Ethnicity and Identity in the Caribbean: Decentering a Myth
By Ralph R. Premdas, Kellogg Institute, 1996 (edited)
The Caribbean as an unified region that confers a sense of common citizenship and community is a figment of the imagination. To be sure, there is a geographical expression called ‘the Caribbean’ often associated with a site, a sea, and several islands. There are also many people who describe themselves as Caribbean persons, claiming an unique identity which has its own cohering characteristics that distinguish them from others. And there are many tourists and other foreigners who can swear that they went to this Caribbean place and met real Caribbean persons. They will all convincingly attest to a Caribbean reality. The truth, however, is that the Caribbean even as a geographical expression is a very imprecise place that is difficult to define.
Some analysts include Florida, the Yucatan, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Venezuela, while others exclude them altogether. It is not only an imaginary region but one that is arbitrarily appointed to its designation. It will be difficult to pinpoint precisely where this Caribbean place is, for no country carries the name Caribbean either separately or in hyphenated form. In this Caribbean place, however, and wherever we choose to locate its boundaries, it is usually visualized as an area populated by a diverse polyglot of peoples. There Europeans, Africans, Asian Indians, Indonesian Javanese, Chinese, Aboriginal Indians, and many mixes. There are Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Santería, Winti, Vudun, etc. They speak in a multitude of tongues—Spanish, English, Dutch, French, English, and a diverse number of Creoles such as papiamentu, sranan tongo, ndjuka, saramaccan, kromanti, kreyol, as well as Hindustani, Bhojpuri, Urdu, etc. In whatever combinations of race, religion, language, and culture they cohere and coexist, they dwell on small islands and large, some poorly endowed with natural resources, others abundantly. Perhaps, no other region of the world is so richly varied.
Remarked Caribbean scholar, Michel-Rolph Trouillot:
“Caribbean societies are inescapably heterogenous…the Caribbean has long been an area where some people live next to others who are remarkably distinct. The region—and indeed particular territories within it—has long been multi-racial, multi-lingual, stratified, and some would say, multi-cultural.”1
In all of this diversity, the concept of a Caribbean people and the construction of a Caribbean identity is caught up in many contradictions. It is easy to assert a Caribbean identity if that person does not have to meet his/her compatriots and have no hope of this ever happening.
It is because of this fact that we can maintain the fiction of a collection of persons with an all-encompassing Caribbean identity, for in enlarging the ambit of one’s interaction beyond the village or town one is quite likely to encounter Caribbean ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ whom one will instantly disown. It is in part because of this reason that Benedict Anderson titled his renowned book on ethnicity Imagined Communities. Argued Anderson:
“It [ethnic or communal identity] is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellowmembers, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”2
It is easy to understand that persons from an imaginary region designated the Caribbean may want an identity, especially one that is much bigger than a relatively small island. An identity imparts some sense of security in size and numbers. It bestows belonging, and the larger the tribe the greater the warmth imparted. However, some of these designations can be dangerous when ascribed collective identities assume the form of hegemonic cultural claims that omit or marginalize other communities. Identities are potentially dangerous constructs and can be manipulated for oppressive ends, as Edward Said has pointed out.3
One postulate that has provided some credible light argues that the human creature is a boundary-bound animal living in society.4 Essentially, it is argued that, while the human person lives and finds meaning and belonging within the bounds of ethnocultural groups, this membership is ineluctably cast in ‘we-they’ separate antipathetic relationships with other groups. To belong at once entails to be included in an ethnic community and to be separated and differentiated from another or several. Put differently, the human is defined inherently as a groupbounded creature whose deep identity needs for belonging can only be met in a comparative if not oppositional relationship of inclusion/exclusion with other groups. Identity formation and sustenance is relational, often oppositional and conflictual. Ethnic group members may visibly display their distinctive boundary markers in symbolic and physical emblems in contact with others.
I believe that the Caribbean is suffused with an assortment of ethnic tensions that demonstrate the dangers of making indiscriminate ethnic identity claims. The many sites of ethnic struggles are located in relationships of ‘we-they’ claims to power and privileges. Most of these are low keyed and institutionalized in the Caribbean, but a few periodically break the bounds of their normal routine and become quite explosive and dangerous. The very fact of racial as well as linguistic, subregional, and religious diversity embedded in the pattern of settlement and in the social structure of the twenty-odd states of the Caribbean populated by some thirty-three million people predisposes them to patterns of ethnic formation and self-consciousness engendering controversial claims which periodically trigger crises in ethnic contentions. Below the veneer of Caribbean homogeneity lurk numerous identities around the axes of race, culture, language, religion, region, etc.
