RACE AND COLOR IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
by Nakeba Stewart and Moses Seenarine, December 15, 2000
(Published by Saxakali.com on January 1, 2001)
(Published by Saxakali.com on January 1, 2001)
Throughout the world ethnicity has been (and still is) a critical factor in elements of social importance and everyday communal activities. This is especially true of such post-colonial and underdeveloped societies like those found in the Caribbean. Similar to other places, race permeates every aspect of social life in Trinidad. Race can determine one's access to wealth, status, political power and prestige. Throughout Trinidad's history there has been schisms within ethnic, social class, culture, religious and sexual parameters, leading to a lack of social cohesion. The absence of social solidarity has had comprehensive implications of the national identity of Trinidadians. By analyzing the historical relationship between the colonizer and those who were colonized we can trace the roots of the "colonial mentality" which plagues many West Indian societies.
Many world powers have never addressed the perceptions of people after the direct colonial experience and its legacy; the colonization of information and the educational system. One group of people is constantly being portrayed as better than another. Most people do not realize they harbor very distorted views and beliefs about themselves and other people, especially black people, with an unwarranted admiration for people of lighter shades. This is mostly due to the ingrained results of colonialism and the effect subjugation has had on the psyche of its victims.
Trinidad's History and Ethnicity
Amerindians also known as the Caribs and Arawaks originally inhabited Trinidad. Columbus and the advent of Europeans decimated these indigenous people. Disease, warfare, murder, forced labor and rape contributed to the destruction and extermination of the Amerindians. Initially a colony of Spain, Trinidad was ceded to the British in 1802 partially because of Britain's aggressive policy of imperialism.
At that time the island's economy was mainly fueled by the captive labor brought by French planters from other islands. The enslaved Afrikan population came from various cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds mainly from West Afrika. Groups of free blacks from America and other Caribbean islands also populated Trinidad during and after slavery. In 1838, Trinidad's ethnic composition was further complicated by the indenture of Portuguese and Chinese groups to supply plantation labor. However, these groups were not found suitable for the arduous labor of plantation work and instead became involved in grocery and dry goods trading. After World War II, the Syrians and Lebanese joined the already diverse population growing in Trinidad. Furthermore, the importation of approximately 144,000 indentured laborers from India had a profound impact on the demographics of the island's society in comparison to some of the other groups. In addition, a small number of Venezuelans immigrated to Trinidad during the nineteenth century. The following chart illustrates the population distribution by race in 1963.
The population and percentages are: Afrikan 358,558 or 43%; East Indian 301,946 or 36%; White 15,718 or 2%; Chinese 8,361 or 1%; "Mixed" 134,749 or 17%; and Lebanese/Syrian 6,714 at 1%.
As the percentagesshow, people of African and East Indian descent are the numerically dominant groups. While most of the discourse on ethnic relations center on Afrikan - East Indian relations, my focus will be an in depth look at the source of prevailing social attitudes among the many groups that inhabit Trinidad and Tobago. Many scholars (i.e.: Gosine) have characterized Trinidad as a pluralistic society consisting of a two-dimensional division of human relations. This concept however, has limitations in terms of inequalities based on not only race, but also class and gender.
Role of planters in shaping relationships between different ethnic groups
The role of European planters implementing indentured servitude had a tremendous effect on shaping social attitudes in colonial Trinidad. For instance, Indian indentured laborers were kept apart geographically and culturally from the rest of captive labor force. This separation fostered an atmosphere that perpetuated the negative stereotypes initiated by the white planters. This tactic was used to further divide the labor force from uniting. The planter elite rationalized the division of labor by claiming that Afrikans were poor workers, lazy, irresponsible and frivolous while East Indians were characterized as industrious, docile, obedient and manageable. Later, some East Indians also adopted this view of the enslaved Afrikans. Hence the perpetuation and institutionalization of hackneyed image of the oppressed by a group in a similar situation. East Indians were also stereotyped as stingy, prone to domestic violence, and a heathen for not adopting "Western ways". Therefore, the division of labor was created by the planter elite as a means of effectively controlling the labor force.
