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What do I tell children about race?

There has been within recent times what I interpret to be an avalanche of public bickering on racial issues in Trinidad and Tobago.

While I feel strongly about the context and the circumstances through which this discussion came to be on the public agenda I am very concerned about the messaging it is sending and the coding that it is introducing to students in the classrooms of T&T.

I have heard many high profile individuals, some religious leaders, almost all the politicians and quite a number of average everyday people voice opinions and take positions on what such a discussion would mean, could mean, will do and can do for the mosaic of peoples and cultures that is T&T. Without it being explicitly said by anyone, I am driven to conclude that as a society there is some underlying or assumed fragility about race that makes us afraid to discuss this topic with openness, honesty and proactivity.

There is no denying that our unique history— with the influencing elements of colonialism, slavery and indentureship—has resulted in the development of our society into what it is today. In that context the notion of varied races is an inextricable ingredient in the multi-mix that is Trinidad and Tobago. In many instances and in far reaching places of the globe this aspect of our identity defines who we are as a people and as a society, and has engendered in us a sense of pride and prestige, particularly because of the perceived peaceful and harmonious ways of living and manner of interaction that characterises our existence and our growth, development and prosperity as a nation.

One radio talk show host said that the "days for being racial are gone" and that it is time for us as citizens of Trinidad and Tobago to "move on".

While these views were made in a political context, I believe that there is merit in adopting that approach even beyond political expectations and aspirations.

My personal difficulty however lies with us actually understanding exactly what is meant by the two quotes above. Can individuals really discard and "move on" from a construct such as race as easily as one can speak about doing such? Will human nature allow us that autonomy? If it will, with what construct will race and being racial be replaced?

All the above having been said and asked, the fact that a spectrum of crosstalk has emerged from this "unfortunate" incident, as it has come to be described, forces me to consider how this is all being received by the most vulnerable in our society—our children and our students. There is no disputing that what schools produce, society inherits but it is true also that the actions, behaviours, utterances and attitudes of those in society can have lasting impact and influence on young impressionable minds. The simple fact that emotions are running high on this tells me that there is common knowledge and understanding amongst us all that the issue of race in Trinidad and Tobago is one about which we are very uncomfortable and one which we prefer not to interrogate, confront or discuss.

As a parent and as a teacher educator interacting with students, but most importantly as a Trinbagonian, I am forced, in light of recent events, to ask of those individuals who have voiced opinions on the Sandy comment, what do I say to my children. What do I say to the students in the classrooms of Trinidad and Tobago? Do I say that there is no race issue in Trinidad and Tobago? Do I say that there is a race issue, but we must treat it behind closed doors and with delicacy? Do I say that tolerance is the way to go? Do I say to them that they should recognise difference, but respect it? Do I say difference is good in some instances but not in all cases? Do I say that it is alright for your thinking to be tinted with prejudice but that it is unacceptable to verbally articulate such thinking? Do I say here in Trinidad and Tobago, every creed and race find an equal place, whether I believe it or not?

I would like to know – what do I say to my children and to my students when they ask me about race in Trinidad and Tobago?

Dr Rawatee

Maharaj-Sharma

via e-mail

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