Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The day the cowdung hit the fan…

The term ‘coolie’ is as overloaded and weighed down as the porters it denotes in India!


Well, I had been saving this subject up for a moment when I could find enough time to spend on it but I’ve been pre-empted by events in the media landscape in Jamaica. Ever since Ragashanti, popular talk show host on Newstalk 93 (formerly Radio Mona, located on the campus of the University of the West Indies), invited callers on February 4 to express opinions on the topic of the week, Indians or Coolies (Raga’s topics cover a wide range from things like the subject this week which is, “Is it ok to deh with somebody who did deh with one of your friends or relatives before?” or Do wives have it better than Mateys or vice versa?), I’ve been itching to write a blog called “Cows ARE sacred” but have been simply too busy. Over the weekend the news broke that the local broadcasting commission had recommended the shutdown of Newstalk 93 based on the racist slurs made by callers expressing their views on the subject.

On the day in question I was shocked at the stream of callers freely expressing the most derogatory opinions about Indians. I think Raga himself was taken aback at the absurdity of some of the comments (the most frequent complaint voiced by almost every caller was the intolerable “smell” apparently attached to Indians whom most of them referred to as Coolies or to be precise 'di coolie dem'). He had deliberately chosen the subject as the topic of the week because as he put it, “There are a lot of stereotypes about Indians in Jamaica” and he wanted to elicit the views of his callers on the subject with a view to having a discussion on air that would have served to interrogate and challenge these stereotypes.

Alas long before he could do that the cowdung hit the fan. The views expressed on his show were so racist, such a slavish recitation of precisely the kinds of things the European colonizers said about “natives” in various parts of the world, so exactly a repetition of the things slavemasters said about the slaves that it was impossible for any Indian or any conscientious person not to feel disturbed and upset by what caller after caller was saying. Indians/Coolies were described as smelly, dirty or ‘nasty’, dishonest, oversexed and simultaneously physical weaklings. Several callers identified the fact that Indians eat with their hands as being ‘nasty’ and problematic to the extent where I am now abnormally self-conscious about a perfectly normal mode of eating food not merely in India but in many parts of the African continent. The word “coolie” was also being bandied about with alarming abandon and while it’s a word I myself use quite freely, it IS-- like the word “nigger”--quite loaded when deployed by someone who doesn’t share the particular ethnic category being referred to. I cringed at the thought of Indian children trying to make sense of all this.

So I decided I had to intervene on behalf of my coolie brethren and sistren. Yes folks ‘coolie’ is a word that is freely used in Jamaica unlike Trinidad and Tobago where it’s actually illegal to use it. Over here as far as i know it is not used as a term of abuse. Still I knew that if Raga continued along these lines he would definitely get into trouble and since I value his show and him very much I sent him a message to call me so that we could have a discussion on air about the subject in question. By then he had already received a call from an outraged lawyer who said that he was so appalled by the broadcast that even though he wasn’t an Indian himself he was willing to take action against the show and the station on behalf of any Indians who might be offended like himself.

So on the day in question I actually appeared on Raga’s show--in the guise of an expert on Indian affairs I suppose--and found him very receptive to my suggestion that he be more cautious with the use of terms like ‘coolie’. In fact the next day he apologized profusely for having inadvertently offended anyone and announced that he would discontinue using the C-word, urging callers to do the same. He went on to say that the topic for the week had now been broadened to elicit the views of any ethnic or racial group about any other ethnic or racial group.

Interestingly despite this the majority of the callers who responded in the following days continued to sound off on the subject of Indians and how nasty, dirty and dishonest they were in their opinions. I found myself intrigued by this. Numerically Indo-Jamaicans are about 2% of the population and unlike their counterparts in Trinidad and Guyana most of them remain impoverished and are little or no threat to anyone anywhere, least of all black Jamaicans.