The social hierarchy in colonial Trinidad consisted of whites as the plantation owners; the Chinese and Portuguese in trading occupations; Afrikans and coloureds in skilled manual occupations; and East Indians in the agricultural fields. The "commodification of ethnicity" caused by the division of labor has had extensive implications on the process of symbolization for those it involves. This meant the subordinate groups could not fully develop their own-shared ethnic and cultural standards. Instead, images and stereotypes were superimposed by more powerful "outside" groups. Yet despite the isolation among the various ethnic groups during the nineteenth century, syncretism and acts of "cultural borrowing helped shape the formation of typical Trinidadian culture.
A note on the Creation of the Negro
In Trinidad, the word "Negro" is used almost always to refer to someone of Afrikan ancestry. Most people never question the origin of this word, which degrades black people every time it is uttered. Asians come from Asia, Indians from India; therefore Negroes must come from "Negroland". Since there is no such place one must question the definition and origin of the word to better understand the philosophy behind this concept. The word negro is Spanish for black. The Spanish language comes from Latin, which has its origins in Classical Greek.
The word Negro in Greek is derived from the root word necro, meaning dead. What was once referred to as a physical condition is now regarded as an appropriate state of mind for millions of Afrikans. Negro - a race of dead people with a dead history and no hope for resurrection as long as they remained ignorant of their past. This was a triple death - the death of mind, body and spirit of Afrikan people. The evolution of the word Negro from colored, to black, to Afrikan represents a progression of self-awareness. The name that you respond to determines the amount of your self worth. Similarly, the way groups of people collectively respond to a name can have devastating effects on their lives, particularly if they did not choose the name.
The Role of "Color"
An examination of contemporary Trinidadian society shows that light-skinned black people are still the preferred population. They are more likely to attain high-status jobs and be perceived as attractive. Although color is often tossed aside as a non-issue, it is something that tends to come up time and time again. The color complex, the stereotyping of individuals based on skin tone, is deeply embedded in the black consciousness. Historically, the issue of skin color has been used as a means of controlling and division. Skin color has effectively used to disrupt unity.
The seeds of the color complex were planted during slavery when the light-skinned enslaved captives were preferred to be domestics. The darker-skinned Afrikans were put into field labor. When enslaved Afrikans were put on the auction block, those of "mixed" ancestry and light-skinned tones generated the highest bids. Through their contact with white planters, the light-skinned and colored population were exposed to and cultivated what was considered proper speech, dress and etiquette. Enslaved Afrikaris or Creoles that were light-skinned were also the chosen population for sexual unions with masters. The children of these unions were more likely to be allowed to purchase their freedom and land, and have opportunities to obtain an education and better jobs.
Although there are exceptions, the unequal treatment of slaves fostered a light-skinned upper class and a dark-skinned lower class. Lighter blacks were consistently offered better opportunities than their darker counterparts and therefore established higher socioeconomic status. Racial categories and identities are socially constructed concepts. During the colonial days persons of Afrikan and European ancestry were designated as "coloured". This group of the population produced a coloured middleclass, a new West Indian social order. The colored population was somewhere between the upper and lower class. The mixed or colored people filled but did not bridge the social gap between the upper and lower classes. In this new middle class, color and status were portrayed as neatly coincident.
These conceptions instilled that each race had a status or hierarchal value. Genealogy was assumed to be connected with an observable physical appearance such as "white, colored or black. These categories were made symbols of racial ancestry. Likewise, skin color, facial features, and hair quality were also used as determinants to judge an individual. This incorporated characteristic like a straight nose, thick lips and hair quality. The closer the resemblance of these features to Europeans the better the individual chances to achieve acceptance and upward mobility. In addition to serving as a distinction of ancestry, physical characteristics and the opposition between "white" and "black" commonly employed these characteristics as a system of valuation for behavior and conduct.
