Trinidad & Tobago promotes equality, but politicians often can't resist talking race

A screenshot taken from the YouTube video showing the lyrics of Trinidad and Tobago's national anthem, Forged from the Love of Liberty. Video published by DN Anthems.

In April 2019, an audio recording of a woman called Nalini Ramai made the rounds of Trinidad and Tobago's social media channels. In the recording, Ramai was heard complaining to her cable TV provider about the fact that Zee TV, an Indian channel, was pulled from her package. In its place were local programmes featuring the country's prime minister, Dr. Keith Rowley. The customer service representative tried his best to placate her, but Ramai resisted and ended up making racist statements about the prime minister and other people of African descent.

Rowley responded to the debacle by calling on the public to “be alert to [racism] and reject it in all its manifestations”, even as opposition activists suggested that the whole affair might be “a well planted and orchestrated distraction” by the governing party.

A Wired 868 post made it clear:

When Nalini used the [n-word], it is more than descriptive; it is political and can prove irrevocably divisive.

Other commentators, like attorney and former minister of justice Christlyn Moore, have warned about the dangers of such rhetoric:

The fact is that as a nation, we have a problem with civility, identity, and race and gender relations. And our politicians echo this.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the population predominantly comprises two ethnic groups — African and Indian — and the support base of the country's two main political parties, the People's National Movement (PNM) and the United National Congress (UNC), reflect this divide. While Trinidad and Tobago hasn't experienced the kind of ethnically-based political violence that other multi-ethnic countries like Guyana have, many voters cast their ballots based on tribe rather than issues, setting the stage for the cut and thrust on the hustings to veer toward race. All this in a country whose national anthem includes the line “Here every creed and race find an equal place”, and where with sections of the country's Equal Opportunity Act makes certain kinds of “offensive behaviour” actionable.

While people the world over may harbour racist thoughts — and even voice them — within their own communities, the Nalini Ramai incident shows what happens when such ideas are expressed in public, and how politicians can turn such situations to their advantage. Here's a short (and shameful) history of recent political slurs…

The ‘Calcutta ship’

January 2013 — In the lead-up to the Tobago House of Assembly elections on January 21, one PNM candidate, Hilton Sandy, referenced the Fatel Razack, the ship that left Calcutta, India on February 16, 1845 carrying the first batch of indentured labourers bound for Trinidad's sugar plantations. Sandy warned voters at a rally:

There is a ship at Calcutta waiting to sail to Tobago; they are waiting to get the results of this election. If you bring the wrong results, Calcutta ship is coming down for you. You must stop that ship. We must not allow that ship to sail and if you don’t want that ship to sail, what you have to do? Is vote the PNM!

Public reaction was split down the middle, with some voters predicting his campaign would suffer and others dismissing the statement by saying, “Everybody does it.”

As veteran Trinidadian journalist Raffique Shah has noted, race has long been a key ingredient in Trinidad and Tobago’s politics:

It was always the not-so-secret weapon to rally the tribes, especially during elections and mostly in core ethnic communities […] the modern Afro-and Indo-based parties perfected the art of appealing to people’s base instincts.

The politics of ‘wining’

February 17, 2015 — During the country's annual Carnival celebrations, Dr. Keith Rowley, who was still opposition leader at the time (general elections would take place that September) did what most masqueraders would do during the two-day street parade — he “wined” (did a hip-swiveling dance) with a fellow masquerader.

This particular masquerader, however, was of Indian descent (Rowley is Afro-Trinidadian) and supposedly a minor, though it appears she was either a willing participant or the instigator of the dance. Still, the conversation soon became political, with some questioning Rowley's fitness for office.

Satnarayan ‘Sat’ Maharaj, a divisive local religious and political figure who has often used racially charged language, said he was “shocked” at Rowley's behaviour with a “teenager”. Many interpreted such comments as an attempt to demonise black male sexuality — and deflect the racism inherent therein — by focusing on the young woman's age, which was never confirmed.

The ‘sari skit’

August 12, 2018 — At a PNM Family Day event, one of the party's constituency groups performed an off-colour skit in which a woman had her yellow sari taken off by men in gorilla suits to expose a red undergarment. Yellow is the colour associated with the UNC, while red is the official colour of the PNM. While the creators of the skit claimed the performance was meant to represent the constituency's increase in support for the PNM in an area that has traditionally voted for the UNC, it drew widespread public criticism for being racist.

The country's Hindu community also took offence, saying that the sari was more than just a piece of cloth, and that the performance was a mockery of the sacred scripture about the disrobing of Draupadi.

Prime Minister Rowley soon apologised for the skit, but hit back at the opposition for accusing the PNM of promoting rape and attacks on women — an attempt, he said, to stir up racial hatred.

The ‘Oreo’ cookie

September 10, 2018 — Addressing a UNC party meeting, Trinidad and Tobago's opposition leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, called Prime Minister Keith Rowley an “Oreo”. She was accused of trying to stir up racial tensions, exacerbated when she brought the country's one per cent into the fray and inferred that Rowley was trying to pander to the interests of the rich and powerful.

