In the feature address I gave on May 30, 1990 at the memorial service for my late friend Indar Jit Bahadur Singh of Tunapuna and India, I said this: “We must make a start by communicating better and by speaking to one another instead of shouting at one another. If we remain within our separate bunkers, there will be no solution... (We would merely be taking actions) that run the risk of leading only to a re-drawing of the battle lines and a hardening of attitudes. In such an atmosphere, we all lose.” I was speaking about race.
Nearly 25 years later, and after several more appeals from me and others, what has changed, except to get worse? Race remains one of our biggest bugbears. It will remain so until we face it and deal with it frontally instead of sweeping it under the nearest floor mat with shallow phrases like “All ah we is one” and “our multiracial society” and “our rainbow nation”, then pretending it isn’t there.
Bewilderingly, I have been called a racist for daring to raise the subject. And I have had my share of racism. The incident that sticks out in my mind was when in 1977 a prominent citizen of Indian origin told me that my appointment as this country’s High Commissioner to India was “a slap by Eric Williams in the face of the Indians” (by which he meant our compatriots of Indian origin). I kept my calm; I was a guest in his house.
The effects of our flight from reality emerged again recently from their hiding-place following the remarks by Fitzgerald Hinds on Keith Rowley’s skin shade. Hinds is Rowley’s ally—his departure from the Senate last year was for me nothing more than a diversionary move—and what he said was clearly aimed at rallying troops within the PNM against certain perceived anti-Rowley forces. How that party confronts the issue is something we will view with interest. But Hinds’ statement has wider societal implications, and it’s simply not good enough to dismiss it as mischievous, or its publication as tasteless.
In the past we have among other things said we weren’t ready for an “Indian Prime Minister”. We have criticised Hilton Sandy—I was one of those who did—for his “Calcutta ship” jibe. We have demonised Eric Williams for his reference to “a recalcitrant and hostile minority”, confidently interpreting it to mean all people of Indian origin (a charge which Williams emphatically refutes in his autobiography). What we have not done is sit and reflect and discuss dispassionately.
In March 2011, on the 50th anniversary of Williams’ “Massa day done” speech in Woodford Square, I wrote a series of articles entitled “Is Massa day done?” I quoted one of the things Williams said that night: “Massa still lives, with his backward ideas of the aristocracy of the skin.” And I asked: “Does (this aristocracy) still exist today? Do people still see themselves, and are they seen, as ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ depending on how Caucasian they look —the shade of their skin or the kind of nose or hair they have? Does this in any way influence advancement in the workplace?” If we didn’t then, we know the answers now, don’t we.
Hinds said he was repeating what a former PNM cabinet minister had told him. The irony, the irony. The founder of the PNM had inveighed against the “backward” belief that the less black your skin was, the better you were. Now, more than half-a-century later, a senior PNMite was apparently confirming that that very backwardness has now infected the party. A party that others in the society would call (perhaps still call) the “Pure Nigger Movement”! To such depths has Williams fallen within his own political creation.
Not only the PNM has regressed. One organisation holds an annual “Miss Naturally Fair” Queen pageant; unfairly, every skin tone does not find an equal place. And I remember a census officer demurring when I said “black” in response to her query on my complexion. “That doesn’t sound good,” she told me. “I’ll put ‘dark’.” Naturally dark, I assume.
Not only T&T has regressed. The “white” ideal is now increasingly what the non-white world strives after. In India, skin-lightening creams fly off the shelves (but a counter-movement has begun in that country); in Jamaica and in Africa, the same pattern prevails; African-America leads the pack. How much of our valuable foreign exchange in T&T, I wonder, is spent on such imports, not to mention the tons of straight and curly hair? And let’s not forget Japan, where young women have operations to make their eyes look “Western”.
We have been irretrievably branded by colonialism, it seems; more and more, we see ourselves through the eyes of the white West. The independence of mind, the determination, that many of us had 50, even 30, years ago is vanishing fast; the mentality of slave and indentured labourer and colonial is re-asserting itself.
In T&T we still cling like pathetic limpets to a Privy Council that has more than once made clear its considerable irritation with our continued and unwelcome presence. As for the erratic miscellany some call a West Indies cricket team, its multimillionaire members have strayed far, far away from the resolve of Worrell and Lloyd and Richards and their men. Dedication has been replaced by materialism, self-esteem by bling. Even Ireland —Ireland!—knows that.
Massa is alive and well. He never really left, and he has now delightedly re-surfaced in a different guise, to join the local Massas (PNM and other) of various races and hues. The socio-economic and political implications of this phenomenon are already manifesting themselves; they will become more evident. No problem; we have pools of all kinds in which to immerse ourselves.
As for me, I expect to be once again pilloried as a racist.
• Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador and a former head of the public service