Sunday, April 6, 2014

Response to "Kerosene and Water", Fiji's Racisms

There are many discussions on the issues of race, ethnicity, and nationalism in Fiji. Many politicians, activists, and scholars are concerned about the cultural differences and social relations between the two demographically numerous ‘ethnic groups’ - the iTaukei and the Indo-Fijians. This is especially so because of the series of coup d’├ętats (1987, 2000, 2006) which have occurred since Fiji’s independence in 1970.

We are now observing more discussions on these issues as the nation-state prepares for elections in September, 2014. Indeed, my own work is caught up into the discourse by seeking to (re)present perspectives and experiences from ‘Part Indian-Fijians’.  

The below is actually a response to an article (click here for article) by one of Fiji’s brilliant and ardent scholar Wadan Narsey:

On MIDA’s Hate Speech Announcement: 
"Kerosene and Water"

I uphold the positives of their “hate speech” statement. Whereas I am sure Ashwin Raj is conscious of the fact that claiming ‘hate speech’ tends to politicize issues more, it sends a clear message to the media and politicians to be careful about their words and (re)presentations.

As I had indicated in a previous discussion, I am surprised that the kerosene metaphor is becoming so popular to describe the cultural relations between 'Indians' and the iTaukei. On Friday, I had spoken to an iTaukei (native) taxi driver, asking for his opinions on the term Fijian being used for everyone. He then said: “Kerosene and water don’t mix”. “It’s an old person saying” he said. He expressed discontent for Bainimarama and says Bainimarama will lose. If he does not lose, he said, there will be another coup. I just listened…

At the time, I did not know that there had been a controversy over this metaphor. I realized this until later after I had seen a number of discussions about this issue on Facebook and the news.

The words deemed hate speech are translated by MIDA as follows:

“From the past experiences, this group of people, known in Tebara as the Vasu (referring to Indo-Fijians) will try to pacify you, and assuage you just to have their aspirations met. These people do not want you to lead them. They only want a constitution and other investment initiatives done. Let me warn you that the upcoming elections will be a tough one. Because even though we have lived together for a long time, we can’t mix water with kerosene.”

This is an important issue, if language and discourses, as I believe it is, are what shapes our perspectives on issues. Our notions and stereotypes of the Indian and Fijian are shaped by our interactive use of these forms of phrases and also by the hegemonic representations popularized by politicians, activists, and the media.

See in this light, the taxi’s driver common sense phrase is not simply ‘common sense’ thinking.  It is informed by ideological underpinnings. Remember the statement “Fiji for Fijians” in 1987.

On the issue of indignity: 

As a person who has been critical of colonial projects after studying history, I am also now critical of the indigenous movements.

The post-colonial perspective tends to say that what was before colonialism was better. There is nostalgia to reclaim rights and culture. However, these claims to ‘roots’ are also claims to ‘routes’.

Missing in this discussion is the need to reflect upon the ‘articulators’ of cultural identity. We need to question the power relationship and interests that are involved in the indigenous movements (as well as among any political party in Fiji/Belize).

Moreover, many scholars of indigenous philosophy have become too functionalist, -theoretically supporting the status quo. In Fiji, they say Fijians are born to do this or that; and that to know your place in society is the way things should be. This is a very essentialist form of identity which promotes the status quo. In order words, one’s behavior should follow some inner core or cultural identity that one presumably inherits.

For example, Nabobo-Baba in her book Knowing and learning: An indigenous Fijian approach (2006) gives us descriptions of those iTaukei who have the right to speak about issues (as they are born into particular clans); about how important traditional knowledge is for the wellbeing of the native; of not challenging elders; of respecting the chief’s authority; and of the vitality of understanding one’s place in society. Such forms of treatises promote a romanticist views of ‘indignity’ limiting the practices of inequality within the social order; dis-acknowledging the expressions of resistance by the ‘under-class’, and thus in a sense supporting the status quo.

I take note you cited the UN’s Declaration on Indigenousness, I would say that discussions of power and inequality within indigenous populations and movements are also absent from that discourse. There is a need to re-examine the supposed universality of that declaration in face of Fiji's context or the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar. 

On the issue of Indo-Fijian racism: 

You said that internal racism is more pervasive among Indo-Fijians. We really cannot gauge the degree of internal racisms. Also, as I am sure you would agree, overt racism is a much greater a concern and problem than covert racism.  

Now, do not get me wrong, I am not convinced that Bainimarama is a social radical. I actually think his claim of “We are all Fijians” is a cultural/ideological argument for his hegemony (along with his guns [military]).

