Indians own the country

That’s what comes to mind, with a tinge of racist self-consciousness, when I see large groups of Indians on the ferry to Tobago. And (although I’m convinced some in those crowds were hired) it’s what I’ve nodded thinking, listening to demonstrators on the Waterfront pavement outside Parliament over the past five years say why they were there:

“To support we Prime Minister”.

When I say Indians own the country, I’m not addressing cultural patterns of entering into entrepreneurship, or commenting on how pathways to socioeconomic mobility and wealth accumulation generation-to-generation look different ethnically. I’m not talking about differences in saving and spending habits or structural access to capital. Nor am I joining others’ accusations that ethnic favouritism over the past five years has led to obscene enrichment by some from state funds. I’m not engaging in philosophical musings about the past and future of a land others sailed into and claimed, about people who didn’t own themselves when they arrived, and who still didn’t own their economies when they got to own their own flag. What’s on my mind isn’t comparative analysis of cultural capital and contexts of arrival and manumission in chattel slavery and indentureship, reflection on the relatively small numbers of enslaved Africans here in 1838, or review of Prof. Selywn Ryan’s scholarly work on Indians and their measurable socioeconomic status.

My observation is much more superficial. I mean “own” in an emotional sense.

We are all capable of rallying incredible, shared nationalism around sports achievements. But the stark contrast between what I see as Indian aspirationalism and what I experience in my own circles overwhelms me: on one hand, I sense an entrenched cynicism about governance, a shutting down of political vision of any depth, a resignation that undoing national dysfunction is not within our grasp; on the other, I see little interest in pursuing anything other than personal or family opportunity, willingness to do so by whatever means necessary, and a corresponding eagerness to migrate.

That Indians “own” a country in which they are the largest ethnic group shouldn’t be surprising. But it is something I know was not always the case. Certainly something my parents’ generation of Africans didn’t quite acknowledge, whose own dominance of public institutions and national culture was something they never imagined needed questioning.

The idea might even seem odd, given all the racial toting on social media after the UNC’s loss of the election, and the PNM’s triumphalism on the benches of the new Parliament. But the post-election toting is evidence of a profound sense of loss and mourning. Which comes from a real investment. The same tabanca in the “sore loser” desperation of the election petition. These, the scorched-earth electoral campaign, and the extent of ethnic stocking of public institutions over the past five years that will soon emerge, demonstrate how deeply Indians have invested in the idea of power and this nation.

Caribbean multiracial nations are touted as models of plural democracy. Though hardly unblemished, we’ve certainly enacted a marvellous record of resilience to violence and ethnic conflict. But it isn’t because we’ve devised innovative social or institutional mechanisms or radical notions of ethnic politics we can boast of. Explanatory theories about cricket and Carnival don’t convince me either. I wonder if our success hasn’t simply come from our aloofness, our disownership. That the nation just hasn’t been worthwhile enough to fight each other over.

I can’t argue that the PNM’s return to power hasn’t meant racial pride for African Trinbagonians. Joining family, I drove in the horn-honking convoys and pushed through the throngs of Black bodies for blocks around Balisier House on election night. I’d deliberately left on the red jersey I voted in (3 Canal’s, with the image of Buzz Butler), so I was integrated in tribalism.

But Keith Rowley’s unexpected speech there that night pushed wide open for me the question of how we forge a different kind of national ownership.

I got in trouble this week for saying I didn’t want Darryl Smith to “apologise” for taunting Barry Padarath. I want to get in trouble again. I am talking about all the things I said I wasn’t. Our most powerful unwritten rule for managing race and power has been to make it impossible to talk to each other any way other than superficially about it. Yet now we are. All over social media. Where we’re not talking about it is in the places we’ve deemed too respectable to. Nizam Mohammed learned that the hard way.

So, like apologies, I want to reject all the icing-sugar post-election calls for racial healing. What we need, in contrast, is to stick our finger in the wound, to unpack it, to talk impolitely about our hurts and fears, to find language and frameworks to talk more plainly and practically about race and ownership and power and aspiration. I’m not aiming to be divisive or tribal, but clearly provocative. We need to talk about race far, far more, not less, in messy and productive and educational and soulsearching and risktaking ways. And our newspaper pages need to lead that conversation.


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