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The Douglarisation Controversy in T & T

By Ras Tyehimba
July 04, 2005

Recently, the comments of Dr. Elizabeth Sieusarran drew harsh responses from some members of the public that were printed by various media houses. Speaking at a function, Dr. Siesarran stated that the Hindu community has to decide whether to accept or ostracise 'Douglas' from the community. The responses carried in various mainstream media were, as usual, shallow in their analysis and did not allow the wider population to become better informed about the issues at hand. To properly understand the significance and meaning of Dr Sieusarran's statement, some aspects of history need to be highlighted.

Firstly, the origin of the word 'dougla' is of interest. According to the Sankshipt Hindi Shabdasagar (Abridged Hindu Dictionary), the word 'dogla' refers, in the first instance, to the "progeny (children) of inter varna marriage" and in the second instance acquires the connotation of 'bastard' meaning illegitimate. In Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, 'dougla' refers to persons of mixed African and Indian descent and is, by its origins, a derogatory term. Dr Rhoda Reddock notes that this original negative connotation was derived primarily from its semantic emergence within the context of the Hindu caste system where inter-caste/inter-varna and inter-religious unions were for the most part taboo.

Reddock, in her paper titled 'Douglarisation and the Politics of Gender Relations in Contemporary Trinidad and Tobago', cites a study done in 1991 called the National Mobility Survey, in which despite the stated tolerance of ethnic intermarriage, in practice the situation appeared to be quite different. "Overall from the sample, 14.4 % objected to their children marrying Africans, while only 2.8 objected to their children marrying Indians". So we see that in the society as a whole Indians are seen as acceptable marriage partners by all ethnic groups while Africans are seen as the least acceptable. The reasons behind this are rooted in the colonial foundations of the Caribbean upon which the present social, political and economic arrangements of Trinidad are built.

The enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean was so economically beneficial to Europe that a wide range of reasons was concocted to justify this nefarious practice. Out of this period arose strong notions of African (dark skinned) inferiority, as well as the inferiority of other non-White peoples. In colonial society, the social hierarchy was one of white over brown over black. The African phenotype was associated with ugliness; his character portrayed as inherently criminal, lazy and dishonest and his institutions, norms and culture seen as pagan, evil and primitive (backward). The social relations in islands such as Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana were further complicated with the arrival of East Indians. East Indians were seen by the European rulers as inferior, but were located in a social position above the Africans. Colonial rulers recognized that arriving East Indian immigrants had a culture, religion and language and they were allowed to practice them, though the dominant European/Christian constructs viewed these practices as inferior and pagan and sought ways to Christianize the arriving workers.

Even though few persons from the highest Hindu castes arrived in Trinidad as indentured workers, the values of the caste system remained and were reinforced by the highly stratified colonial society. In India, in the caste system which seems to have been originally based on colour (varna), the upper levels are occupied by Brahmins, who are traditionally (light-skinned) while at the other extreme are the Dalits commonly called 'Untouchables', the majority of whom are dark-skinned. Dalits are considered to be so lowly that they are perceived as being completely outside of the Caste system.

Douglarisation has been advanced as a solution for racism/ethnic tensions between Africans and Indians. The flawed reasoning behind this is based upon the assumption that Africans and Indians will not harbour negative attitudes towards Dougla persons because they are at least part African/Indian. This solution, apart from being simplistic, does not really address the root causes of racism and the generally poor racial attitudes that are so endemic in T & T. It is idiotic to suggest that Douglarisation can help persons become more sensitive to East Indians and their culture. In terms of the negative labels that are attached to African physical features, it is also idiotic to suggest that poor and racist attitudes directed towards those who have typically African features (thick lips, dark skin, and kinky hair) can be addressed by intermixing and therefore eliminating what some see as undesirable features. Such poor attitudes are demonstrated by the frequent Trini talk about 'good hair', which is inevitably of the straighter variety, and by extension, 'bad hair' being of the kinky variety. These bogus colonial values have never been addressed properly in the mainstream and it is offensive to imply that breeding out certain features can reduce such poor racial attitudes. Such thinking does not encourage people to get more informed. Rather than placing the blame on the lap of the perpetrators it blames the victims of racism and implies that certain physical characteristics are the cause of poor racial attitudes. It is ironic that the solution that some people have to better ethnic relations is not just racist but is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

