On being hyphenated Guyanese

(“I trot out this article every five years or so.”)

One of the most poignant and persistent cries heard around Guyana – especially around elections time – is, “Why do we have to hear about Africans and Indians or Amerindians? Why can’t we all just be Guyanese?” The poignancy is a bit ironic, however, because those same Guyanese, by and large, have been going into the voting booths and voting along ethnic lines for the past fifty years and more. And creating the problem they implicitly bemoan: divisiveness and lack of a national ethos. What is the problem? Are we so much sheep that we are led by the politicians to vote in a way that we don’t want? The reality is a bit more complex than that and we intuitively know it.
Part of the problem is that the issue is presented as if the fact of our diverse heritage and ethnic identities are in contradiction to being “Guyanese”. This is a false dilemma. Our reference to ourselves to being “African” etc is simply an acknowledgement of our particular heritage – we shouldn’t try to erase it because history has shown that it’s an almost impossible task that in the end is not really necessary. For most of mankind’s history, this was how we defined ourselves and it was not per se the source of conflicts. The problem arose only a few hundred years ago when Europe, led by England and France, constructed “states and citizens” and a new way of defining identity – by the territory in which one happened to be residing.
The experience of the British (who bequeathed their model of identity to us) should be an object lesson to us. The rationale for the imposed “nation-state” unity was that it was necessary for the people as a whole to apply themselves in a joint endeavour to build their common prosperity. What happened, in reality, was that, contrary to expectation, the particular identities did not disappear. One of the main reasons was that the various ethnic groups did not, in fact, believe that they were being treated fairly or equally by the state, which remained in the control of the English. After Brexit, the Scots, for instance, are still making up their minds.
This is what we need to do in Guyana today. The ethnic conflict that defines our politics – and our frustration – could be an “effect of” as well as an “affect on” the iniquities of the political operations of the state on the various groups. The task of politics and politicians today in Guyana is therefore to create a Guyanese state that promulgates the values of Guyanese citizenship without regard to race, religion, ethnicity etc. Once this is done, much of the negative aspects of ethnicity will have disappeared. Today, for instance, to ask an Indian Guyanese to forget that he is “Indian” when he believes to his bones that he is discriminated as an Indian by the state is to ask too much. The immediate task is to remove the discriminatory condition, which the Indian person has to react against for his very survival.
We, the citizens of Guyana, must see our state and country as a “common venture”. Whether we like it or not, the modern state is a reality and the unit within we act and which has sovereignty in the international arena. Yet, at independence, we inherited a state but not a nation and one does not identify with the state just like that – that’s partially why we have clung to our ethnicities so rigidly. The problem before us is: how do we construct a “unity” of the peoples within our state that does not seek to obliterate our diversities?
We can situate this construction of a national outlook within what has labelled “Project Democracy” – 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. Institutions have to be organised around values that are consonant with the goals of the particular society. The prime value being equality.