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I have been following the discussion of Ms. Walton-Desir’s comment that PPP supporters are “mentally lazy”. If the PPP claims it is a multiethnic party, then Walton-Desir’s remarks cannot be aimed at the East Indian supporters of that Party. The very strong reaction from PPP supporters and organisations supporting that party, indicates that they inferred that Ms. Walton-Desir was sublimely referring only to the East Indian supporters of the party. There is no greater evidence of the parlous state of race relations in Guyana.
Walton-Desir’s comments lead to the PPP supported Indian Arrival Committee calling for her to be taken before the Ethnic Relations Commission. I have also been the victim of such an orchestrated attack. I recall my book, Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana, being taken before the ERC in 2003 for expressing my opinions on racism in Guyana. There were some African-Guyanese who were uncomfortable with my opinions, but many Indo-Guyanese were uncomfortable and offended. Others, assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner, demanded that I should be punished and dismissed from my academic post at the University of the West Indies. Imitating their medieval precursors, they demanded that my book should be banned and that I be imprisoned.” However, as a convinced adherent of free expression, I stood my ground then, and I will stand my ground in the future.
I interpreted Ms. Walton-Desir’s comment as PPP supporters were uncritically accepting whatever political views that they were fed. Now, the world knows that is true not only for Guyana but also beyond, particularly for the Republican Party of Donald Trump in the United States. In this connection, those who oppose Ms. Walton-Desir, and those who would want her persecuted should submit themselves to the famous saying by Voltaire: “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This would have been the enlightened thing to do – but enlightenment is a rare commodity these days in Guyana. And maybe other Africans did the same – but some East Indians were personally offended. And this is because Ms. Walton-Desir – I would say unknowingly – misapplied a stereotype that East Indians apply to Africans: Africans are “lazy” – a useful stereotype for exclusion.
Why should a seemingly rational statement by Walton-Desir have such a response? The answer lies in our history. The stereotypes “lazy and idle” were applied by the British colonizers to Africans because of their refusal to continue to work on the sugar estates following emancipation in 1838, and consequently the term was adopted by East Indians in relation to Africans. East Indians became locked in the plantation environment and were stereotyped by the British as “people of the land”. Amerindians, who were used as slave catchers during slavery, were no longer useful with the abolition of slavery. Thus, rather than being incorporated into coastal society, they were called “children of the forest” and banished to reservations. The stereotyping of the various ethnic groups was the British strategy of divide and rule for purposes of protection and more importantly, prosperity. They thus controlled the society by pitting the various ethnic groups against each other based on alleged cultural differences in relation to the land. Guyana obtained independence from Britain in 1966 and here we are in 2021 – 55 years later – still divided, struggling with poverty, and enduring the latest bout of exploitation now being conducted by oil companies of wealthy countries.
Prof. Kean Gibson