not saying, doing or not doing.” Further, for too long, Kendi told the audience, society’s understanding of racism has focused on the perpetrators rather than the victims. “We should be outcome-centered and victim-centered,” he said. “If a policy is leading to racial injustice, it doesn’t really matter if the policymaker intended for that policy to lead to racial injustice. If an idea is suggesting that white people are superior, it doesn’t really matter if the expressor of that idea intended for that idea to connote white superiority.” If we train our focus on outcomes and victims, Kendi said, “intention will become irrelevant.” In other words, it does not matter if a person — or government — intends a decision or act to discriminate on the basis of race, rather, if the result is discrimination, then, that decision or act is racist.
The foregoing is especially relevant in Guyana’s context because Guyana’s major ethnic groups are aligned along political parties. As such, if the ruling party — which happens to be supported by a particular racial group — fires public servants from the opposing party, while hiring workers from among their own ranks, then, the result would necessarily be racial. And, since no country can make progress while half of it’s population is being systematically victimised, Guyana will not develop unless policies and power-distributions are radically changed.
While one may do little to “change the world;” Guyanese can certainly aspire to change our own thoughts and actions. According to University of Guyana (UG) Lecturer and Psychologist Wil Campbell, “It is important to judge people based on their merits, and the content of their character” not on their ethnicity.” Regarding racism and the lack of development The psychologist said, “We all know the common adage ‘united we stand; divided we fall.’ So, if one group feels only what they feel is right or only what they think is valuable or valid and marginalises others who are helping to build the country with them; then the country is going to be weaker.” That may be the most important lesson that Guyanese need to learn.