Therefore a person could "talk white" and rituals such as wedding also had a "color identity". For non-white Creoles to acquire such "white" traits was to gain respectability. Terms of color were correlated to achieved as well as attributed traits. Respectability was used by the colored population to shield bodily exposure. White or "whiteness" was seen as the only positive terms. "Blackness" was seen solely as the absence of "whiteness". Thus, social mobility was contingent upon the reality of race and respectability is defined by being or assimilating whiteness.
Two Dimensions of Subordination
Although Afrikans and East Indians were both labeled as inferior, their subordinate status differed in form. This does not mean that one instance of racism is more or less vile than the other. It only illustrates that racism has multiple forms. Very different images of Afrikan and East Indian inferiority were conveyed to these groups. Although looked upon as inferior, East Indians were thought of as possessing their own civilization, evidenced by their text-based religions and corresponding languages. The presence of this "alternative" made the colonial relationship between Europeans and East Indians a matter of either/or.
By comparison, there was lift le, if any, sense of African alternatives. Afrikans were dispossessed of their language, culture, religions and customs. The Afrikan was viewed as not belonging to any one place. Here we find very different prescriptions for Afro-Trinidadians as opposed to other groups. Afrikans were encouraged or even forced to accept the culture of another people while other groups could retain much of their ancestral culture. In addition, the Afrikan and European represented a complete dichotomy within a system of color.
Achievements were equated to "whiteness", and the accomplishments made by "dark" persons contested the view that Afrikans were inferior. However achievements were not perceived as something that Afrikans possessed collectively. Instead accomplishments by Afrikans, "Negroes" or ~bIacks" was just an individual act. By contrast, the "race" of East Indians was circumscribed as something autonomous from the colonial order, for their racial identity maintained a constant value as a term solely of ancestry. Achievements did not make East Indian anything other that East Indian. Achievements did not alter Indian identity" but affirmed their identity, something denied of Afrikans. Achievements could thus be imaged as the property of Indians as a collective, not just exceptional individuals.
For example, during British rule, Trinidad observed the centenary of Indian habitation in the colony. Indians as a collectivity were esteemed as the "sterling peasantry- the backbone of the country" (Yelvingtori, 103). There is, by contrast, no evidence of any comparable amassing and celebrations of Afrikans or non-white Creoles as a solitary group of diverse achievers. While the centenary of emancipation was celebrated, the from of its celebration figured emancipation as evidence of the liberality of British rule, not as a triumph of African resistance. This was also marginalized by the brainwashing of the colonial regime.
The celebration of achievements by "dark Creoles" was not an affirmation of their Afrikan ancestry as such, but a valorization of the metropolitan civilization that enlightened them. By analyzing Trinidad's system of race and color distinctions, some of the social consequences of two different principles of subordination can be seen. These two dimensions structured a range of socially comprehensible actions, which have shaped subsequent patterns of social mobility. In this view, racial classifying is intimately involved with the forming of classes and the en-classing of persons.
The case of Trinidad and Tobago consists of an extensive discourse on race an color. One finds several racially and culturally exclusive groups struggling for power and jobs within an extraordinary small area. Radicals complain that the dominant political movements of the region have remained sectional and that instead of narrowing gaps between classes and ethnic groups, reformist politics have widened them. Nationalism within a plural society can prove to be a disruptive force tending to shatter and not consolidate its social order.
Until we can all unite and discard the colonial mentality, which plague us, Trinidadians and people the world over will not be considered as peacefully cohabiting. Humans tend to "plant flags" and celebrate our differences rather that our similarities. As a person of Afrikan, East Indian and Venezuelan ancestry, can I not embrace each aspect of my lineage? Or do I have to just be identified with one. There is no doubt that I know who I am, but does my race change the person that I am. We all share one race - Humanity.
Yelvington, Kelvin. Trinidad Ethnicity. University of Tennessee Press, 1993.
Ryan, Selwyn D. Race and Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago: a study of decolonization in a multiracial society. University of Toronto Press, 1972.