Race, politics and coronavirus; President Weekes targets T&T’s biggest challenges on Independence Day

“[…] The lead-up to the [2020] election and its immediate aftermath saw political differences couched in vitriolic racist rants, complete with the most foul language.

“[…] While some of these exchanges may have taken place at close quarters, social media provided a convenient and safe vehicle from which to launch attacks. Even while not considering ourselves racist, we were prepared to spew at strangers things we would never say face-to-face…”

The following is the 2020 Independence Day message from President Paula-Mae Weekes:

Photo: President Paula Mae-Weekes (right).
(Copyright Office of the President)

Fellow citizens, if you had to describe the year 2020 so far, I am sure that the word unusual is one that would come to mind. The novel coronavirus has caused us to make many changes to what would be our normal routines.

One such change, for us as a nation, is that this year—for only the third time since Independence Day 1962—there will be no Independence parade; and unfortunately we will be without our scintillating fireworks displays.

We have also become accustomed to the traditional Independence Day messages from our country’s leaders. But these are not usual times, and with your kind indulgence, this year, I shall depart from conventional content.

The subject of my address, racism, is not completely divorced from the issue of independence, since its roots lie in our colonial past and its branches have reached far beyond 1962 and are still entwined in our national life.

The General Election 2020 flipped Trinidad and Tobago over and exposed what can be described as its ugly underbelly. In 2004, visiting Archbishop Desmond Tutu extended to us ‘rainbow nation’ status in recognition of our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious unity. This designation is not without merit.

Photo: Tribe revellers let loose on Carnival Monday in 2015.
(Courtesy Allan V Crane/Wired868)

Generally, and particularly at Carnival, cricket and public holidays, we present a reasonable facsimile of perfect harmony. But the recent election laid bare seething tensions that have simmered between ethnicities, in particular Indo-Trinbagonians and Afro-Trinbagonians, albeit below the surface.

The lead-up to the election and its immediate aftermath saw political differences couched in vitriolic racist rants, complete with the most foul language.

Because we supported one party, we cursed, insulted and demonised supporters of other parties, often people we never met, tarring them with the same all-purpose brush—notwithstanding that we all know, and have interacted with, individuals who do not conform to our offensive racist stereotypes.

While some of these exchanges may have taken place at close quarters, social media provided a convenient and safe vehicle from which to launch attacks. Even while not considering ourselves racist, we were prepared to spew at strangers things we would never say face-to-face.

The anonymity offered by the keyboard allowed us to vent, we thought without consequence, and we did not have to witness the shock and hurt we caused to unidentified persons.

Photo: Naila Ramsaran was fired by family-owned Ramsaran’s Dairy Products after a racist rant at PNM supporters, who she likened to cockroaches.

Numerous organisations, prominent individuals and the man in the street, quite correctly, called for supporters of the main parties to stop their toxic exchanges, put aside their differences and come together, since we all have to live in Trinidad and Tobago and our personal trajectory is very much tied to that of our country.

These appeals are proof positive of the many patriots who will speak up in support of and defend our twin-island Republic when circumstances warrant.

Many people wondered why I, as president, did not immediately add my voice to the calls for restraint, unity and respect. They were hopeful that salutary words from the head of state would bring calm and soothe hurt feelings on both sides of the divide, thereby diminishing the number of caustic exchanges, especially on social media—the kumbaya effect, in operation.

As head of state, I am careful in deciding both content and timing of my statements, in order to avoid provoking more heat than light. Appeals to the nation are not likely to find fertile ground when passions are inflamed, intellect and reason decamp, and parties remain mired in their entrenched positions.

Additionally, a president’s words are seen to carry great weight and are subject to close examination and individual interpretation.

Photo: President Paula-Mae Weekes walks the red carpet at the re-opening of the Red House in Port of Spain.
(Courtesy Office of the President)

Given the climate, I thought it best to await the final result of the election and make all relevant appointments before issuing a statement. This had the serendipitous effect of allowing for a cooling-off period.

Like every right-minded citizen, I was disgusted and dismayed by the appalling to-and-fro between supporters of the government and opposition—which division generally reflects the two largest and distinct ethnic groups in the country. Political differences can be strongly expressed and debated without recourse to personal attacks, racist diatribes and gratuitous insults.

