Educating Indo-Guyanese Communities on Anti-Blackness (+Reading List)
I have thought about writing something like this for years, rather than only posting about it on social media. So here are my thoughts on how I, and those some from the same ethnic background as me, can offer our support to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to Black people more personally at this time and in the future.
As Indo-Caribbeans, we have a long legacy of anti-Blackness in our communities. Since the era of indentureship, Indian workers were encouraged by British imperialist to mistrust Black workers, and vice versa. If you are not aware of our shared history, I encourage you to read books like Gauitra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, which offers a detailed account of our history and provides insight on why anti-Blackness persists today.
Anti-Blackness doesn’t just mean an outward hatred of Black people. It is also reflected in the micro-politics of everyday life. Things like preferring lighter skin tones to darker ones (colourism), or trusting/investing in the wealthy rather than the poor (casteism). Casteism is a larger issue that I will not discuss in-depth and it is not actually related to European colonization, but it informs anti-Blackness and the colonial legacy of slavery and indentureship. Those with darker skin are assumed to be of a lower caste, and many of those in a lower caste are deemed “untouchable” or unfit to coalesce with the rest of society, and higher caste, lighter-skinned people.
Current Guyanese politics largely reflect this legacy. The divisions between the major political parties, the PPP and the PNC, are along racial lines. Conflicts between the parties and races have been detrimental for all citizens, as well as the Guyanese economy since Independence.
Within political macro-structures, it may be difficult to make tangible change or reparations. That’s why we must start with our everyday interactions. In this post, I will identify common issues that I have noticed within my family, and offer ways of subverting racism in our day to day lives.
The Problem of “Slang”
Guyanese slang is a part of our culture and is a combination of African, British, Dutch, and other words from various places. Certain words can be harmful.
Here are some words that you should stop your family from using:
This word is used to describe someone with curly hair in Guyana, often someone is Black or mixed race. It is DEROGATORY and in Bhojpuri, it means “bastard” or “mutt”. If your family says this casually, please explain that this an expression of hate. If you have to tell them a million times, do it.
This word is not provocative in most circles, but it has the same dehumanizing vibe of saying, “blacks” in western culture. “Why don’t you say Black man instead?” is a good way of dealing with this. “You are talking about a person. You would say henchman or hitman, but you wouldn’t say brownman, would you?”
- The N-word
Use the same tactics as “dougla.” Not sure who else has to be told this, but this word is never okay for any non-Black person to say.
- Anything that degrades those with darker skin tones
For instance, my grandparents got very excited when my cousin’s wife gave birth to a mixed-race, white child, and commented a lot about her “beauty” and how white her skin is. Lighter skin being seen as beautiful is also an effect of casteism and contributes to colourism in Caribbean communities. We have young Black boys and darker-skinned people in our family and this language can be quite damaging. Always try to highlight different shades of beauty. Tell everyone in your family how beautiful they are. Discourage the consumption of Bollywood films that feature lighter-skinned stars and actively express why creams like Fair and Lovely are damaging and founded on colourism.
- Anything that degrades those with Black-textured hair. For instance, some members of my family have commented have used terms like “bush” or “rats nest” to classify curly or kinky hair. (I have curly hair myself and have also been classified with these words by the people in my family who have naturally straighter hair).
- Nursery rhymes/songs that use anti-Black language
This should be obvious. Do not sing, “ee nee mee nee” or any other nursery rhyme that uses violently anti-Black words and depictions.
Co-opting Black Strife
I once tried to talk to my father about the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and the results issues with the Prison Industrial Complex. While he understood the negative implications of the system, he added, “Indians were slaves too.” Many consider indentured labour to be another form of slavery, and while I respect that opinion, I do not believe that we can claim our struggle to be comparable to that of enslaved African people. The institutional legacies are different. The institution of slavery persists today in what is called a carceral state — a state that uses punitive tactics in order to control and oppress it’s most vulnerable citizens on the basis of moral punishment, not restoration. The carceral system and policing system were created to maintain power over enslaved African people and Indigenous land defenders. Police killings are directly motivated by this history and the control and punishment of Black bodies. This is why Black people in Canada are also much more likely to be arrested, abused, and killed by the police. In Toronto, Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police. The recent losses of life in D’Andre Campbell and Regis Korchinski-Paquet are only a few examples of a much longer-lasting problem of colonial state violence.
