This article was first published on the 1st of July, 2020 by Patrick Carpen.
People often ask me, “what is racism like in Guyana?” Having lived in Guyana for over 30 years, and having traveled across all ten regions of the country of Guyana, I think I am qualified to write on this subject. Nevertheless, the views expressed in this article are based on my personal experiences, and different people may have different views based on their personal experiences. That being said, I think I have an adequately wide scope of experiences to be able to address the question from an unbiased perspective.
Before going any further, I’d like to note that racism, tribalism and nationalism are inherent human tendencies. It dates back to primitive human survival. You’ve often heard the term, “birds of a feather flock together.” Well, humans are no different. We often see countries of predominately white, black or brown people. In human history, many wars were fought on the basis of race or ethnicity alone, and at that time, the only way to identify the enemy was by the way they looked. I’ll discuss this more in another article. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.
We are taught in schools that Guyana is a land of six races, but upon scrutiny, I can only identify 5 races in Guyana. That is because the Portuguese is listed in textbooks as a separate race from the Europeans even though Portugal is a country in Europe. Upon investigation, I gather that this was probably done to distinguish the working class Portuguese of mixed heritage who came to work as indentured laborers on the sugar plantations from the ruling class “pure white” European plantation owners. Personally, I think this classification leaves a bit of a contradiction and needs refinement.
The first people, the Amerindians, who were here centuries before the Europeans, are perceived to be the least racial group in my opinion. They readily intermingle and intermarry with other races in Guyana and hold little to no prejudice against other races. But even so, Amerindian history has shown that they have had their fair share of tribal wars among themselves.
The Chinese, in my opinion, are the most silently racial group. Chinese rarely intermarry or intermingle with other races in Guyana, and when that happens, they are very likely seen as outcasts. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, and perhaps even today, the Chinese have used Guyana as a transit point to the United States – setting up Chinese restaurants where they worked while applying for a visa to the USA. With the rise of China, Chinese now own many businesses across Guyana, but except for business purposes, they mostly keep to themselves.
The Europeans, or whites, are smallest in number in the country of Guyana. Most whites migrated back to Europe after Guyana’s Independence. There are still a few whites left in the country, but perhaps less than 1%. The whites are perceived as the ruling class although strong anti-white sentiments have been rising and dropping like the ocean waves in Guyana on the basis of the abuses of slavery and, to a lesser extend, indentureship, during colonial times.
The East Indians make up Guyana’s largest ethnic group. And while many East Indians are unaware or refuse to accept the fact, “East Indian” is more of a nationality than a race. If you study the history of India, you will learn that most East Indians are a mixture of the Caucasian, Arab and Tamil (black) races. The mixtures vary considerably from family to family, group to group and person to person. That is the reason that East Indians’ skin color are so widely varying. Nevertheless, East Indians in Guyana generally identify as “the East Indian Race.”
The Africans, Guyana’s second largest ethnic group, were brought against their will to work as slaves in the plantations during colonial times. Harsh treatment was meted out to them. As a result of the abolition of slavery in 1838, the Africans celebrate emancipation on August 1st each year. There has been a power struggle between East Indians and Africans for political leadership since Guyana’s 1966 Independence from Britain. The political leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan is considered one of the Champions of the East Indian race, having been dubbed the “father of the nation,” while Mr. Forbes Burnham is considered one of the champions of the African race, having ruled the country by a dictatorship for several decades.
While racism has been dying across Guyana and many groups have been advocating harmony among the races, pockets of resistance still exist. The problem is not as bad as it was in the 1960’s, but as I mentioned, racism is an inherent human trait, and it will take a lot of civilized practices and training for six races to live in harmony and bury their inherent racial tendencies which is often so deeply carved in their DNA.
Special thanks go out to the Ethnic Relations Commission and “Heal Guyana” for the work they have been doing to promote racial harmony in Guyana.
So, what are your experiences or views of racism in Guyana, South America? Tell us in the comments section below.