Identity and politics

One of the most poignant cries heard in Guyana has to be, “Why do we have to call ourselves ‘Indian’ or ‘African’ or ‘Amerindian’ Guyanese? Why can’t we just be Guyanese?” The cries are always intensified as elections roll around, or when there’s a new political party in the offing. The latter, being “real” Guyanese, will of course resolve our vexed political impasse. The premise, of course, is that our identifications are the source of our long-standing electoral-related miseries, and that shedding our ethnic differences would bring peace and joy in our dear land.
There are several problems with that view. Firstly, our history has conspired to deliver us to where we are – a society with very diverse cultural heritages. And it really, in the main, does not matter how deep those differences really are in the present. What matters is the perceptions of those differences. We can’t undo that with the snap of a finger or the mouthing of fine-sounding platitudes from political platforms. It is the politicians, who claim to be “beyond race or ethnicity”, who have created the most problems for us, especially with their token “multiracial” representatives.
Our ethnic identification in Guyana is a consequence of the universal human need to have a sense of self – an identity. Developing a sense of self is an essential part of every individual becoming a mature person. Identities are constructed on the basis of various traits and experiences. We are all born into a family that itself is part of a particular group. The group’s world view and way of life are consciously transmitted to the child, who, as he grows up, (he or she) not surprisingly has more in common with some individuals than others from different cultural backgrounds.
Unfortunately, physical characteristics that comprise what we are told are “races” are given social significance that helps to influence a person’s identity. Nowadays it has become politically correct for some to claim they are “post racial”. This is wishful thinking at best, and pathological self-delusion at worst. Some thought we had arrived at this blessed state in the US following the election of President Obama; the killings and vicious harassment of African-Americans and other coloured peoples have disabused them of this notion. They forgot the Thomas Theorem theory: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Especially if those defining the situation have political power.
But “identity” is not a unitary construct: each person’s self-conceptualisation is a unique combination of many identifications — identifications as broad as woman or man, Hindu, Catholic or Muslim; or as narrow as being a member of one particular family. Although self-identity may seem to coincide with a particular human being, identities are actually much wider than that. They are also collective: identities extend to countries and ethnic communities, so that people feel injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured or killed.
This exposes the second problem with the Guyanese lament: there is not necessarily any contradiction between a person’s cultural heritage (ethnicity) and his citizenship in a particular country. In our instance, we are all Guyanese, in addition to being Africans, Amerindians, Indians, etc. Some of the many identities people have are nested within each other, usually compatibly, as is the case for geographic identities within a country. For example, I can identity both with Guyana (my country) and the Uitvlugt (my village).
The task for us essentially is twofold. None of our several identities should be ground for us being treated by the state in an unequal or discriminatory fashion. The moment that happens – as occurred, for instance, during the pre-independence era, when non-Christians were discriminated against – it will precipitate a counter-reaction. From the moment the power relations among the different groups, as they define themselves, are equal, there will be less reasons for jealously guarding their boundaries. In fact, the reverse will occur as the identity becomes more expansive.
Secondly, the Government must pursue policies that support shared overarching identities: in this case to make the identity of “Guyanese” more real and meaningful to all the citizens.