Groups placed in the same environment share a universal tendency to compare themselves against each other. When, as in Guyana, groups with reinforcing cleavages of culture, attitudes, race, religion, etc., are thrown into the same society, comparison is inevitable and inescapable. The intractability of ethnicity lies in this fact: each category of individuals with similar traits evaluates itself positively, and others with dissimilar traits negatively.
Over the course of time, the process results in stereotypical attitudes being formed, as the cultural or physical or other trait is given a social meaning which is applied to the whole group. This group comparison is of great significance because of its stress on the “worth” of its members, to whom this evaluation becomes an integral part of their identity and self-esteem. Some individuals may be impoverished, but as members of a powerful group, they still have some pride of self-worth vis-a-vis members of less “powerful” groups. It is for this reason that lower class members of ethnic groups can be mobilised by their elites. The reward is not only the promise of economic gain, which class identification could have provided, but the more powerful psychic gratification of belonging and identifying with a “power group”.
At the abolition of slavery, Guyanese society was culturally uniform in the anthropological sense, but culturally diverse in the sociological sense; with the Whites, Coloureds and Africans forming distinct social strata in descending order of status, power and economic worth. While, for instance, all accepted the values of Creole culture, the Coloureds had different speech patterns, foods, habits, dress, etc. from the African masses, and considered the latter their social inferiors. The introduction of Indians into Guyana — with their acceptance of “slave work”, “heathen” religion and unfamiliarity with Creole culture and values — gave the society, and especially the Africans, the opportunity to further compare and afterwards designate a new low man on the totem pole. He was the ‘coolie’, whose typical immigrant focus on economic advancement was labelled as “mean and stingy”, and stoic acceptance of hardships, “docile”.
The Indian, on the other hand, sequestered in the rural plantations, came primarily into contact only with rural Africans. The Indians, defensively valuing their culture and heritage highly, rejected the “coolie” categorisation; and when in social comparison, utilised the planters’ criteria to stereotype the African. They were lazy (for rejecting the despised “slave” work), hedonistic (for their emphasis on fancy clothes and weekend revelry), licentious (for their serial polygamy) and lacking their own culture (for imitating the British).
One armament used by some groups in the competition over relative group worth is the notion of ‘legitimacy’, where one group is convinced that it has a greater right than other groups to the national patrimony. In Guyana, as in the West Indies as a whole, because of their prior arrival, greater acculturation to White values, earlier entry into governmental services and politics, Africans and Coloureds view themselves as having greater claims to legitimacy than other groups. The latter groups, however, rejected this claim, and countered that their contribution to the development of the country and the international norms of equality conferred on them as much right as other groups to all that the country offered.
This assertion of group worth and the negative stereotyping of other groups does not ineluctably lead to conflict, nor is it ”racism”, as some have asserted. Racism is not simply a question of attitudes, but is the coupling of the negative stereotyping with domination of the target group. Racism, then, implies the possession of the power by one group to dominate another group that is identified by racial or ethnic criteria. To deal with racism only at the attitudinal level is to ignore the society’s structural, social, economic, and political relations which may be infused by the principle of domination.
Africans and Indians had co-existed in Guyana for over one hundred and twenty-four years (1838-1962) without any major confrontation. The British policy of segregating the groups in different ecological and economic niches mitigated competition. The potential for ethnic conflict in Guyana or elsewhere is stimulated when there are changes that cause one or more ethnic groups in a given society to feel threatened by other groups. Changes that affect the groups’ self-worth — especially if they are structural, and thus self-perpetuating and widespread — create the greatest potential for conflict.
As in all group activities, the strategies employed by the leaders are key elements in determining the course of the conflict. Political groups become politically functional only when individuals make them so.