What accounted then for such hostile views towards those of Indian descent? According to an eminent cultural theorist friend of mine it has to do with the history of Indian arrival in Jamaica where indentured labourers or coolies, from both India and China, were brought to the Caribbean in the mid-19th century by the British, to supply cheap, virtually free labour, which had suddenly become unavailable after slavery was abolished. The ex-slaves had entered a period of ‘apprenticeship’, a kind of neo-slavery, that many of them rightly refused to participate in. The newly arrived Indians were therefore seen as ‘scabs’ and perceived to be crossing the picket line as it were by the rest of the working (or non-working!) population.

I remembered a story an Indo-Jamaican friend of mine once told me about her first encounter with racism here. I wished I could remember it in detail; Lucilda Dassardo-Cooper now lives in Cairo so I emailed and asked her to recount it to me again and this was her response:

The story I told was of the first time I realized that the prejudice in Jamaica was irrational. I had always heard the kids taunt us as being weak, which was not quite thrown at me because I had actually beaten the school bully in my basic school, and the class bully in primary school.

Callaloo, a favorite food of Indians and eaten with dhal, rotis, rice and roasted saltfish was supposedly why 'coolies' were weaker than 'negah' who ate boiled dumplings, green bananas and yams with saltfish boiled and refried with onions and tomatoes.

It must have been my first year at St. Jago, when I was on the bus to school that the incident happened. The bus was overcrowded and we were all crushed together. My nicely and carefully pleated uniform was assaulted on all sides when this pushing happened and I was swept along. I was complaining in general about the pushing and shoving being unnecessary, when this woman jumped on me, telling me that "You are coolie and I am negah so "I don't have to box shit out of hog's mouth."

Maybe some of your Jamaica friends can enlighten you on the expression, but the impact on me was astonishment. Here I was going to high school, a big deal at the time as not too many had high school education, and she was going to work in a factory in Spanish town. Yet she felt that she was somehow superior because of her race. Also that she had chosen to respond to my general complaints not directed in particular at anyone, and most especially not at her as she was also shoved along with the rest of us.

"Boxing shit out of hog's mouth" is an expression of being so poverty stricken that one is competing with hogs for shit. Go figure!

Then when I was on the beach in Jamaica maybe four years ago there was a little girl who asked me "Are you a coolie?" Instead of responding, I asked her "What are you?" she told me "I am a negah."

See how complicated, vexed and vexing all of this is? That's why I didn’t want to write about any of this till I had plenty of time to write something considered and illuminating rather than a knee-jerk sort of response. So there you are, my take on all this is that in the haste to censor if not prosecute Raga and Newstalk 93 the important work of combating the stereotypes Indo-Jamaicans are faced with has fallen by the wayside. That to me is the pity of it all. Complicating much of this is the confusion people make between Indo-Jamaicans, the descendants of those who came here as indentured labourers and Indian nationals, creatures of quite another make-up. The latter are notoriously obsessed with skin-colour themselves and wont to look down on people of African descent. Their racism, clannishness and refusal to mix with the natives of the countries they migrate to contributes quite a bit to the ill will towards Indians in general. I come from this latter group myself so I know what I’m talking about; and with regard to Indians from India I would say its not a bad thing for them to be confronted with the same kind of racism they mete out to others. Indeed their attitude towards Jamaicans of Indian descent is extremely problematic but that has to be the subject of another blog.

One can only be grateful to Raga for having brought the subject of Jamaican stereotypes of Indians to light in this way. Neither he nor his station should be penalized for doing this. The question is what are we going to do about the stereotypes?

16 comments:

niki said...

Hey, Annie. Just seeing your comments re active vs passive 'voice'. I didn't mean to say that blogs are not useful, or are completely 'passive' in the sense of stale, ineffectual, incompetent, etc.... I still think though, that the BEST use of the blog is to get people to "get up, stan' up" and actually do something positive - like what you did for Raga's show.

