Guyanese and hyphenated Guyanese

During the ERC/UN/UG’s “Conversation on Ethnic Relations”, there was a heated exchange on the propriety of defining oneself as “Guyanese” versus an “ethnically-hyphenated Guyanese”. I offer the following that has addressed the false dichotomy for three decades in various guises. I find it difficult to accept that the “Guyanese” proponents do not accept that we are culturally plural. The anthropologist MG Smith pointed out that, invariably, the different cultural segments are ‘differentially incorporated’ into the power relations of their societies, and this fact, in and of itself, concretises and politicises our interactions.
The “one love” political scientists and economists, who pontificate on our national politics, ignore MG’s insight at our general peril. As citizens of polities that promised equality (via the state), their lived experiences inevitably would determine how they felt about the attainment (or not) of that egalitarian promise. Their experiences were filtered through their cultural lenses, and it should not have surprised any if the several groups (defined culturally) were differentially into the power structure; political consciousness would cleave along cultural (read ethnic) lines.
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. We are not homo economicus…but more like “homo culturalicus”. Each group in Guyana has an economic elite, but we have not seen these elites making common cause over the past half century.
An indica 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. “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.”
I have proposed that the “Ministry of Culture” be transformed into a “Ministry of Multiculturalism”. “Culture” promotes a singular, monolithic, overarching culture operating 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.”
We stress that we are not suggesting 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, will eliminate the barriers of hauteur and exclusion that set off their 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, which is seen as top down.
With the state out of ‘culture’, it should focus on promoting a feeling of “Guyaneseness” among our people through the conscious construction of a democratic state – the creation of conditions where 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, where we can be proud of our common citizenship. Citizenship of Guyana has to become something that has concrete meaning to all of us.
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 universalistic. The “national” will now be a space wherein 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.
A “good Guyanese” would be one who is loyal to this country and strives to practise the secular universalistic ideological values it extols.