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Thinking Race/Understanding Color

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 21, 2020

"Nobody can be properly termed educated who knows little or nothing of the history of his own race and of his country."

—Frederick Alexander Durham, The Lone-Star of Liberia.

In his epoch-breaking work Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams noted that racism is a product of slavery. "The reason," he says "was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the labor, but the cheapness of the labor." On the other hand, in White Over Black, Winthrop Jordan argued that racism predated slavery, citing three distinct prejudices that conditioned the English responses to Africans: our blackness, which signified filth, sin and evil; being uncivilized; and our not being Christian.

Cord J. Whitaker, a distinguished medievalist scholar, has argued that "the logic of race, with regard to whiteness and blackness, is already deeply ingrained in Latin Christian culture by the late Middle Ages….Whether attributed to excessive heat, burnt blood or associated with unrestrained sexual passion, blackness denotes abnormality." Whiteness and the white racial body were usually seen as "the guarantor of normalcy, aesthetic and moral virtue, European Christian identity, and full membership in the human community" ("Race-ing the Dragon).

Racism, racial bias, and racial prejudice have been around for a long time. They manifest themselves in individuals in many contradictory ways. The great humanist Mahatma Gandhi made several racist comments about Black people while he lived in South Africa. Gandhi, however, was not alone in this regard. Frederick Alexander Durham, a Trinidadian and early Pan-Africanist, said nasty things about Indians even as he passionately defended Africans in the West Indies.

In The English in the West Indies, James Anthony Froude revealed that Stephen Herbert Gatty, T&T's attorney general, told him (Froude) that Indians are proud and will not intermarry with Africans. Durham responded: "Let the C…give up the heathenish and barbarous custom of blackening their teeth; let them stop mangling their ears and noses and the reddening of their tongues, by giving up their customs and ceasing to partake of nauseous, unsavory, and unpalatable articles of food, because such things are distasteful and abhorrent to us Africans, who despise all things that have a tendency to degrade us, or which savor of the uncivilized" (The Lone-Star of Liberia).

In other words, Durham said the same thing about Indians that the English said about Africans. Such examples demonstrate how stereotypes are perpetuated and transferred from one group to another.

The color problem exists within T&T's two major groups: the Indian and African groups. The Varna or caste system in India is tinged with color gradations. Varna has two meanings: caste and color. When the lighter-skinned Aryans invaded India, they imposed the caste system upon the Dravidians, the darker-skinned indigenous population. Lighter-skinned Indians belong to the higher castes whereas the dark-skinned Indians belong to the lower castes. Fair, it seems, is more desirable than dark in Indian societies.

Colorism, a judgment of Black people based on their skin tones, also exists in the African group, particularly in the Americas. Ibram X. Kendi defines colorism as "a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequities between Light people and Dark people, supported by racist ideas of Light and Dark people" (How to Be an Antiracist). When Keith Rowley ran for the leadership of the PNM, Fitzgerald Hinds complained that many of his party members did not want to support Rowley because he was too dark skinned. Hinds was highlighting the problem of colorism within the group.

This brings us to the contentious verbal sparring between the Prime Minister (PM) and the Commissioner of Police (CoP) in which the PM demanded that the police treat all citizens equally. However, the chief cop accused the PM of racism. He says: "Everything is about race, color, religion, and politics and we live on that in this country, where there is no looking at the facts or right and wrong" (Express, September 14).

The CoP should know that anything one does in a plural society-or any society for that matter- always has to do with race, color and religion. Had he been aware of this, he would have realized that calling young Black men "cockroaches" was the surest sign of racial profiling. He should remember that racial or ethnic profiling led to the killing of 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda who, before the genocide, lived peacefully together.

General Ralph Brown described CoP's behavior as being "disrespectful" toward the PM, something that is unbecoming of a military officer and Police Commissioner. He noted, "I am certain that Commissioner Griffith was not taught to be disrespectful of authority at the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy that he so often reminds us he attended" (Express, September 15).

Brown didn't say that Griffith's superiors at Sandhurst were mostly white; Rowley is dark-skinned. Griffith's disrespect of Rowley may well be attributed to the white and/or light-skinned privilege which he enjoys in our society. However, he cannot be a good CoP if he is not sensitive to the challenges of race, religion, and color as they manifest themselves in T&T. Guns, tough talk and insulting language alone cannot solve the problems of race and racism that face Trinbagonians.

None of us is free of racial, ethnic, color or religious biases. The challenge is to understand the history of our country, where those biases come from, and how we can control them. It's the knowledge of race and color that allows us to deal with the intractable racial quagmire in which we find ourselves.

While we are at it, wouldn't it be nice if our ministers, public officials and private citizens temper their toxic public outbursts and allow reasoned discourses and respect for one another to guide their public debates.

Prof Cudjoe’s e-mail address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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