Our own struggles have nothing to do with Black trauma. But even our struggles are affected by anti-Blackness. The structures that harm Black people most, such as capitalism and meritocracy, also indirectly harm the entirety of lower-class people of colour. The need for a replacement for the institution of slavery is what incited Britain to indenture Indians. It is our responsibility to recognize this history and redirect our feelings of blame toward our common oppressors: capitalism and white supremacy.
We can’t claim Black struggle sometimes and enjoy our proximity to whiteness at other times. South Asian people have chosen the easy way out of conversations about race and rarely have them. We need to start acknowledging the structures that have resulted in harmful racial hierarchies. We need to realize how we have been internalizing white supremacy and historical divisions that have been drilled into our heads since we were brought to the Caribbean. As Guyanese people, I have found that we distrust both white and Black people. Both are effects of white supremacy, but anti-Blackness is the one we need to change in order to save lives, change structures, and build honest solidarity that works toward liberation.
What you can do:
- Create a culture of empathy within your family. If it helps to give them stats, do that. Remind them that yes, we face struggles, but when Black death occurs we need to not make it about ourselves.
- Give them a history lesson. It’s not hard to research a few facts about indentured labour and slavery in order to show them the differences and the disparities in their continued effects. Show them examples of workers’ revolts and Indo and Afro-Caribbean worker solidarity like the Rose Hall Massacre and Ruimveldt Riot, respectively, so they may remember what you are fighting for.
- Connect their interests to Black liberation. For example, poor folks in my family complain that things cost too much. Indirectly, they express hatred for capitalism. My dad hates capitalism but doesn’t always acknowledge that capitalism and anti-Black racism are two sides of the same coin, and feed into each other. I tend to bring up the way Toronto funds police more than it funds social services and then allow the person I am talking to think it through. I talk about how policing was created in order to control Black and Indigenous bodies and how this is reflected in the number of Black and Indigenous people in jails across Canada. I talk to my mom about carding whenever she brings up her fear of fare inspectors. I remind her that Black and Indigenous people are even more targeted. When police brutality covered by the media, I bring it up again.
- Respect their feelings, and try to re-direct their trust in police. Not everyone in my family trusts police as many have had negative experiences. But calling the cops is still a default reaction in many Indo-Guyanese households. Remind your family that cops do not protect anyone, even them. People do. Mutual care does. This is also an Islamic concept — the concept of the Ummah — that I use when I talk to my Muslim family members. Teach your family that de-escalation save lives. Before immigration, barely anyone in Guyana even thought to call the police. There are countless “back home” stories recalled to me by my family in which they used de-escalation tactics such as distraction and listening to understand without even realizing it and without the need for police intervention. My dad chuckles when I ask him to recall a time he considered the police in Guyana. He couldn’t even conceive of it. And I think if they’ve had this mindset in the past, they can reclaim it now and in the future.
- Don’t stop at one comment. I say this with love, but Guyanese people are stubborn. Keep pushing, repeating the information they need to hear. Educate your own self by reading content, watching videos, and following activists on social media so that you can distribute your knowledge amongst those closest to you.
The Model Minority Myth
The model minority myth is dangerous. It was designed by white people to claim that Asian people are more likely and prone to achieving success in the Western world in order to divide communities of colour. It implies Asian people are naturally smarter than other populations and can reach parity with whites faster. In my personal experience, this is not the case, and I’m sure for many low-income Guyanese who do not consider themselves part of the Desi/South Asian community, this is also not the case. However, on a purely visual level, we benefit from the myth in ways we might not even recognize simply because we present as South Asian. Asian folks are often perceived as more reliable, less threatening, and smarter just based on appearance alone. This is a violent form of anti-Blackness and so is doing nothing to challenge it.
If your family assumes they are smarter than Black people, if your family refuses to shop at Black-owned businesses or trust Black doctors and professionals or if they don’t want you dating Black folks, they are bolstering white supremacy and playing into the model minority myth.
What you can do:
- Ask wealthy family members to donate. I personally have two wealthy family members who I turn to with donation links. Whatsapp is a powerful tool to encourage this! Share often!