You are an obvious exception, but I fear that many bloggers (and those who read and comment on blogs) only talk good, and don't walk good. I'm not pointing any fingers either - I pray for the day when there will be more walking than talking, and for more opportunities to walk safely...

It is recorded that Mohammad said he longed for the day when women could travel freely - hence now Turkey is updating the Hadith that regulates and restricts women's comings and goings (since the Muslim scholars doing the updating argue that this was meant for protection only).

I agree with you Annie that it would be better to shift focus away from the perpetrators and at times innocent abettors (is there such a word?) of hate crimes and towards doing something about the cultural infrastructure that allows such hateful acts to flourish.

At least I think that's something like what you said :)

Peace, Niki

Annie Paul said...

Niki,

thanks as always for your thoughtful comments...

ap

ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID said...

Interesting post Annie!!Indeed, stereotypes abound a plenty in Jamaica with respect to race,ethnicity,and social class.Such stereotypes will not be eradicated overnight,but again, education is the crucial variable or determinant in terms of promoting a value system free of or independent of stereotypes of the respective ethnic/racial groups within the society.This can be promulgated via the schools,families,communities,civic,cultural and religious institutions.Certainly,the incidence of cultural assimilation and race miscegnation is significant in Jamaica,as evidenced in our national motto OUT OF MANY ONE PEOPLE.Notwithstanding,ignorance is pervasive,with respect to how the various groups within the larger Jamaican society,understand,relate to,interface with, and respect each other.Consequently,groups are perceived and comprehended via negative stereotypes historically.It is critical that as a people and a country that we transcend these ethno-national sterotypes and insularities and appreciate the unique conglomeration of peoples, ethnicities,race,and nationalities that/people our island state and the impact and contribution that each group has made on Jamaican society relative to nation building and development.The first step or stage in doing so, is a rational and sensible discussion or talk on a somewhat problematic topic to bridge the cultural insularities,ignorance and misconceptions,which ostensibly has been started via Mr. Ragashanti's talk show.Such discussions/programs are at times instructive, and can or may diminish stereotypic conceptions of respective groups if information is presented professionally.Again, excellent post Annie.RESPECT!!

Annie Paul said...

Esteban,

Is it a coincidence that your initials add up to EAR? Thanks for your encouraging comments. They mean a lot, incidentally i forgot to say in the blog that i can't say i myself have suffered from active discrimination in Jamaica because of being Indian so again what does all the rhetoric mean? I mean if one were to judge by what the callers were saying you'd conclude that thisis really hostile territory for Indians, in reality this isn't true--it's all quite mystifying!

annie

ambrown said...

Well, I read your comments yesterday and sadly could not respond right away with all the thoughts that were bubbling up in my head. There is not enough time in the world to unearth all the issues related to race, ethnicity and class (and their interconnectedness) in Jamaica. One can hardly decide where to start.

Your blog reminded me of a situation a few yeyars ago when I was sitting at lunch with some co-workers, all of whom are tertiary educated, and the issue of someone being called an "Indian-giver" was mentioned. I had never heard the expression and it was explained to me as someone who "gives and takes back". It was further explained that the expression came from the fact that Indians are mean. Others at the table agreed "yes, yes they are mean" but I couldn't wrap my mind around this. I didn't know why, but it just sounded wrong to me. When I went a little further and asked the co-worker why people would think that about Indians, I got no explanation of it.

I much later realised that I had never been taught those things about Indians because part of my family is Indian. In other words I was part of the THEY being talked about. No wonder the ideas couldn't process. What happened was I found myself on the inside of a conversation I should not even have been in, because such things would not normally be said around Indians or part-Indians.

In my 26 years I've formulated my own ideas about race in spite of what world continues to try to teach me. Somehow, ideas have been forced upon us about how THEY (whoever THEY are in the situation) are DIFFERENT from us even if the similarities are glaring. So if the difference is not apparent, we have to find them, reasons why THEY are not like us, eg. THEY eat with their hands or THEY are oversexed. I think this why stereotypes like the ones we are discussing come about.

