One of the most poignant cries heard in Guyana especially around elections, is “Why do we have to call ourselves “Indian” or “African” or “Amerindian” Guyanese? Why can’t we be just Guyanese?” Following the March 2, 2020 elections the cries have once again proven to be a challenge to the government of the PPP, which has historically been dismissive of ethnicity. The premise of the question, of course, is that our ethnic identifications are the source of our long-standing electoral-related miseries and shedding our ethnic differences would resolve them.
There are several problems with that view. Firstly, our history has conspired to deliver us to where we are – a society with people of very diverse origins and cultural heritages. And it really, in the main, does not matter as to how deep those differences really are in the present. What matters is the perceptions of those differences. We can’t undo that by mouthing of fine sounding platitudes from political platforms. It is the politicians who claim to be “beyond race or ethnicity” who have created the most problems for us – especially with what are considered token “multiracial” representatives.
Our ethnic identifications in Guyana are a consequence of the universal human need to have a sense of self – an identity. This is an essential part of every individual becoming a mature person with our self worth is inextricably linked to our group worth. Identities are constituted on the basis of various traits and experiences. For instance, we are all born into a family that itself is part of a particular group. The group’s world view and way of life is consciously and unconsciously transmitted to the child who as he grows up that he/she (not surprisingly) has more in common with some individuals than others from different cultural backgrounds.
Unfortunately, physical characteristics that comprise what we are told are “races” are given social significance and influence a person’s identity because of hundreds of years of coloniality’s creation of hierarchies of race, power and knowledge as “modernity”. Nowadays, some insist they are “post racial”. This is wishful thinking at best and pathologically self-delusional at worse. We are locked in western modernity’s “great chain of being” with God on top followed by his angels, man (from White through Black), the animals and finally “nature”. Even naysayers have to respond to Thomas’ Theorem: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Especially if those defining the situation have power – political, or disruptive.
But “identity” is not a unitary construct: each person’s self-conception is a unique combination of many identifications, identifications as broad as woman or man, Hindu, Catholic or Muslim, or as narrow as being a member of one particular family. Although self-identity may seem to coincide with a particular human being, identities are actually much wider than that. They are also collective: identities extend to countries and ethnic communities, so that people feel injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured or killed. The apprehension of “linked fates” facilitates political mobilization.
This exposes the second problem with the Guyanese lament: there should not necessarily be any contradiction between a person’s cultural heritage (ethnicity) and his citizenship in a particular country. In our instance, we are all Guyanese, in addition to being of African, Amerindian, Indian, etc. heritage. The identities are usually compatibly nested within each other as is the case for geographic identities within a country. For example, I can identity both with Guyana (my country) and the Uitvlugt (my village).
The task for us essentially is twofold. None of our several identities should justify superior claims to the national patrimony because of “greater legitimacy”: we are all citizens of Guyana. The moment that happens – or is thought to happen during the inevitable group comparison process based on relative deprivation- it will precipitate counterreactions, for or against the politics of entitlement which is confronting the PPP. If the power relations among the different groups, as they define themselves, are equal, there will be less reasons for jealously guarding their boundaries. In fact, the reverse will occur as identities become more expansive.
Secondly, therefore, the government must pursue policies that support equal treatment with “Ethnic Impact Statements” made mandatory. This will neutralize claims of discrimination and enlarge a more meaningful shared overarching identity of being “Guyanese” for all citizens.