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The Limitations of Multiculturalism in Trinidad and Tobago

By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 09, 2011

Part I - Part II - Part III

It was an amazing thing. One week after I offered my reservations about the Government's multiculturalism initiative, David Cameron, Prime Minister of Britain, made a scathing attack against his country's approach to what he called "state multiculturalism" at the Munich Security Conference. In doing so, he echoed Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who, in October 2010, called for "the end of multiculturalism" in her country.

Let me add that whatever quarrels I may have with the People's Partnership [PP] approach to multiculturalism, I do not share the racist, jingoistic approach of Cameron and Merkel who are using the negative aspects of multiculturalism to assail Islam which they see as contributing to the spread of terrorism. Cameron's speech was a scathing attack against what he called "Islamic extremism." However, there is some merit to his assertion that "state multiculturalism" allow people "to conduct separate lives and fail[s] to create a sense of community." It is a charge I made against the PP's advocacy of multiculturalism in Trinidad and Tobago.

In my address to the GOPIO at Chaguanas, I argued that the reasons adduced for a multicultural policy in T&T is based on a false premise which can end up disastrously for the country. Just when Chancellor Merkel was speaking about the failure of multiculturalism in her country our Minister of the Arts and Multiculturalism outlined his government's approach to multiculturalism at the Center of Excellence. He noted that it came about because his government recognized that "a large portion of the citizenry [meaning the East Indians] feels itself alienated from sharing in the development of the nation." He did not say why they felt that way.

In light of such alienation his government wanted to foster "a climate of inclusion, equitable distribution of resources and recognition and celebration of cultural diversity." In his short statement, he mentioned the word diversity nine times and national identity once. He never mentioned national consciousness which leads me to conclude that his policy is based on our differences rather than our commonalities sadly highlighting some of Cameron's fears.

In the first instance, the term alienation is used too loosely and is inappropriate within this context. I spend some time in my paper saying why this is so. Suffice it to say that while the Minister argues that the East Indian population may feel separated (not alienated) from the mainstream of what some call "Creole society" he does not pay any attention to the inverse of that proposition that the East Indians may have separated [rather than alienated] themselves from the society because of their cultures and religions.

We cannot have it two ways. It is either East Indians are more closely linked to and interwoven in their various religions and cultures in ways that Africans are not; or East Indians have deliberately separated themselves from the society because of the particularity of their beliefs, their geographic location in the country, and the various cultural constraints that prevented them from intermingling with the larger majority group. V. S. Naipaul has taken pains to make this point in his non-fictional writings.

There is another problem. When the Minister of the Arts and Multiculturalism speaks about ensuring "the equitable distribution of state's resources" to each group in the society I wonder if he is aware of the fatuity of his statement. The "Housing and Population Census" that is taking place in the island at the present time identifies nine different categories of people in the society: 1) Africans; 2) Caucasians; 3) Chinese; 4) East Indians; 5) Indigenous; 6) Mixed: African and East Indians and Others; 7) Syrian Lebanese; 8) Other Ethnic groups; 9) Others.

How do we identity these groups (that is, how do we determine their group characteristics) and do such fine-tuned distinctions further separate the various groups from one another? In other words, how do persons of the mixed category group (to take one example) organize themselves to benefit from this well-intention initiative? Does such a policy fragment the society further or does it bring us closer together?

At the eve of our national independence Dr. Eric Williams launched his hurriedly-written History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago at the University of Woodford Square in which he advanced what I call his "Mother Trinidad and Tobago Speech" although the words are in the conclusion of the book. I have argued previously that this speech enunciated the first outlines of a national cultural policy in which he sought to break down the boundaries within which the various races and cultures had entrenched themselves.

I was at the University when he launched this book. I still possess an original copy of same. It is important to repeat his memorable words since the proponents of multiculturalism-the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, for example-tend to forget what he wrote: "There can be no Mother Africa for those of African origin and the Trinidad and Tobago society is living a lie and heading for trouble if it seeks to create the impression or to allow others to act under the delusion that Trinidad and Tobago is an African society."

He also repeated the words of India's Commissioner contained in Ismith Khan's The Jumbie Bird that advised Indians "to stay in Trinidad and become good Trinidad citizens."

The PM and AG should emblazoned these words on the walls in which they conduct national business. Dr. Williams never conceived of T&T as an African or an Indian society.

In November 2010 the PM invited Jason Edward Kaufman, a foreign correspondent, to share the diwali celebrations with her. Ramlogan told Kaufman that "People think of Trinidad and Tobago as predominantly African country. We want to rectify this mis-perception.' Previously there was 'discrimination manifested in subtle of which was the allocation of state funding." Such reasoning cannot be the basis for upturning a policy that has served the country well during the first 49 years of existence.

On February 8 the Financial Times editorialized about Cameron's speech. It said: "The challenge for Britain, as elsewhere, is how an open and tolerant liberal society that embraces diversity of all types, can also conjure a sense of solidarity and belonging, especially when the economic climate turns harsh."

Do we wish to develop a policy that creates a collective identity or one that separates and divides us? This is the question we must answer as we pursue multiculturalism?

Professor Cudjoe's email address is

Part I - Part II - Part III

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