What is unique in Jamaica, or maybe not... What has happened in Jamaica is that a lot of racial stereotypes are bred out of the ideologies of slavery and colonialism. We were black and they were white. Two ends of the spectrum. Opposite sides of ocean. But if you want to talk about black we are not that colour, we are more shades of brown and they are not white either, it is closer to cream or peach. But someone had to use the language to make us so far apart that the treatment of blacks under slavery would seem a bit more rational in order to suit economic ends.

We've been fed stories and myths about ourselves and other groups under slavery, internalized them and have perpetuated them through socializing our children to believe these myths. Myths that the lighter your skin the further you will get in life or that Indians are mean, or that we black people like to fight each other down.

The perceptions of Indians mentioned on Raga's show could easily have originated in the post-slavery period where it has been said there was animosity when the indentured labourers came to Jamaica working for less than the newly-freed slaves.

Thoughts that Indians were weak may have come from the fact that they did not accomplish as much on the plantation as blacks. However, who is to say that blacks didn't accomplish all they did because of the treatment received under slavery: the whipping, the flogging, the hanging, etc. Abuse designed to make people work harder. Although we know that indentured servants were also abused and locked into a sort of neo-slavery, there were changes in the working conditions after emancipation and this could account for the difference in output volume.

Even the reference made to hog mess can be related easily to the post-slavery situation as it could have been felt that Indians came to 'box food' out of the newly freed slaves mouths by taking their jobs. They were seen as competition for the 'work', albeit undesirable.

That lady on the bus may not even know why she would think that way about Indians, but I would not be surprised if this lie was passed down from the slavery/colonialism situation.

In other words, many of these stereotypes came out of a situation where both Indians and blacks were being wronged, and the only reason many of these perceptions exist is because it suited plantocracy for the DIFFERENCE between races to be at the forefront of our minds. So why do we perpetuate this hate? It shows signs that many of us are still mentally enslaved long after emancipation as Bob would say.

As I said there is too much to cover. But only to close by saying that we need to throw out the lies that we have been taught about each other, because apart from being hurtful, it stands in the way of what could be rich and meaningful relationships.

Annie Paul said...

wow, you cannot imagine how thrilled i am that a 26-year old is reading my blog (that in itself is enough) but on top of that to be responding in the length and depth you have, i'm over the moon.

you've made my day!

ap

Annie Paul said...

this is what happens when you respond in a hurry, i forgot to say thanks for the insight re hog's mess and boxing food out of hog's mouth perhaps being a reference to the terms of the Indian arrival here. i think you may be right, it absolutely makes sense and that feeling of rivalry and hostility has been passed on though in reality i can't say i've felt it myself. no one has ever discriminated against me here--well, except people who don't like me, but that has nothing to do with being indian does it?

It's a textbook example of 'othering'--of binary thinking--the views that were expressed on Raga's show.

also i understand that the creolized slaves felt and were considered superior to new arrivals from not only India but Africa itself. The creolized used the fact that they had learnt to wield cutlery, to dress in finery, to deploy the culture of the colonizers that they had completely absorbed--as cultural capital against the new arrivals. Indians with all their 'alien' ways of doing things and their own rival sense of superiority would have certainly engendered reactions like these...

anyway, this is all hypothetical but thanks for setting me off like this.

ap

longbench said...

Annie -- There's a lot to this social practice of Othering and the way that it is expressed in everyday relationships in Jamaica. I can't say everything here. More next time. Thanks for blogging about this. I can only imagine how much energy it has sapped out of you.

Thanks also for standing up for Raga, but I am frankly quite disgusted and perturbed that in 2008 he claims he did not know that terms like "coolie" have a history and are meant to be derogatory, no matter that it is used freely. Sorry, I do hold him responsible for his participation in the madness, given his status as 'public intellectual.' Freedom of speech is not equivalent to nor does it protect wilfully slandering and hurting people with language. This is a conversation that is much needed.

