In Trinidad and Tobago, you would be shocked to know how much a very specific term “recalcitrant” especially when married to the word “minority” is part of the popular vocabulary. The phrase “recalcitrant minority” has a particular resonance in the “young, multiethnic, multicultural, newly-independent state” (Rohlehr 1997, 849). Rohlehr’s description of the society in 1997 as “young” and “newly-independent” still apply when we consider the long view of history. One hundred years in the life of a civilisation is a short time. Therefore, the cultural realities, social hierarchies and public attitudes that we wish naturally changes (for the better) over time do not.
On April 1, 2020, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley in the now routine media conference about COVID-19 opened with his talk that covered a number of issues. His discussion gave context to the global situation of the coronavirus, the struggles of tourist economies, the considerations the cabinet is making on more humane conditions for inmates and then an important justification of the state’s approach for public persuasion rather than punishment and discipline with the instrument of the law at this time.
During his talk he made reference to the phrase “recalcitrant minority.” At the time, listening to the speech with my family, my brothers and I responded, “Damn.” We knew the historical weight of the term. We anticipated the social media backlash. For some who separate the intentions of language from the outcomes and resonances, they may refer to it as a “public relations blunder.” For those who listen to how people feel, they may come to the awareness that is was culturally offensive. And of course, those who are offended by the term can charge that it is fundamentally racist.
My intention here is not to discuss whether or not the Prime Minister had ill intentions in the use of the term. I cannot read his mind. However, I can read language and put it into historical context. I am writing to push back against the ahistorical public responses that have copy & paste or screen shot definitions of the term “recalcitrant” from Dictionary.com to suggest that the term “recalcitrant minority” is not offensive to Indo-Trinbagonians.
Language is not neutral. Political meanings are a part of language. Whether it is Hilary Clinton’s description of young (black) offenders in the 1990s as “super predators” or David Cameron’s racist dog-whistle against Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral election of 2016, political platforms give greater context to language because the discourses represent the intent and ideologies of public policy or at least the mindset of public decision-makers.
At the media conference, PM Dr. Rowley said:
I want to say that if it turns out that the biology is against us we will take further measures if it turns out that we cannot encourage and control the recalcitrant minority (that famous phrase) then the force of law is with us.
The fact that he said “that famous phrase” acknowledges his awareness of the historical and political weight of the term. Therefore, it is not a misstatement but a deliberate use of language. What is the utility of this term in a national conversation? How does it make the message more effective? When ethnic division and misunderstanding are part of our society, how does this choice of language challenge these problems?
The tem “recalcitrant minority” is specific to the history of Trinidad and Tobago and April Fool’s Day (April 1). Before the prospect of single state independence in Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams campaigned for the British West Indies Federation. He felt that the political vision of “West Indian nationalism” was undermined by national and racial distinctions that opposed a federal project. Williams’ legacy was complex as was his relationship to the diversity of ethnic and social groups in T&T. For example, he argued for the full participation of Indo-Trinbagonians in the political and cultural life of the society as well as his political party but he also discouraged the formal teaching of Hindi in schools fearing that this would undermine the nationalist ethos of education. For him, cultural distinction of Indians (and Africans) was an anathema to nationalism. Yet, his desire for a non-racial nationalism was still fundamentally constructed on Afro-creole terms.
In March 1958, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) with a substantial proportion of its support from Indo-Trinidadians defeated the Williams-led PNM and affiliated West Indies Federal Labour Party. This defeat shocked Williams, emboldened his critics and came on the heels of a bitterly fought campaign on both sides that fueled racial animosity and mistrust. On April 1, 1958, in an address to his supporters at the University of Woodford Square, Williams sought to explain the possible reasons for the election results that “poses a dangerous threat to the stability of our country and new nation.” While it is commonly mistaken that Williams spent the entire speech disparaging Indo-Trinbagonians, he attempted to draw comparisons between the India of Jahawarlal Nehru and the “Indian nation” of local activists, saying that it was the former that was progressive and invested in interracial solidarity and not the latter.
I quote directly from Colin Palmer’s Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean (2006) to explain historical context for the term “recalcitrant minority”:
…Williams went on to denounce the Trinidadian advocates of “an Indian nation” as “the recalcitrant and hostile minority of the West Indian nation masquerading as ‘the Indian nation’ and prostituting the name of India for its selfish, reactionary political ends.” This was arguably, the most controversial and criticized speech that Eric Williams delivered during his long political career. (266)
Palmer argues that this “unfortunate use of language” was used by Williams’ critics to describe what they thought was his entire attitude to the “entire race” of Indo-Trinbagonians. He goes on to explain that “it is unlikely that this was his intention, since the PNM included many pro-federation and Indo-Trinidadians – as did the DLP” (266). Interestingly, Rohelhr writes, “It is not clear to this commentator whether by “recalcitrant minority” he meant Indo-Trinidadians or the cadre of French Creoles, other whites, off-whites and coloreds…” (857).
These words help illustrate the cultural reality of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s and the challenge to all of us governing in 2020. What is at stake here is neither the intent of language nor the dictionary meaning of words; we are here to understand, critique and learn from its cultural resonances. Who would have known that a speech on April 1, 1958 would reverberate through April 1, 2020 of another leader in the same political party?
Ethnic, racial, cultural, gender, age differences are part of all societies. Historical knowledge is the precondition to working through them.
A challenge to the Prime Minister on his choice of words is a challenge to all public leaders to consciously use language that includes rather than excludes. Washing our hands can help stop COVID-19 from spreading but we cannot wash our hands of our history.
Palmer, Colin A. 2006. Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean. Kingson, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.
Rohlehr, Gordon. 1997. “The Culture of Williams: Context, Performance, Legacy.” Callaloo (Autumn): 849-888.