Being hyphenated in One Guyana

With another stab at constitutional reform in the offing, we remember that the goal is facilitating a more harmonious society from its historically plural origins. While some claim labelling us a “culturally plural society” is merely descriptive, and does not suggest a mechanism of change, its theorist, MG Smith, disagreed. He pointed out that the several cultural segments were invariably ‘differentially incorporated’ into the power relations of their societies, and this fact, in and of itself, initiated conflict and change.
Political scientists, economists, and, most relevantly, politicians who pontificate on our national policies have ignored MG’s insight to our peril. As citizens of polities that promised equality (via the state), our lived experiences inevitably determine how we feel about the attainment (or not) of that egalitarian promise. Our experiences are filtered through our cultural lenses, and it should not be surprising that if our several cultural groups are differentially incorporated into the power structure, political consciousness would cleave along cultural (read ethnic) lines.
But the “power structure” is not only political, since the latter is shaped by culture. After decades of focusing on an economistic notion of equality, the need also for cultural equality, immanent in “cultural citizenship”, remains unappreciated. There are some who posit that if we had (or have) economic equality among the various ethnic groups, our troubles would be over. Unfortunately, our own history has proven we are not homo economicus, but more like homo culturalicus. Each of our ethnic groups has an economic elite, but these elites have never made common cause.
One indicia of MG’s ‘power relations’ calculus is which group 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 into this equation that our announced policies on “multiculturalism” have to address. “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.”
The “Ministry of Culture” should be renamed “Ministry of Multiculturalism”. The name itself – “Culture” – suggests pushing a singular, monolithic, “tap-root” culture (here Creole Culture”) as a stalking horse for assimilation. We can adopt Glissant’s “rhizome” metaphor, wherein the society has multiple roots but one foliage. “One Guyana” can be that foliage, that emanates out of a motto of “Unity in Diversity through Equality in Diversity”. Operationally, 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 may initially pursue equality.
We must stress that we certainly are not proposing 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 their inevitable reactions of resistance from, say, Indian and Amerindian Guyanese to the “national” creole culture. We believe that when we deal with each other as equals, cross-cultural fertilization would be inevitable.
The state should merely facilitate the different cultural expressions of self-defined groups, and focus on promoting a feeling of “Guyaneseness” among our people through the conscious construction of a democratic state – the creation of conditions in which 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 the rule of law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of “nation”, but they can engender the unity of the public purpose and the recognition of individual worth, where we can be proud of our common citizenship.
While they have not articulated it as such, it appears that this is what the Government’s “One Guyana” policy aspires to achieve.
For Guyana, then, 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” would now be a space which 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.
Thus “good Guyanese” would be loyal to our country, and strive to practise its secular universalistic values.