I'm Reclaiming Coolie and Here's Why
Updated: May 31, 2021
Written by: Anusuya Singh
Disclaimer: This post was written from the perspective of an Indo-Guyanese. The Indo-Caribbean diaspora is not a monolith and therefore, our views will differ. Usage and connotations of ‘coolie’ can vary. Like all slurs, reclamation is an individual choice.
In 1983, Amitabh Bachchan continued his modus operandi in the blockbuster film Coolie, where his hero character, Iqbal Khan, represented communist workers fighting for equal rights and fair treatment. The grandeur and mesmerizing personality of Iqbal had audiences cheering for him every step of the way. In the years to follow, Bollywood would treat “coolies” as working class heroes, fighting against a brutal capitalistic system.
In the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, coolie was not a word to be celebrated.
As a little girl, I was taught to associate coolie with dirty, uneducated, and low-caste. Within my social circles, coolie alluded to someone who was in an ‘unskilled’ profession, dark-skinned, or did not have high educational attainment. Taking a step back, I now realize that coolie was used to shame those who did not assimilate to the white supremacist standard of an respectable society member.
Oftentimes, in Indo-Caribbean vernacular the words chamar and coolie are interchangeable. Chamar refers to a dalit community and has historically been used as a casteist slur. In the Indo-Caribbean, calling someone a chamar is akin to calling them uneducated and uncivilized. Usage of words like coolie and chamar can negatively highlight feelings of shame about one’s culture and ancestral origin.
The image of coolies being dirty is directly linked to colonial British oppression.
While some Indo-Caribbean ancestors willingly migrated in search of better prospects, it can be argued that all of our ancestors were kidnapped because they were deceived and tricked into indenturnship. Conditions were brutal with many workers facing malnutrition, poor housing conditions, and lack of education. Indo-Caribbean ancestors were not given basic dignity when it came to work. Women were sexually abused on a regular basis by white overseers. Health concerns were disregarded by doctors who could not be bothered to humanize workers. Although signed contracts promised decent wages and adequate living conditions, those promises were rarely kept. Instead, workers were trapped with little autonomy.
The burden of those failed promises did not fall on British colonizers. Instead, the narrative was reworked to demean our ancestors. For far too long, our ancestors were blamed for their own oppression. Colonizers regarded them as being too uncivilized and uncultured to deserve basic human rights, while mainland South Asians saw Indo-Caribbeans as traitors who abandoned their homeland.
To allow the word coolie to be seen as derogatory is to allow oppressors and their descendants to continue holding power over us.
The negative connotation associated with coolie stems primarily from three factors: ignorance, classism, and casteism. There is ignorance regarding the history of our ancestors and their plight. There is classism through associating the work of a laborer as an unskilled occupation that carries shame. The derogatory form of coolie also perpetuates casteism as laborers were considered to be the “lowest” of the reinvented colonial British caste system.
Preserving our culture also means acknowledging the hardships of our ancestors. Rather than shy away from their occupation, we should embrace it as a sign of resilience and strength. Our ancestors were not meek and docile. They craved freedom and liberation. Between 1874 and 1895, 65,084 indentured workers in Guyana were arrested for breaching their work contract. Strikes were common and arrests could not dissuade our ancestors from seeking independence and dignity.
In trying to suppress the fire of freedom within indentured workers, British colonizers worked to portray them as uneducated and unworthy of personal autonomy. Peter Ruhoman called the system of indentureship “semi-slavery...in the interests of a powerful and privileged body of capitalists.” Our ancestors did not accept these shackles. Their history was tainted by the pen of the colonizers who hoped that the descendants of workers would never realize the resilience and power that have coursed through our veins and blood for generations.
When I call myself a coolie, I do so with a feeling of pride.
No amount of arrests or malicious words could quench the thirst for liberation. My ancestors did not endure such demeaning treatment for me to not take pride in their resilience. Many were fleeing impoverished conditions with the hope of a better life. I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. Their blood, sweat, and tears have watered the soil from which I was born. I carry the pain of their labor within my own body. I am proud to call myself a coolie because my ancestors spat on the face of white supremacist colonization and continued to pass on their culture and legacy for future generations.
Malu, Preksha. “Caste-Igated: How Indians Use Casteist Slurs to Dehumanise Each Other.” SabrangIndia, 21 July 2018, www.sabrangindia.in/article/caste-igated-how-indians-use-casteist-slurs-dehumanise-each-other.
Rodney, Walter. A HISTORY OF THE GUYANESE WORKING PEOPLE: 1882 - 1905. JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV. PR., 1981.