Emancipation Day celebrations presented the opportunity for various leaders to reflect on the origins and nature of our society. The general consensus appeared to be that the waves of people brought in as slaves and then as indentured labourers created a “land of six peoples”.
But, more accurately, what was created was a “land of six ethnicities”. The latter is the categorisation of a social group based on a common descent and common cultural practices.
Guyana demonstrates an unappreciated feature of ethnicity: if examined historically, it would be discerned that ethnic groups are not immutable; and, in fact, they can, in many ways, be contextual. Those who are today labelled “Africans” were brought as slaves from various tribes originating from all across West Africa, and originally practised quite divergent cultural forms. Indians also have gone beyond regional (North and South India) caste (all the four castes and “outcastes” were brought in roughly the same proportion as in North India) and religious (Hindu, Muslim and Christian) cleavages to regard themselves, by and large, as a single ethnic group.
This process of ethnic consciousness was facilitated by a number of factors acting over the course of time. Firstly, from the beginning of the colonisation of Guyana, ethnicity was a crucial variable: all of the colonisers were white Western Europeans, and all the oppressed were from other geographical areas and anthropological cultures. The oppression was separated in space or time, which initially precluded extensive bonding of groups from different lands. The Amerindians, who were also from many tribes, were deemed unfit for plantation labour, and were allowed to remain in the hinterland.
After the African slaves were freed in 1838, they decamped the plantations en masse, with only the mostly skilled factory workers remaining, never having much intercourse with the indentures, especially Indians, who replaced them. The smaller numbers of Portuguese and Chinese also soon found separate occupational niches, but were concentrated in the urban areas, and interacted much more with the Africans, who had also gravitated there. It is apposite to note that the British Whites did not include the Portuguese, who had been brought from the island of Madeira, in their definition of “European”. Portuguese thus are considered a separate ethnic group in Guyana from “Europeans”.
However, even though ethnic groups can be created, and are not immutable, there are several features that militate against their disappearance in the modern world. Firstly, the state has become such a dominant feature of society in the allocation of rewards, economic and otherwise, that it is seen as the greatest prize to be captured. Whether peacefully or not, this capture can only be accomplished by the mobilisation of people; thus any grouping, potential or existent, will be galvanised by observant and ambitious politicians. The ethnic group is the most salient such grouping, as we are witnessing even in the developed world, where “white” is now an ethnic category.
But simultaneously, “self-determination of peoples” has become such an accepted international norm since WWI that it is almost impossible to coerce supposedly backward subaltern ethnic groups into abandoning their cultures, as was possible before. Then there is the even more pervasive international norm of “equality”, to which everyone now aspires and which no one is willing to be accused of denying. Frequently, and certainly not fortuitously, in the development of the present state-system, different ethnic groups ended up in unequal positions – whether it is economic, social or political equality. Since the ethnic group in the seat of power would tend to support the status quo, the underdog groups are forced to mobilise qua ethnic groups. Ethnicity thus can become a strategic necessity to secure justice by attempting to rectify unequal power relations.
Lastly, the ethnic group, being based on culture and origins, is tied up with the individual’s conception of “self”. An individual’s personality or self is a construction and almost a reflection of his social world. His perception of the worth of his group, to a marked degree, shapes the self-esteem of the individual.