We are dealing here with “ideologies without guarantees” (Stuart Hall, 1985). This is to say that while there is a moral vision or rhetoric to end racism, there is no necessary correspondence that this is a good practice, or will be interpreted as a good practice, or that it translates into better social relations among citizens (which we hope it would). 

You are also very right that realities of these groups i.e. “Indian” and “Fijian” are much more complex and heterogeneous than we tend to take them. There are many subtle social boundaries among persons within these ‘two groups’ by: religion, color, class, language, and location, among others.

Just as scholars have interrogated the ethno-nationalist ideology of past politicians; we must also interrogate Bainimarama’s rhetoric of ending racism as an ideology to win power. This is where your writings and activities have been quite positive and commendable.  

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ethnic and National Identification in Fiji Sociology Seminar

In this presentation, I discussed some key components of a sociological research on identification. It is a work in progress towards a degree in sociology, at the University of the South Pacific.

Project title: Exploring ethnic and national identification: An interpretive inquiry among persons of iTaukei and Indo-Fijian descent



This is a research design of an explorative study to be conducted in Fiji on 'mixed race' persons of iTaukei and Indo-Fijian parentage. The study seeks to render an interpretive understanding of 'mixed race' ethnic and national identification based on interviews with participants in Suva, Fiji. The research questions are (a) how do persons of mixed parentage (iTaukei and Indo-Fijian) identify themselves with an ethnic label or labels? (b) what are the perspectives on the institutionalization of the term "Fijian" as a national identity label? (c) what do such experiences tells us about the racialization and politicization of ethnicity? This study is interesting and significant in light of the increasing number of 'multiracial' movements in Anglo-America; the small number of inter-marriages between iTaukei and Indo-Fijian citizens; and the recent policy change to identify all Fijian citizens with the term Fijian. The presentation covers the central aspects of research designs: the literature review (on Anglo-America & Fiji), conceptual framework, methodology, and the modest implications of the study.

This paper can be read with Power Point Presentation available at: 

Discussion Paper: 

NOTE: No part of this presentation is to be used, redistributed, or cited without the author's consent. Just drop me a line and I’ll let you know. Contact Me Here. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

8 Steps to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by Ismail Omar Shabazz

A Foreword by Bilal Morris

The expose featured in this Black History Month, gives a special sense of tribute and respect to one of Belize's best historians and thinker, the legendary Ismail Omar Shabazz. A former member of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD), Shabazz has remained an ardent Belizean nationalist and Muslim who has championed Belizeans causes for the last 50 years.

The founder of the Belize Rural Economic Development of Agriculture through Alliance (BREDAA), Shabazz has chronicled the best in Belizean history and is part of history himself. As an advocate for change in Belize and for the liberation of black people in Belize, Shabazz has garnered the respect from Belizean government officials both past and present.

The featured article, The Belize Guatemalan Dispute: 8 Steps To The ICJ, Shabazz has chronicled a series of important historical events that has led up the present crisis in the Belize/Guatemalan Dispute, and The Guatemalan Claim that students of history can use as a road map to learn how the problem began and why it is where it is now. He also presents a Pan-Africanist perspective in looking at the claim, and has tirelessly lobbied with civil society in Belize to a peaceful resolution to the claim's end.

A History of the Belize Guatemalan dispute: 8 Steps to the International Court of Justice

An Afterward by Rolando Cocom

The article by Shabbaz is an easy to read interpretive mapping of historical moments which shape the Belize - Guatemala territorial dispute. Despite the fact that electoral process on whether or not we should submit the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice was called off last year, this question is still of vital importance. We can take this time to consider the issues involve. There are many perspectives on this issue and it is worthwhile to be familiar with the arguments. 

Additionally, by reading this short piece, one can gain an insight into the philosophical underpinnings of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) and Belize Rural Economic Development of Agriculture through Alliance (BREDAA).

The article is positioned by a discourse of Black politics, Africanist (Afrocentric?), and democratic ideals. Black identity politics, as we know it, with the intent to re-cover or go back to the roots of our African heritage in Belize's national state context is distinctly from the 1960s (tied into the movement and ideological discourse of nationalism/representation). It brought the notion of Garifuna and Creole should be considered as African/Black and tends to be frame with the Other (usually the colonial white other; but also the Migrant/Hispanic Other in some circles).

We note this in several parts of the paper. For instance, we note this in the statement that our African ancestors have been in Belize “over 1000 years” ago along with the Mayas (this is contradicted by the subsequent statement which dates African presence to 1970). We also note that Shabbaz makes this reference with UBAD’s articulation of an Afro British Honduras in the 1960s (p. 2). These are areas that the reader can follow up on.