- Send links to articles and resources on the model minority myth.
- Take family members to Black-owned businesses and ask them to buy something for you. This can be restaurants, clothing stores, anything. If you live in the city/urban place, this is not hard to do.
- Watch Black-centered content. This might seem iffy, and it is. You have to be careful to not select content that stereotypes Black people. Choose shows made by Black creators starring Black people. Living Single, That’s So Raven, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are shows that shaped my childhood and gave me insight into anti-Black racism as a child, as well as showed me slices of life and characters that I could actively care for. Part of education is finding things that young people can relate to and understand.
- Gift your younger family members books with Black characters.
- Advocate for Black colleagues in your workplace and pass the mic when you know a Black person could benefit. Advocate for Black leadership.
This goes hand in hand with co-opting Black strife. Cultural appropriation may not seem like a big deal to many people, but it can have damaging effects and devalue Black lives and their nuance. Desi and Indo-Caribbean culture often entail the appropriation of Black street style, hairstyles, and language. Read this article for concrete examples. Using African American Vernacular English just to be cool will likely not cause South Asians a job or get us racially profiled, but it can and has done that for Black folks.
I would also like to note that many of us including myself come from multi-racial families. We may have Black relatives, but that does not mean we live Black lives. The same goes for people of mixed-ancestry, like me.
What you can do:
- Talk to the brown boys in your family. Indo-Guyanese young people often overuse AAVE and claim that hip hop is made for them. Have a casual conversation with them, starting with something like, “you know that word is actually Black slang?”
- “Have you done research on what that song is about?” is also a big one. When brown boys are obsessing over Kendrick Lamar, I ask why and what they know about To Pimp A Butterfly. Besides listening to the music and “disagreeing” with racism, what actions will you take in your own life to practice the theory that Kendrick preaches as a fan and an ally?
- Educate yourself on the origins of slang words. I’m sure it’s clear from the first part of this guide, but language is important and words can be deeply wounding.
Summary of Techniques I Used While Writing This
- Be repetitive
- Be relatable
- Follow up
- Be respectful
I hope I helped in some way! Writing this, I learned that while it’s good to read general resources on being an ally, a lot of those resources are catered toward white folks. Non-Black people of colour have just as much responsibility for dismantling racism as whites. We have to learn from our own histories, not just generalize based on what white “allies” have done.
Here are some readings about the topics mentioned in this guide. I really encourage you to read them all when you have the chance:
Check out @SouthAsians4BlackLives on Instagram for shareable visuals and messages.
SOUTH ASIANS FOR BLACK LIVES: A CALL FOR ACTION, ACCOUNTABILITY, AND INTROSPECTION by Thenmozhi Soundararajan (this is US-focused but much if not all of it applies to Canadian South Asians)
The Root of Caribbean Racial Tensions
Guyana’s ‘Dougla’ Politics by Gauitra Bahadur
Addressing the persistence & foundations of South Asian anti-blackness by Aysha Tabassum
Conflict between East-Indian and Blacks in Trinidad and Guyana
Socially, Economically and Politically by Gabrielle Hookumchand
The Legacy of Slavery and Racial Profiling
Slavery And The Prison Industrial Complex a talk by Angela Davis (I encourage you to watch and read more content written by Davis)
The Convict Lease System summarized by PBS
13TH a doc by director Ava Duvernay
No Humans Involved by Slyvia Wynter
Resources for Abolition by 8toabolition (IMPORTANT!)
Unconscious Anti-Blackness/Checking Your Privilege
10 Habits of Someone Who Doesn’t Know They’re Anti-Black by Cicely Blain
Solidarity Building and Resources for Allies
Black and Asian-American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List by Black Women Radicals
Alternatives to Calling the Police by Asian Canadian Abolition
- As a follow-up: Defunding The Police Will Save Black And Indigenous Lives In Canada by Sandy Hudson
A Little More on Dalit History and Caste Oppression by Nooreen Reza
DALIT PANTHER MOVEMENT (1972–1977) by Diane Pien
If you would like to suggest materials to add to this list, feel free to comment below or message me on Twitter @hahadiyyah. I will not respond to DMs from non-Black people that attempt to discredit my opinions.