• 24 Jun, 2024

Former President Granger claimed “coolie” is not a racist word

Former President Granger claimed “coolie” is not a racist word

Former President Granger claimed “coolie” is not a racist word

There is a very heated debate in Guyana about whether a new Opposition PNC Member of Parliament – a lawyer with a background of working in a government corporation associated with the Prime Minister Sam Hinds - was “racist”.

In attempting to explain political participation in Guyana, she claimed that the ruling PPP party supporters are “mentally lazy”, in contrast to PNC supporters who were presumably more mentally adept.


Photo : Ravi Dev 

This writer has long held – and supported by evidence from a welter of academic fields ranging from anthropology to sociology – that Guyanese generally evaluate each other based on ethnic stereotypes. In Guyana it is a trite observation that "PPP supporters" and "PNC supporters" are euphemisms for "Indian Guyanese" and "African Guyanese". To argue otherwise, as Ms Desir attempted to do, was being quite disingenuous.

Back in 2017, I wrote an article under the above caption which I will quote in toto to show that it's all about stereotypes that undergird the narratives that Guyanese use to describe each other:

“A month ago, President David Granger’s Public Information and Press Services Officer Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett wrote in a leaked private Facebook conversation: “I got people in my office, so I cannot listen to Les vn (voice note) yet. Well, she was in here making sure to try to turn my staff against me. She don’t know these coolie. They still friendsing she while kissing my a**.”

Granger promised investigation and action

Reacting to charges that Ms Garrett was “racist” because of her usage of the word “coolie”, and she should be disciplined, President Granger promised to conduct “an investigation” and take action. Last week, one newspaper reported he had concluded: “…the word that was actually used was not done with any malice … many people are aware of the language we speak in Guyana and you mustn’t try to separate it from the context in which it was used.” According to the paper, he then made “reference to a recent article written by Ravi Dev in one of the daily newspapers in which the same word allegedly spoken by Garrett was used.”

The article referred was on the Devonshire Castle killings of 1872, “Killing Coolies”. It is ironic that even while insisting that context is crucial to discern the import of words, Mr Granger, a trained historian could still equate my use of the word “coolie” with Ms Garrett’s. At the time of the Devonshire Castle killings, the British routinely referred to the Indian immigrants as “coolies”, much as they had used the word “niggers” to African slaves, to deny their humanity. After listing the eight other instances when the Indian immigrants were shot in cold blood by the State (“the leaden argument”) when they were protesting the violation of their conditions of labour, I concluded sarcastically and bitterly: “They were just coolies.”

As to whether Ms Garrett’s usage of “coolie” was racist in her context, does not depend on whether she had “malice”. She attributed a negative social trait (“kissing asses”) to an individual based on her race (“these coolie”) and asserted that unlike her African Guyanese colleague who was evidently naïve, she knew “coolies” well enough to discern their deviousness beyond their apparent bonhomie (“friendsing she”). This is almost the classic British definition of “the coolie” in the 19th century, when even their sworn evidence in court could not be trusted.

Ms Garrett who works for the President

But to give Ms Garrett the benefit of the doubt at this stage, we can conclude she is at least “prejudiced” - a condition, her personal experiences might have stimulated. To be “racist”, this prejudice must have been so naturalised with her (and the coterie to which she was communicating) that she is beyond self-critical interrogation of her assessment when speaking either to, or about Indians. It is just taken for granted: “that’s just how those people are”. That Ms Garrett had an extensive stint at the Ethnic Relations Committee, which did not disabuse her from using the world “coolie” with the meaning based on fixed essences of a group of people, confirms the normalisation.


Copyrights : Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett (Stabroek News) 

But even with this second level of scrutiny, we can still give Ms Garrett the benefit of the doubt as to being “racist”. In the US, for instance, it is commonly conceded that Blacks can yell “Honky” all they want coming out of their experiences and their essentialisation of Whites, but they can’t be “racist” since they have no power to oppress the latter. I was in 6th form at Indian Education Trust in 1970 when Stokley Carmichael made that point. It still holds.

But in the case of Ms Garrett, who works for the President of this country, she and the group to which she belongs, have power to oppress others. The negative essentialism she concludes constitutes Indian Guyanese, is given force by her or the group that shares her belief, to normalise and institutionalise oppression of the latter. For instance, since Indians are “coolies” who constitutionally “kiss ass”, Ms Garrett and company can never give “these people” a fair shake in being evaluated in their workplaces or in governmental offices. This is racism. (As a matter of fact, in the same year, President Granger shuttered 4 sugar estates and 7000 mostly Indian Guyanese sugar workers into the breadlines. That’s power!)

The sickest part of this kind of racist oppression, which is what Gayatri Spivak called “epistemic violence” is that it not only silences some “Indian Guyanese”, but some of them accept being the “coolie” as they are defined, and become even more adept at “ass kissing”. We see them every day.

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