The quoted text from Shoman appears somewhat contradictory of Shoman’s and Shabbaz’s position. This is because the quoted text is not Shoman’s own word but that of a consultant to the Guatemala delegation. The consultant was saying that Guatemala has no case if the claim is taken to the International court of Justice. In the end, this leads to the position that in order to keep both countries safe, a legal resolution is our best option.  Certainly, it is an article with multiple values and timely for Black History Month. 

The facts about East Indians: Articulating the East Indian Identity

The below letter is very interesting for one to gain a gist of the East Indian experience in Belize. In my view, the East Indians in Belize can be said to have begun to take new measures to (re)articulate their ethnic and cultural identity in Belize. One can note this in the increasing number of East Indian groups and cultural organizations within the last decade. These are interesting developments; within the next decade more cultural groups are likely to develop measures to document their cultural identities. This attempt to revise our spaces within the historical and national narrative is not simply an academic enterprise but a political one which calls upon the State for adequate representation and redistribution of resources.

We are likely to see the various cultural groups establish national cultural councils. I say this because the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) policy is to distribute funds to national councils. The rationale is that this facilitates the processes of economic distribution. For instance, instead of giving monies to smaller groups (who may always say they need more money or hold grudges against the other), the idea is to give monies to national councils and let them manage their resources. This reduces any claims against the Institution that one culture is being privileged in Belize. This is logical but the development of national councils could also lead to greater ‘othering’ of cultural groups and the ‘Belizean identity’. We will likely have national bodies which claim authority over what a cultural group entails and pursue to situate themselves nationally – Should each culture have their national holiday? -Will we agree upon a ‘multicultural day’ as our Cultural Policy suggests?  – Who gets represented in the tourism board and industry? Is the national flag representative of all the cultures? Are the Mestizo’s and the Central American descendants culturally the same? Should Spanish become our national language?  Some people will articulate very polemical arguments on these issues.

It will be important that we remain committed to highlighting the cultural commonalities and citizenship ideals to our population and especially to cultural activists. It will also benefit us if our ‘national identity’ is not “constructed in ethnic or cultural terms, but rather as a political and institutional concept related to the state and its constitution. Also, the national identity must provide room for the existence of multiple identities, whether they be ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural or whatever. Its definition—which should in any case be considered as flexible and subject to change—should be such that it can include all citizens, making it possible for all to identify with it” (Shoman, 2010, p. 49). A rigid (essentialist) form of identity politics can lead us to undesirable circumstances; alternatively, if we can negotiate a cultural politics with the goal for greater democratization and inclusion, it could be very positive. 

The letter was a response to a letter by Cliton Uh Luna, a columnist in the Amandala Newspaper in which he asked that the East Indian communities in Belize should teach us about who they are. It is also puzzling to know that Luna had such a distorted view of the East Indians presence in Belize despite his frequent writings on Belizean history: 

Dear Sir,

I write in response to “Mr. Clinton Uh Luna”, in reference to his request made in the Amandala Sunday issue 2111, dated January 7th, 2007.

I write to inform and educate Mr. Luna and the Belizean public who are still ignorant of the facts, history and culture of the East Indians. It seems that now we East Indians, being a mere three percent of the Belizean population, have been ignored and neglected as an ethnic group. Many times when the ethnic groups of Belize are mentioned, East Indians are usually the last to be mentioned or not mentioned at all, until recently with the birth of the East Indian Council and with the support of the East Indian community, we have been able to openly and courageously promote the culture of the East Indians. Although compared to the other cultures of Belize, we have no language, but our culture is preserved in our food – Cohune Cabbage, Tacari, Yellow Ginger, Jelabi, Carili, and the surnames and physical appearance of the present descendants.

East Indians came to the Caribbean from India, not Africa, in the 18th century as Indentured Servants and not slaves. They worked as sugar cane farmers. Between 1838 and 1917 it was recorded that 543,434 Indians (or “Coolies”as they were referred to – now a derogatory term, did not mean indentured servant, it meant “unskilled laborer”) had been indentured in the Caribbean. The majority of them resided in Guyana and Trinidad. In 1857, three thousand East Indians migrated from Jamaica to Belize, 382 of which were originally born in India. However, they came here as free East Indians, due to the expiration of their contracts in Jamaica. Therefore, all the East Indians in Belize came from Jamaica.

Another point I wish to make is that all East Indians were not necessarily Hindu: some were Muslims. Therefore East Indians cannot be categorized as Hindu descendants, but rather descendants of the people of the Indus Valley Civilization and a mixture of Aryans (Indo-Europeans). Being a Hindu does not necessarily make you an Indian, and being Indian does not make you Hindu.

