Cultural prejudice in context

By Ryhaan Shah

We tend to use the terms “multiculturalism” and “pluralism”, and now the politically favoured “social cohesion” interchangeably, as if they all mean the same thing; i.e., respect and regard for each other’s race and culture. But do they?
With the re-establishment of the Ethnic Relations Commission, it is important that we all understand how the unity we are striving for can best be defined and achieved. The “oneness” wherein everyone is expected to subscribe, in Guyana’s case to African Guyanese culture – a minority culture – is an enforced assimilation that flies in the face of the UN Human Rights Charter and our very own Constitution. Yet the idea persists, and delivers prejudiced action. The recent donation of steel pans to the University of Guyana by no other than the Minister of Social Cohesion reaffirms that prejudice and exposes this Ministry’s very name as a fraud.
This past week, African Guyanese celebrated their annual homage to their roots and culture on Emancipation Day. And so they should. What marred the celebration was the state funding it to the tune of $17 million given to African Guyanese groups when Indian Guyanese – comprising the largest of the minority groups — received no such funding for our Indian Arrival Day commemoration. The prejudice that favours African Guyanese is open and persistent.
The two major political parties create and encourage confusion on the issue of ethnic and cultural unity on campaign platforms that present it as a done deal with much music and dance, these always presented in an African Guyanese fashion. This, then, is the status quo, the desired ideal when the unity we purport to seek is best reflected by the words “E Pluribus Unum” meaning “From many one”. This motto is stamped on every US dollar bill, and acknowledges that American cultural values are built on pluralism. America is not a melting pot as many assume, but is more of a salad bowl, where every group – minority and majority – maintain their independent cultural traditions and identity, with no one group imposing its views and values on any other.
Whereas multiculturalism does revolve around a dominant culture, it is usually one that respects the minorities in its midst, and withholds any demand or suggestion that the minority groups must assimilate into the dominant culture. What we have in Guyana, however, is a perverse form of multiculturalism, where the dominant group is actually a minority that is elevated to a dominant position and presented by the state as the accepted status quo.
Successive Governments in Guyana have endorsed this particular multiculturalism, which regards African Guyanese culture, interchangeably, as Guyanese culture. On every state occasion, it is the Euro-Afrocentric trappings of music, dance, and art forms that take centre stage, with some token appearances by Indians, Chinese, First Nations, etc. Mashramani solidifies this prejudiced cultural policy, and the social cohesion message continues to be perverted by the discriminatory actions of the Granger Government.
The very idea of tolerance that multiculturalism espouses for minorities endorses the dominance of the favoured group, with the lesser groups being dependent on the largesse and goodwill of the dominant culture for their very existence. This is the truth about Guyana’s ethnic/cultural situation.
Unable or unwilling to deal with the urgent issue of race and ethnicity, politicians continue to mouth the simplistic inanities that a mixed-race population, cultural assimilation, or “douglaisation” would be the perfect solution to healing the divide, without ever considering the emotional charge that results from such cultural loss among those targeted for disappearance, or how much poorer the world would be without their unique cultural contributions.
No one denies that we have all evolved and continue to evolve in order to succeed in new environments, but whereas the First Nations’ languages and culture are protected by international laws, and African Guyanese hold sway as the dominant culture, Indian Guyanese continue to be viewed as outsiders, whose options are to either assimilate or accept the discrimination that comes with being a marginalised society.
Indian Guyanese emigrate and live peacefully in their own communities in New York, Toronto and Miami. It is true that there, too, they are minorities. However, there they are free to honour their heritage, and do so free from fear of inferred assimilation policies, and ethnic crimes against them that in Guyana are politically motivated and justified.
Practising cultural marginalisation is unconstitutional, but is hardly seen as a crime. However, when taken within the whole of the prejudices that feed and justify criminal activities against any group of people, that marginalisation cannot be divorced from its context.