As was the case with the sari skit, the Oreo comment made the local blogosphere bristle. Had the opposition leader apologised right away, the issue might have been nipped in the bud. Instead, UNC supporters attempted to defend the statement.

Lawyer and politician Garvin Nicholas, who is affiliated with the UNC, posted on Twitter:

Twitter users were incredulous. On Facebook, the discussion was just as rife, with Denny Ablack, who is of Indian ethnicity, commenting:

Do not get drawn into this ethnic brainwashing. Whether it's Oreo or Calcutta Ship it has no place in our national dialogue. There is nothing positive there for the children of T&T

While Persad-Bissessar eventually posted a statement about her comments on her party's website, the tone was far from contrite.

1 comment

  • Lisa Rostant

    Trinidad’s Racism Hidden in plain sight, a matter of expression and narration. The irony of the racism inherent within the discussion of race is demoralizing. The racial hierarchy in Trinidad is no different to the rest of the caribbean, latin America and especially Brazil. The simple blueprint is ‘Straight & Curly’ over ‘Thick & Wooly’!That’s right,Hair & Facial features have always been the primary currency in Trinidad… skin colour is a distant second! Which is why Indians as an ethnic group, with their naturally straight hair, regardless of skin tone, have always been seen by other ethnic groups as superior to African People.
    Phenotypically mixed race Africans of Lighter Skin and Looser hair texture, (higher than usual admixture of chinese, european, arab,indigenous etc) are an exception and categorized as ‘mixed’, and are considered by as on the same hierarchical level as indians, or also beneath whites, chinese and arabs but higher in status than PHENOTYPICALLY “unmixed” Africans.This is evident with the strong social and political pairing of these two groups socially & Politically forom as early as kindergarden but definitely Primary school. Inter-marriage is the strongest indicator, e.g Anthony Carmona & his wife…A very common ‘coupling’ of phenotypes in T&T ! always been All the StraightHaired ethnic groups OVER Dark Skinned African People.
    This reality, exposes the racist power dynamic between DarkSkinned, unmixed ‘looking’ Africans and everyone else! The Domination of the narrative about racism in T&T, by all other ethnic groups INCLUDING INDIANS & phenotypically mixed persons, that inevitably, aggressively seeks to obfuscate the reality of this racial hierarchy, relative privilege OVER Africans and who has the power (Psychologically, Phenotypically, Religiously & Historically ) TO BE RACIST. Garvin Nicholas’s response to kamla’s racist oreo comment illusteates his true value to Kamla, The UNC, COP and their Ilk.
    First off, Kamla, A self proclaimed Brahmin, which is the Highest Varna or “caste” in Her religion that is Brahmin-ism (ignorantly referred to as “Hinduism”) uses the slur ‘oreo biscuit’ that mockingly describes the contrast between very dark skin and a white inside! The term Oreo, used by Africans, to describe sellouts and collaborators whith historically white oppressors…Garvin Nicholas for example, is seen by many Africans as an Oreo Biscuit with a GREEN FILLING that is NOT ‘Mint’ kind.
    The Fact tha Kamla, like Panday are Brahminists(Hindus) who identify with Brahmin Race that is THE Superior, Highest Race within her religion’s Racist, Skin Colour hierarchy that places Dark Skinned Human Beings at the bottom (EN-Slaved) and African People EVEN LOWER in the hierarchy gives her usage of the term a much more potently insulting racist meaning!
    As for the “Calcutta Ship”, another example of the racist gaslighting of African People in Trinidadian society, whilst hijacking and dominating the narrative of what and who is racist, away from reality and obfuscating truth. Hilton Sandy warned Tobagonians in his speech of the impending danger of The Overtly Racist Peoples Partnership Administration gaining political control of the island and a malicious ‘flooding’ of the island by Indian Trinidadians , Guyanese as well as the ever increasing swell of Indian Nationals for the purpose of a racist, ethnic dominance of the island! This was the well earned reputation of the UNC/|PP. Sandy’s metaphor of a calcutta ship representing the indian community was not Racist!!
    A.N.R. Robinson, in his Autobiography alleges, that the reason for N.A.R.’s disintegration was,among other things the fact that Basdeo Panday, INSISTED that he be given the Ministry Of External Affairs, and subsequent to his appointment, years later, Robinson received official reports of Gutanese ‘of a certain ethnicity’ (Indians) were Flooding into Trinidad at a rate of 70 persons per week!! EXCLISIVELY indian guyanese migration to Trinidad between 1986-1988 At a rate of 70 per week?? Was that fair? Was THAT racism?? I wonder what the rate of Indian Guyanese Immigration was between 1995-2001, when that very minister, became the ‘Minister Of Ministers’?? Or between 2010-2015?? Hilton Sandy’s concern was a reasonable one and in tandem with the overtly obnoxious racism of The The UNC/|PP and their supporters’ suspicious & sudden, post 2010, interest in relocating to Tobago . What about the UNC/|PP’s ridiculous EXCLISIVE waiver for Indian nationals’ Visa requirements and not a single African State afforded the same?? Wasn’t that racist? How were Africans supposed to feel & react to this behaviour? RESISTANCE TO RACIST OPPRESSION AND ‘SETTLEMENT COLONIALISM’ IS NOT RACISM!!!

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.