Being a (hyphenated) Guyanese

In his remarks last week at the dedication of the Indian Arrival Monument, President Granger emphasised that “the nation is multicultural”, and that “little attention was paid by those who brought us together (as) to how these various groups with different cultures would coexist cohesively. It is the challenge of the present generation to overcome those differences and to continue to construct a cohesive country.”
But he ignored the insight of MG Smith, who pointed out that if the different cultural segments were ‘differentially incorporated’ into the power relations of their societies, this fact would inevitably precipitate conflict as groups struggle to achieve “equality”. As citizens of a Guyana state that promises equality, our lived experiences inevitably determine how we feel about the attainment (or not) of that egalitarian promise. These experiences, after all, are filtered through our cultural lenses, and it should not surprise any that if our several groups (defined cultural) are differentially incorporated into the power structure, political consciousness would cleave along cultural (read ethnic) lines. Whither, therefore, the cohesiveness?
After decades of focusing on an economistic notion of equality, there is still not an appreciation of the need for cultural equality also. So much for the politics of ‘identity’ and ‘recognition’ in Guyana.
There are some who posited that if we had (or have) economic equality among the various ethnic groups, our troubles would be over. I’d like to vehemently disagree. “Man does not live by bread alone”; there are many other “goods” we compete over, include cultural self-worth, even as we always measure our “deprivation” relatively.
An indicia of the ‘power relations’ is who gets to define what is the “national culture” to which all groups have to genuflect? And it is the differential incorporation of the various cultural groups in this equation that our policies on “multiculturalism” have to address.
But “multiculturalism demands that society presents a full range of prospects, membership, and respect to all its members, regardless of cultural and religious differences; while also creatively accommodating them in a fashion that is both morally persuasive and practically effective for the majority of society.” Can Granger honestly say this is the case in Guyana today for Indian Guyanese?
It’s positive the “Ministry of Culture” has been jettisoned. The name itself – CULTURE – suggests pushing a singular, monolithic, overarching “culture” as a stalking horse for assimilation through the back door. We suggest our motto be changed to “Unity in Diversity through Equality in Diversity”. One definition of ‘multiculturalism’ suggests that it is “a systematic and comprehensive response to cultural and ethnic diversity with educational, linguistic, economic and social components and specific institutional mechanisms”. This suggests areas in which we initially pursue equality.
Now, we want to stress that we certainly are not emphasising any ‘separatist ideal’ in which each group lives in hermetically sealed enclaves. We are suggesting that the ‘equal treatment in culture’ imperative, if implemented and becomes real, would eliminate the barriers of hauteur and exclusion that set off inevitable reactions of resistance. We believe that when we deal with each other as equals, there would be the inevitable cross-cultural fertilisation (in all directions) and not one-way; that is, seen as top down.
With the state out of ‘culture’, the Government should focus on promoting a feeling of “Guyaneseness” among our people through the conscious construction of a democratic state – the creation of conditions wherein we are all treated as one, equally, by the state.
Equality of opportunity; human rights, encouragement of diversities, due process; justice and fair play and rule of law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of “nation”, but they can engender the unity of public purpose and the recognition of individual worth, wherein we can be proud of our common citizenship. Citizenship of Guyana has to become something that has concrete meaning to all of us. It is not under the present discriminatory policies of the coalition Government against Indian Guyanese, and this has been the greatest failure of the coalition Government.
If we were all treated equally by the state, our ethnicities would be defined outside our “Guyaneseness”, and to be African-Guyanese or Indian-Guyanese would not be contradictory in any sense. The first part of our identity would be specific, while the latter would be universalistic. The “national” will now be a space where ethnically imagined communities can live and share.
To be “Guyanese” would be to share moral precepts – norms, values and attitudes – rather than shared cultural experience and practice.