I have found that it is de rigeur to make insulting remarks about Indian (and Chinese) persons; in fact, I have found myself rehearsing and trying to come up with a stockpile of strategies to intervene and flag what I think is abysmal and assbackward behavior. And I always feel really awkward doing it, stumbling over my tongue etc. because it is clear that I am saying something that nobody, or few people, think is wrong, and where we have no language to talk about these issues. Mostly, when the stuff hits me, I become fish-eyed and literally gulp for air. In December, a UWI professor says to my face that all dem Indian people come yah fi do a tief we [black people] money, and I say, but you do not really seriously believe that, I was accused of ignoring reality and trying to be "politically correct" (if you ever know how I hate when Jamaicans use that phrase...). Similarly, a newly minted UWI PhD who gets lots of props in the newspaper all the time casually sends me racist pornography featuring Indian and chinese people - as a joke to her - and injects in practically every conversation some comment about how indian people smell bad, tief, how indian women love when dem man beat dem etc etc etc. After trying several times to engage her - I figure, a fellow educated person ought to understand the problem of stereotypes, but not so here -- I just had to lay into her after she had a few choice things to say about you Annie. Turns out, she has never met you personally or even spoken to you. But being Indian, she was not going to spare you her ire. After insisting that she offer evidence for her nasty remarks -- I was convinced that some random Indian person had pissed her off so that she decide she don't like all of them. The answer she gave was even more frightening and telling: she says, "oh no; I don't want you to think I'm prejudiced. I'm not prejudiced. I don't have anything against them; I don't judge anybody; only God can do that; that's just how those people are." After trying to not go ballistic -- doesn't do any good in these situations, and certainly not in a public plaza in Halfway Tree, I told her that that is exactly what white people currently say about people of colour in the US in order to excuse and justify their racist attitudes and resentment. It's called "color blind racism" in the US. What's our analysis, at at time when 'racism' and 'prejudice' are cast off as North American problems, and have nothing to do with our reality? 'Cause this is more than just a Raga-induced situation, as we know. To date, there has been no discussion of how poorly Black people treated Indians in the early years of settlement, actively discriminating against Indians in education, jobs, intimate relationships, etc.
A huge part of the problem is a manipulation of how Jamaican history is told, the wilful dismissal of the history of Indian people on one hand, and then on the other hand, the nationalist recasting of Indians as people with an ancient past -- you know, events featuring lovely women dressed in saris doing the traditional dances featuring Ram and Sita -- but where such representations do not in any way resemble how Indian people live, nor do they challenge these disgusting stereotypes which continue to operate as truth. Serious intervention is needed on this issue, because, like the notion that all gay men are pedophiles, these ideas have seeped into public consciousness and become so distorted that neither black nor indian people even recognize the difference between the truth and the sedimented lies. One useful intervention that can happen fairly quickly -- create a public document -- comic book, zines, full page ad in the newspaper etc. that lists all the stereotypes, compiles the research to systematically debunk all of them, and then makes it clear the harm that such ideas cause. It will be a useful exercise that be a model for other similar interventions. It is full time that we stop acting like these issues were just matters of opinion, and not dangerous to the public body. First it was the gays, now Indians...who's next?? Alright. That was a mouthful.

Annie Paul said...

Long B, thanks for this, i have a feeling a lot of this is reaction to indians from india, whose behaviour sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.
but i honestly hadn't realized that colleagues at uwi also share such views! now that is truly shocking...

Jamaican Funk said...

