The debate over slavery and indentureship has raised objections about comparisons – even though this is an innate human cognitive drive. Our powers of apprehension arise out of the facticity of differences in our environment, and we have carried this drive to distinguish and identify by seeking distinctions at new levels – in our social lives. Inextricably linked to the comparison process is an evaluative component. The psychologist Leon Festinger postulated a “Social Comparison Process” drive in individuals to evaluate themselves through comparison with others. When discrepancies are manifested, for example in performance, efforts are made to reduce discrepancies by either improving performance or by controlling the superior performance of the competitor. Later, experimentalists such as Henri Tajfel demonstrated experimentally that groups always strove to emphasise differences even when acting cooperatively would have meant greater benefits.
In the multi-ethnic states, therefore, we find the process of comparison between groups a constant and ever-present reality. This becomes a source of conflict, as the comparisons are inevitably evaluated from the standpoint of the “inalienable right of equality”, or from whatever standard each group decides is “just”. What we are saying is that social groups can only be evaluated comparatively, and that this produces competition that may not necessarily be for material rewards, but to merely distinguish themselves from each other. This is not to imply that questions of power differentials are obviated: the “worth” of a group is itself an indicium of the group’s position on the power spectrum. Much of the heat in ethnic interactions is generated from questions of self-worth, which is inextricably tied up with group worth, as was mentioned before. The argument as to the relative worth of one’s group thus becomes infused with great emotion. This process was made more extreme by the colonising experience that was shared by all that now live in Guyana.
In Guyana, this comparison between the ethnic groups that people the country started from the moment the colony was launched in the 17th century. The Europeans had already evaluated themselves as infinitely superior culturally to the Africans, whom they enslaved to work on the plantations. This used this premise to “justify” slavery, during which “culture” could be imparted. From the period of “seasoning” of the slaves as they were brought from Africa, to the end of their lives, the denigration of the native African culture was never let up. Most of the slaves and more so the Mulatto, accepted the idea of the superiority of European culture, and all worked valiantly to master its forms, if not necessarily its substance.
This hegemonising process was accelerated after the abolition of slavery in 1838 when churches expanded their reach in tandem with the schools they opened to “educate” the Africans. The Mulattos were mostly illegitimate offspring of Whites males and raped enslaved African women, and were treated favourably by their fathers, with some being given their freedom. They were a schizophrenic group, defined as “Mixed”, rebuffed by White society but holding themselves above the Africans. They kept themselves aloof from Africans up to the anticolonial struggles of the 1960s. Through education and occupation, some full-blooded Africans were allowed to join their ranks. The Mulattos generally despised their black blood, and made sure Africans knew it. The hybrid culture formed, wherein everything was evaluated with the White and his culture as the standard, was dubbed “Creole Culture”.
Thus, when the other groups were introduced into the colony as indentured labourers on the plantations, they were quickly evaluated through the values they had inculcated from the Europeans. The Portuguese and Chinese were derided mercilessly, but even though the Portuguese kept their Roman Catholic practices, in all other ways they fitted in, as did the Chinese, who became stauncher Protestants. Sociologically, if not totally anthropologically, the Portuguese and Chinese became urbanized, and blended in with the Mulatto-mixed category, to the extent of practising widespread intermarriage. The Indian indentureds were dubbed “coolies” by the Whites, and the freed Creoles considered them as being outside the pale because of their “heathen” and “uncivilized” ways, along with their willingness to do “slave work”.
This denigration continues into the present, even as the Indians were “educated” into the European evaluation of Africans, which they deployed. The later economic success of the Indians created considerable cognitive dissonance in those who had derided them, and is the source of much of the anger directed against them.