Political mobilization has played on these cleavages so that ethnic sensitivity and assertiveness pervade these states like blood the body. In public discourse few issues are definitionally free from ethnic motifs, and in some instances these are flagrantly and inflammatorily articulated. Practically every week, in the southern Caribbean in particular but also elsewhere, some sort of interethnic strife surfaces from the cleavages in the plural societies of the region.
The territories that I shall target for the first set of illustrations are the southern Caribbean complex of Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. In this area, a peculiar ethnic demography describes the presence of Africans, Asian Indians, Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Portuguese, Europeans, Amerindians, and various mixes and combinations. Despite this ethnic heterogeneity, structurally there is a bipolar dominance of persons of African and Asian descent.
The intense division between these two communities has had serious repercussions on solidarity against external forces as well as internal challenges of development. It was Walter Rodney who, in his appeal to ‘Black Power’ as a means of mobilization “to throw off white domination and resume the handling of their own destinies” in the Caribbean, made clear that his category of Black people included persons of Asian descent who shared a common Caribbean experience in colonial oppression.5 Internal fissures, especially the African-Indian division, have always provided the conditions for ethnic conflict and in any project of solidarity have had to be contained.
In June 1993 Ms. Hulsie Bhaggan, an Indian member of the Trinidad and Tobago parliament, charged the African-dominated ruling regime, the Peoples National Movement (PNM), with complicity in ‘ethnic cleansing.’ At the time a spate of crime had hit central Trinidad where Indians predominated and this occasioned Ms. Bhaggan’s outburst that Indian women were being “terrorized and raped” by African men.6 She charged the government with complicity by indifference in failing to respond to the plight of the victims and inquired whether the ruling regime “was going to preside over ethnic cleansing and the establishment of a Bosnia in Trinidad.”7
While this dramatic event was transpiring in Trinidad, bringing African-Indian relations to a dangerous boil, in Guyana the defeated predominantly African party, the People’s National Congress (PNC), charged the newly elected Indian-dominated Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) with ‘ethnic cleansing’ because of the dismissal and reshuffle of personnel in the predominantly African American public service.8 The PPP replacement of key civil service incumbents and restaffing of the Board of Directors, a practice common to all new governments, was interpreted as an act of betrayal of a campaign trust and more importantly as ‘ethnic cleansing.’9
Another area of crisis engaging two ethnocultural groups in a civil war, which lasted from 1986 to 1992 and is still not fully and finally quelled and settled, is Suriname. Here the strife has been between two Afro-Surinamese groups, African Creoles and African Bush People, each seen as culturally distinct and regarding themselves as such. The Maroon communities, which evolved from runaway enslaved Africans working on Dutch plantations, involve three major groups (the Ndjuka, Saramacca, and Matawai) which constitute about 10 percent of the country’s population. In a conflict with the Creole-dominated military regime, the Bush Peoples had been submitted to genocidal treatment; many were displaced from their traditional homelands and driven into refugee camps in neighboring French Guiana while others migrated to the Netherlands. The conflict spilled its borders, saw the importation of arms and a few mercenaries, and drew human rights organizations such as Amnesty International into the fray.
There are also separatist tendencies in various places in the Caribbean such as Tobago, Nevis-St. Kitts, the Netherlands Antilles, and Suriname. In Tobago, which is part of the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago, the quest for self-determination has been asserted at various times; it comes and goes as Tobagonians, who generally regard themselves as very different from Trinidadians, react to events that reverberate adversely on their lives, often charging Trinidad with discrimination, neglect, and indifference.10
Another type of ethnic conflict is brewing in Belize where the demographic structure has been radically altered as a consequence of the influx of large numbers of ‘Spanish people’ from Guatemala, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The old dominant anglicized Black and Creole ethnic community is crying out loudly as it sees its pre-eminence eroded by the ethnopolitical realignments in the state.
Another variant of ethnic strife and perhaps the most pervasive in the Caribbean points to the traditional Black (African)–White (European) cleavage that has emerged from the very inception of Caribbean settlement in the colonization of the region. It seemed that it was only yesterday that the Caribbean was strongly buffeted by Black Power uprisings and riots in Jamaica, Trinidad, and the American Virgin Islands. Today, for the most part, the Black-White cleavage has been institutionalized mainly in a color-class system of stratification in which race, culture, and economic factors are combinationally nuanced.
In Haiti color embodied in a distinct Creole stratum has emerged as a salient differentiator in community formation with potent political implications even though this has undergone some major revisions. At times the color-class system turns more on the racial axis, as has occurred in various Black Power challenges.
See Part 2