It is interesting to note the differing reactions to Douglarisation. To some Africans, who remain scarred by inferiority complexes brought about by more than 500 years of deliberate de-culturalisation, physical features that are closest to the European phenotype are perceived as superior and beautiful while physical features that are closest to typical African features are seen as ugly and inferior. Hence, intermarrying with anybody with lighter skin, straighter hair or European-type phenotype is often seen as desirable because it produces children that fulfill the dominant Eurocentric standards of beauty. Many persons of African heritage are oblivious to the negative connotation of the word 'Dougla' and therefore use the word without the negative connotation. In fact, it often has a positive connotation because of the stigma around features seen as African.

On the other hand, many East Indians are aware of the negative connotations of the word 'dougla' and the term often is not used in a neutral way. Calls for Douglarisation to occur, such as by the Catholic Archbishop in 1990, have been fiercely rejected by a significant number of East Indian leaders. For members of the Indian community, Douglarisation is associated with loss of their culture and religious traditions that they worked so hard to preserve. In this context, objections against calls for mass Douglarisation are certainly understandable and valid. On another level however, the objections to Douglarisation are the result of the negative association with blackness, which is characteristic of the Hindu caste/varna system. This association results in tensions surrounding marriage with Africans, while on the other hand, marriage with Europeans or local Whites are accepted and even welcomed.

Dr. Reddock draws attention to the gender aspect of Douglarisation, in that, it is much more acceptable for an Indian man to marry an African woman, than the other way around. She links this to the male-dominated caste system in which it may be permissible for marriage between a woman, and a man of higher caste, but not vice versa. Also of importance is the fact that women are often seen as symbols or metaphors of the sanctity of the ancestral homeland, in need of protection by males from any perceived threat. These dynamics demonstrate how closely race, class and gender issues are linked.

While there are terms to represent persons of mixed African and Indian heritage as well as persons of mixed European and African heritage there are no such terms for mixtures between other groups such as Indian and European or Chinese and European. The existence of these terms, on one level, reflects the notion of the inferior African race lowering and polluting 'superior' groups of people. In both the European class/colour system and the transplanted Hindu caste value system, status and acceptability (beauty) are generally elevated the further a person's features are from the physical characteristics of a typical African and decreased the further a person is from the typical European phenotype (light skin, straight hair etc).

Relations between Africans and Indians must be understood in terms of the colonial origins of Trinidad, in which the society was deliberately structured to discourage collaboration between these two main ethnic groups. Policies such as controlling the movement of Indentured workers ensured that the European socio-economic arrangements of the society remained unchallenged. From Independence to the present, both Indian and African politicians continue to exploit racial insecurities and unaddressed race issues for their own political and economic gain. Behind the political screen are the often white/light skinned economic movers and shakers who finance the two main political parties.

It is impossible to understand race and any other issue for that matter, without a proper historical foundation and this is where most of the present mainstream commentary is sadly lacking. Of course, even when some people study history, their perspective remains stagnant as low integrity allows them to conveniently ignore certain aspects of history that contradict and invalidate their opinions. Addressing poor racial attitudes within Trinidad cannot come through the popular mainstream notions of 'we are all one', 'no race', or 'douglarise the nation'. 'We are all not 'one', as different groups have different histories and there are some important differences in their experiences in this space. Such notions of 'we are all one' actually perpetuate poor racial concepts as it masks the true nature of relations between and among the diverse people that comprise T & T. It also assumes that individuals can transcend centuries of negative racial stereotyping with mere good intentions.

Race and colour issues need to be discussed and addressed in their historical contexts as poor racial constructs are imbedded too deeply to easily dismiss them with notions of 'one love'. It is clear that Douglarisation does not address the root of racial attitudes, nor does it address the general preference for lighter skinned persons (Colourism) in both the African and Indian communities. It is only by studying history that the Eurocentric standards of beauty, worth and acceptability can be challenged. It is through understanding our common origins that the two main ethnic groups, the Africans and Indians can exist in a manner that is more sensitive to each other.

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