There are very few “pure-bred” Indians left in Belize; however, it is hard to find ethnic groups that have not intermarried with other groups. We may all be different in attitudes, religions and our positions in society, but “at the end of each day there is one unifying factor – that fact that we are all East Indians,” said Mr. Gabriel Pate, President of the East Indian Council, in his foreword in the book “Tales from a forgotten place” by Bismark Ranguy, Sr.

This colossal confusion may be the result of hundreds of years of distortion, when Columbus made a mistake landing in the Bahamas and thought it was East India. However, the Caribbean was home to the Caribbeans, and was later referred to as the West Indies, and not East India. This was the name given to it so as not to be confused between the two “Indias.” During their early arrival these Indians were not allowed to intermarry with other ethnic groups, and there was friction between the East Indians and the Africans, so a mixture would not have been likely.

Yes, children were born in the Caribbean, but to Indian parents. Parents who came from a mighty civilization, one that built the Taj Mahal, developed the concept of numbers and the use of the zero, long before the Mayas. Some of the most remarkable faces in the history of humanity were East Indians, such as the Great Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, were “coolies”.

The names of the East Indians were changed, because the Europeans could not pronounce the names and changed then even the spellings, for example:

a.) Ghai – Guy                        
b.) Ravinsingh – Robinson          
c.) Suphala – Supaul
d.) Rhanghai – Ranguy
e.)Pahemran – Parham
f.)Tulsie/Toalsi – Tulcey

These are only some of the conversions. Some employers thought it was better for the servants to adopt their last names, so this resulted in East Indians having names like Borland, Edwards, Jacobs, Coleman, and Jackson. So you might see that due to the lack of knowledge by students about the cultures of Belize, a lot has not been learned and therefore, people cannot be blamed for that unawareness. Nonetheless, it does not permit you to discriminate or reproach the East Indian community for such ignorance.

I hope that my input will help to correct the inexactitudes in your article and has answered some questions regarding the East Indians of Belize. If further information be needed please refer to:

East Indian Folk Culture in Belize by Joan Elizabeth Cardenas
Tales from Forgotten Belize by Bismark Ranguy, Jr.
Towards Understanding Belize's Multi-cultural History and Identity by Joseph Iyo
East Indian Culture by ISCR/NICH

Yours truly
Noel Gomez

Demand Education: Re-posted from Amandala

The below article is a letter published in the Amandala. With the hope that it gets a broader readership, it is reposted here. An additional recommendation to add to this piece is that we should demand that the social disciplines be listed as areas of national priority for scholarships. This also relates to one of my post on the role of consciousness for activism. 

Dear Editor,

As scandals explode, we are reminded of previous scandals that have come and gone. “De lee breeze” has repeatedly blown over, as Said Musa infamously declared. Media houses report scandals but do not allow for political analysis or welcome commentators to their broadcasts. Follow-ups are done the night after and then the matter is forgotten. The citizenry continues to struggle while our Ministers exploit us and worse, exploit the future of Belizean children.
In this letter, I do not want to merely complain. I want to make a proposal to the people of Belize. Demand education. Demand it for yourself. Demand it for your children. Demand it for your grandchildren.

In Belize, we are not offered courses in political science, development, and gender studies. When we graduate primary school and high school, we are knowledgeable in academic subjects like math and science. But we graduate socially inept. Many of us do not know how our system works. We do not know our basic rights. We do not know where Belize stands relative to the rest of the world. We do not know how to participate in our democracy and we do not know how to make our country better. The education system is spitting out people who are unable to participate in the development of their country, not because they do not want to participate, but because they do not know how.

This should end, today. Children deserve to graduate with knowledge of their country and their society. They deserve that empowerment. As domestic violence continues and sexual assaults are reported on an almost daily basis, students should be taught about gender issues. Both young women and men ought to be taught equality of the sexes and the issues that affect each sex. Courses like political science, gender studies, and developmental studies expand the minds of its students. These are the social sciences that create leaders. No longer should we allow our children to go to schools to learn only math, science, and English. They must know about social justice and politics.

A weapon often used by dictators is the disempowerment of its citizenry. They do not educate their youth because educated people will not be silenced into blind obedience. Belizeans continue to tolerate the blatant nepotism, scandals, and corruption by every government that has ever been in power. Why? Because we have been taught to be docile and accepting. We have been taught that we deserve no better. And we have been taught that we are helpless.

You vote for these Ministers. You vote for your leaders. You should demand, and demand now, that you and your children and your grandchildren are empowered through education. Education is, without a doubt, the key to our future. Do not allow our self-interested leaders to hold the key in their pockets. That key is ours.