A special report by Joannah Bharose September 13, 2000

Are we a country of racists?

ONE of our proudest boasts in Trinidad and Tobago is our racial harmony. Those who claim that we have serious racial problems are usually perceived as racists who reflect a minority view. It is true that our small, cosmopolitan nation has avoided the more extreme consequences of bigotry. Racism in other countries has resulted in war, race killings and laws made specifically to oppress a particular group. Even in multi-ethnic countries where such extremes have not occurred, it is often the case that different races and groups do not interact on any personal basis. That has not been our experience in Trinidad and Tobago, where the mixed populace is at 20 per cent and expanding geometrically. But it is also true that many inter-racial romantic relationships have failed, or never even begun, mainly because of familial and social disapproval.

The fact also is that, in our politics, race is by far the major issue.

Corruption, crime, unemployment, drug addiction, education —the opinions of the majority on any of these topics is always refracted through the prism of race—i.e. the perceived racial profile of whichever party is in government. This has become even more apparent since a so-called "Indian government" assumed office in 19100. The UNC administration has been able to take certain actions which, had they been instituted by a PNM regime, would have been roundly condemned by Indo-Trinidadians who are, instead, either approving or silent.

In similar fashion, Afro-Trinidadians who did not cry "race" when past PNM governments put persons mainly of African descent on State boards are now quick to make that accusation when the UNC replaces them with Trinidadians of Indian descent.

The question is, is this obvious racial divide confined to politics or does it also express itself in other social activities and in personal relations? Despite our wish to believe otherwise, Trinbagonians may not really be able to claim an innately superior racial or ethnic or religious tolerance.

Prejudice against persons who do not belong to our group is common to all cultures, so it is unlikely that the average Trinidadian would be free of such bias. Our avoidance of extreme bigotry may simply be a consequence of our small land size.

In European countries, studies show that racial incidents and bigotry tend to be higher in countries with few immigrants (like Belgium or Sweden) and lower in those with a higher immigrant population (like England or the Netherlands). When it comes to race relations, it seems that familiarity does not breed contempt. Instead, as our experience in Trinidad shows, it often breeds children.

But what has not been properly explored is how much of the race talk is merely political, and how much of it is genuine dislike for other individuals because of their hair texture or skin complexion. Is our racial harmony real, in the sense of reflecting a majority ethos in our society, or is it just for show?


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