By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 17, 2018
Dr. Keith Rowley and the PNM came through the Petrotrin debate looking much better than Ancil Roget and the OWTU. Moreover, Rowley’s rationality and levelheadedness triumphed over Roget’s tentativeness and impulsiveness. Initially, I thought Rowley and the PNM would have won the battle and lost the war. I am not sure this prediction still holds. It’s a pity though Roget did not outline his refinery-saving proposal before (Express, September 14).
My neighbor, a shop steward of OWTU, has another view of things. He believes the strike was “partially successful. It was supposed to demonstrate to the political leaders that we need to change how we do things and to remind them that the people are still in charge.” “The union,” he said, “used the day to protest the selling of our national assets to foreigners.”
My neighbor also explained the day of rest and reflection “failed partially” because “the government intimidated the workers.” Inadvertently, he let the cat out of the bag when he said: “The shop stewards received no instructions from the union about what its members were supposed to do on that day. When I called Paramount headquarters for instructions I was told: ‘Use your discretion.'”
The union had not prepared its workers for its day of action. While it castigated the government for its lack of preparedness and sudden action (the government hadn’t informed the union about its plans to close down the refinery), the union itself had not taken care of its business and therein lay its failure.
My neighbor complained that the union had become too political. “A union,” he said, “was supposed to represent the interests of its members. Now it is mired in politics. It should devote 75 percent of its time to labor issues and activities and 25 percent to interacting with government.” The balance, he said, has tipped too much in favor of the latter.
He suggested that this equilibrium was disturbed when Errol McCloud joined the People’s Partnership (PP). “It derailed the union.” When Comrade Roget became disenchanted with the PP and supported the PNM, the pendulum swung a little farther in the political direction.
The union’s immersion into politics made many members lose faith in the union’s efficacy. This lack of faith was deepened further by the commingling of the private and commercial activities of some union leaders that prevent them from devoting their undivided attention to their primary function of representing union members. He believed this commingling of activities presents itself as a conflict of interest.
Just when we thought Comrade Roget and the union had suffered a bad eye (or mal jeaux) in the square of public opinion, Kamla Persad made an unfortunate (not racist) comment about Rowley’s relationship with the one-percenters. She referred to him as an “oreo” (black on the outside but white on the inside) which may have been a tempting but unfortunate caricature of Rowley’s behavior.
Her error lies within what sociologists call “insider privilege” which suggests that someone within a group is free to use a word or a phase that outsiders may see as derogatory but those people within the group may see as endearing or even complimentary.
When a sister from the inner cities of the United States (and I have been teaching African- American Studies for the past fifty years) calls or refers to her lover as “My Nigga” (not “My Nigger”), it is considered a term of endearment.
If a white woman were to call her black lover “My Nigger,” it is something different in its intonation, pronunciation, and meaning. It can be a catastrophic mistake. If she were to do so, she would be digging into a history of words and meanings (such as “the black stud,” the “Mandingo”) into which a white woman is not free to enter.
When a black person uses the term “Nigga,” not “Nigger,” he or she uses it to mean something quite different than a white person as is demonstrated most conspicuously in the Hip Hop genre.
Kamla is an Indian woman. Her transgression lies in her not having the right or the permission to use the term “oreo” regarding a black man which, coming from her, gives it quite a different meaning. She does not have the privilege to use such a term about a black man. Doing so publicly compounds the issue.
Kamla admits that she was guilty of being insensitive although Rowley has since admitted that he serves the one-percenters in his area (Express, September 13), a deliberate misrepresentation of the term. Kamla’s fault lies in the inappropriateness of her use of the word by someone outside the group. Words and phrases in the English language derive their meaning from the context. We have to be careful when we take the liberty of using words outside their given context and what is understood to be the shared meaning within the group.
Roget’s miscalculation and Kamla’s linguistic faux pas may be seen as arrows that over sped their targets. In the future, both need to be careful about their use of words and actions. And while we are at it, it wouldn’t hurt if Roget and Kamla conveyed a sense of regret for any pain or anxieties their words or actions may have caused.