We would all have noticed the recent reduction in acrimonious cyber traffic, but the underlying issues and feelings have not magically disappeared. They have only been driven back underground to smoulder and foment continued bitterness until the next explosion.

Our only hope of treating with this scourge once and for all is to attack it at the root, recognising that it is the result of our histories—our origin, our arrival, our incorporation into the society and our politics.

One-off initiatives, such as the one organised this weekend by the University of the West Indies in collaboration with the Catholic Commission for Social Justice, are a good start, but by their very nature, will not suffice as a long-term solution.

Photo: Opposition Leader and head of UNC political party Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

A practical and sustainable programme under the umbrella of a national framework, must be developed with all urgency. Our penchant for procrastinating, vacillating and eventually shelving the ubiquitous report cannot be countenanced.

The programme must be adequately resourced, and have established protocols formulated with contributions from all sectors.

A foundation of accurate, historical information is critical and safe spaces need to be created to facilitate the conversations, which ought to be cross-generational. Vital to the success of the programme is a single coherent scheme with digestible modules which can be disaggregated for use in schools—from early childhood to secondary—universities, workplaces, places of worship and other fora where citizens congregate.

Essential to the exercise is the creation of nationwide opportunities for discussion at which various subject matter experts local, regional and international can channel the discourse towards actionable solutions.

Employing professionals such as sociologists, historians, psychologists to formulate, monitor and evaluate the programme is key—to depend on pro bono contributions is to jeopardise the sustainability of the programme.

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley shows off his community recovery team of Anthony Watkins, Hans Des Vignes, Jamaal Shabazz, Curtis Toussaint, Akosua Edwards, Nicola Harvey, Chris Leacock and then Community Development Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly.
(via Dr Keith Rowley)

The process will undoubtedly be long, probably expensive, certainly difficult and at times painful. Individually and collectively we will have to confront conscious and unconscious bias, in ourselves and others even at the expense of some relationships.

Understanding and reversing the effects of accumulated prejudices, misconceptions and disenfranchisement will take many years, perhaps spanning several decades before we achieve the desired outcome.

None of the above negates our individual responsibility to do what we can to tackle all forms of discrimination, even as we await the roll out of the overarching plan. In whatever our sphere of influence, we must find ways to make a positive difference.

Call out racism, investigate the source and accuracy of information before disseminating, share your views responsibly, comment civilly and do not allow disagreement to descend into personal abuse, needless invective and malicious labelling.

It is important that we also heighten our awareness of the myriad ways in which we unintentionally exclude ‘others’ as we go about our routines, tone deaf to the social alienation that we cause.

Photo: A post by former People’s Partnership minister of sport Anil Roberts on 10 August 2020, which sparked several racist comments aimed at Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
Roberts is now a UNC Senator.

A prime example is when we insist on using Christian prayers at secular events and assemblies, where there are invariably people of other faiths. I do not think that having individual prayers said by representatives of multiple religions is the solution.

I recommend that, where appropriate, non-denominational invocations acceptable to all religions are used. We must always opt for inclusivity and be alert to the possibility of giving inadvertent offence in our day-to-day affairs.

In February/March this year, the Office of the President, working with the Ministry of Education, designed its promised youth programme: Inform, Educate, Engage. The programme targets school-leavers with the intention of igniting national pride in this critical cohort.

I intended to visit schools across Trinidad and Tobago and engage in discussions on a range of matters pertinent to their sense of nationhood. Covid-19 scuttled the original plan and the programme now has to be converted, at least for the immediate future, into a virtual one. The delay is perhaps fortuitous since the issue of racial tolerance will now be incorporated specifically.

Photo: President Paula-Mae Weekes (right) sits with students from her alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School (POS) at her inauguration ceremony on 19 March 2018.
(Courtesy Office of the President)

As disturbing as it was to witness the regrettable outpouring of hatred and intransigence over the last six weeks, it has afforded us the opportunity to bring intolerance out of the shadows and deal with it decisively.

Without blaming and shaming, let us at every level—personal, institutional, political, governmental, social—commit to consciously, resolutely and patriotically ridding our society of this divisive affliction.

May God Bless Our Nation.

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