Annie....prejudice pops up in all sorts of amazing places. Among the genteel middle classes, the supposedly better educated and exposed upper classes and of course, the lumpen. I also saw your earlier posts re another form of prejudice, in terms of homophobia, and I think that both flow from the same root, namely, a refusal on the part of too many people to actually stop and think about why they feel the way they do and why they are inclined to say the things they do. Critical thought and analysis is a hard slog in Jamaica (e.g., most debates on issues in the newspaper or on the street corner swiftly descend into a tracing match), much less introspection. Prejudice, of the version that abounds here in Jamaica, is learnt behaviour that can be unlearnt by the powerful force of experience and education. Dare I say we have very little hope of overcoming it?

longbench said...

yes, a lot of this stuff is a reaction to more recent emigrants, but no such distinction is usually made. In fact, I don't think most Jamaicans realize that there are two or three distinct categories of Indians who live in Jamaica. And that's exactly the point being made by all the callers and how this kind of racialized thinking works - all stinky, tief indians are interchangeable, just because some seem wealthier than others doesn't mean they can't be reduced to some common denominator of less than human, and decidedly less than black. No doubt, anti-black racism among more recent Indian immigrants is an issue to contend with. But since we're in such denial that racism has anything to do with our Jamaican realities, no place to go but ballistic on the airwaves.

Jamaican funk -- how you so pessimistic? What are we going to do about this is the question, not whether.

JamaicanFunk said...

Long Bench....have a read of my blog...I am a keen observer of what happens in Jamaica and the more I observe the less I like the trend. The forces of darkness have become emboldened and are pushing their agenda, aided and abetted by a evangelical movement that shows no interest in promoting critical thought on social issues. Behold, I present to you the shape of the debate on abortion, as moulded by the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, the representatives of the Church, and for dessert, consider the debate on gambling as well....brought to you by the kind wishes of the same good folks.

Annie Paul said...

Jamaican Funk,

great name, looking forward to checking out your blog...thanks for your comments!

yes agree with you that the homophobia and the indophobia are linked, some kind of aversion to 'aliens'?

ap

longbench said...

JF -- I know, I see, and sometimes I just have to swallow my spit, close my eyes and not turn on the TV or radio for a while. But I refuse to concede any of these battles, and desperately wish that others would choose to do the same. The abortion debate is a fabulous example of how a bunch of determined individuals can apply themselves rather dilligently to a vision. What's even more disgusting and pathetic is the absolute silence of progressive folks on these issues.

AP - As far as the aversion thing goes -- we keep making these beds, and coir has never turned into goose down, as far as I know. When we don't do or say anything to counter these half-assed, bigoted ideas, we let these cuts fester into big ol' sore foot. The madness around Haitians for the past few years is just a version of the hatred of Indians. Some surgery, or least serious leeching, needs to be going on.

Snuggles said...

I didn’t hear about the incident on Raga’s show until I read your blog. Was this discussed in JA? I read the gleaner and observer often, but I don’t recall seeing it in there.
I was home in January ’06 and I heard a few derogatory statements (mainly said by men) about Indians in Kingston. It surprised me for many reasons, but mostly because a week before I went to Kingston, I overheard a conversation among women in Ochi who were excited to see so many Indian men and discussed how they would actively pursue them so they “can have pretty hair children.” What a contradiction!

Since my last trip home, I've been more attuned to our attitudes towards Indians and other groups for that matter. It seems that “Out of Many, One People” is conditional as our attitudes towards different groups change as often as our style and fashion and it only applies to the groups we deem acceptable.

Another attitude that is completely irrational is our homophobia. I was very disappointed to hear educated young people (my age cohorts @ UWI), not only passionately repeating hateful speech, but trying to justify their position on the issue with no evidence. My friends and I tried to generate an objective debate on the issue, but we were accused of acting like Americans and “we need fi come back a we yard” even though I was the only "American" in the group and I’ve spent most of my life in Jamaica.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for helping bring this to light.

The views expressed were extremely disgraceful and racist.
In a wider context there is a perception that non Afro-Jamaicans do not exist - a view perpetuated by the mainstream press as examplified in Toronto.

Kudos to you and others who are exposing anti-Indian views.