Race and Racism
By Ravi Dev
December 3, 2006
In Guyana, we have been very generous with the use of the word “race”. This is another legacy of the British, whose discursive practices, to serve their own ends, defined us as “the land of six races”. Many Guyanese in the pre-independence era actually boasted about this label: that in this scheme, a Portuguese were a different “race” from “Europeans” did not seem to have signalled that the classification was intended to literally “keep us in our places”. To a large degree, much of the talk on race today still serves to do precisely that.
"Race" has been a very fluid, changing concept, and it is not coincidental that the modern usage of the term is bound up with the history of the West Indies – “race” and “African slavery” are modern twins, as are “White” and “Black” racial categories. The early civilisations did not distinguish so much on "race" as we know it today, as they did on cultural characteristics as, for example, the “Barbarians” of the Greeks.
All classifications are based on some scheme that presupposes some value. During the Nineteenth Century, the European classificatory schemes of science were imbued with the evolutionary paradigm proposed by Darwin in "The Origin of Species". All living things were now all part of the great “chain of being”. This classificatory vision dictated hierarchical ordering of phenomena and objects, from the plants of Linneaus to the atoms of Mendelev. Everything was now automatically arranged as "higher" or "lower" in the minds of the common man, race included. A classification, we must always remember, is an analytic tool. It is supposed to assist us in understanding the phenomena it organises, and maybe having some predictive value. In itself, distinguishing between individuals on physical or other criteria should not pose any trouble. the problem arises when we make a social evaluation of the physical characteristics.
And this is just what the classification of mankind into “races” has been used for, mostly by the Whites, from the Eighteenth Century onwards - to define peoples into “lower” and “higher” categories to justify the enslavement, colonisation and division of the world into empires, over which they ruled. Race was a key concept formulated during the Seventeenth Century, and as we said, it arose during the rise of modern slavery, in which the “Negro race”of people were the main victims. The concept of race was used as one of many hegemonic elements in a discourse to convince the subjugated groups to accept their subordinate condition; after all, the “inferior” races were being done a favour as the White man laboured mightily to lift up his "burden". At its logical conclusion, it was used to justify the extermination of whole groups of people, since if evolutionary theory showed that only the "fittest" survived, maybe it was the duty of the self-selected fittest to move the process along. While conquerors have always concluded that the conquered were in some way inferior, it was the first time that the reasons for the inferiority were given as physical characteristics. This invidious notion of race still survives in Guyana, and it is this usage that must be eradicated. If calls for an “African Renaissance” are intended for Africans to accomplish this task, all Guyanese must support them.
In Guyana, race has been used in the invidious sense from the moment the Europeans arrogantly announced that they “discovered the New World” – implying that the Amerindians living here were not “civilised” enough to appreciate their own existence. This premise was used to justify the seizure of the land of the Amerindians, and papered over the raw use of naked force that accomplished the conquest of groups such as the Incas and Aztecs, that had very advanced civilisations. This discourse encompassed all other non-white groups as the colonial expansion spread exponentially, and is the beginning of “racism”, in the modern sense of the word.
Race and racism were born as inseparable twins: racism could never be disjunctured from race (in the sense that the latter could merely be a neutral descriptive term). The paradigmatic use of racism, of course, was intended to justify the slavery of Africans, after the Spanish clerics purported to discover vestiges of a soul in the Amerindians (after they died off like flies and proved unwilling to labour for the Europeans) as so possibly capable of receiving salvation. The Africans were adjudged to be beyond this pale, and this became part and parcel of the canonical wisdom of the “European Enlightenment”. It is for this reason that while we abjure the use of race as a classificatory tool, we cannot tell especially Africans to “forget about race,” when all over the world anti-African racism is so much part and parcel of “civilised thinking,” and they suffer the quotidian consequences. This, of course, does not justify Africans practising racism on other groups.
To maintain consistency with the overriding need to define themselves as a superior group, the Europeans in Guyana performed all sorts of semantic convolutions, as we hinted earlier. The categories of race, supposedly immutable, were adjusted in the colonial milieu as needed, and terms such as “Caucasian,”used by the British in other contexts were jettisoned, since they could have lumped them with the Portuguese and, horror of horrors, the Indians! The Portuguese, were not even classified by the geographical term “European” by the British colonials, since this would have hinted at the commonality of race. While some may say that the distinction was on account of their different ethnicity, because Portuguese were culturally and religiously distinct from the British, especially in the early phase of their entry into Guyana, French and Dutch nationals etc were lumped as “Europeans. The biological/genetic commonalities that would have rationally collapsed Portuguese into the "White" group were dismissed by the social imperatives, simply because they came as indentured servants.
The dominant Europeans oppressed all non-White groups, to one degree or another, based on “race”. Not in the sense that the non-whites were merely disliked by the White majority (exhibiting prejudice or racial discrimination), but that they were forced into certain roles by it, roles of subservience that have led to collective psychic damage that persists into the present. There was differential treatment of the various “races,” that led to deep-seated divisions as groups scrampled for the masters' favour. Where the principle of domination (stated or unstated) of the use of power is based on race, it is racism. As one commentator noted, "Racism is racial discrimination backed by the power and resources to effect unequal outcomes based on race." And this is one of the major legacies of our racist past that has to be eradicated in the construction of a just and democratic Guyanese state. All Guyanese must work for the elimination of racism in all its manifestations.