Toward national unity or pluralist unity in Guyana

By Prem Misir, Ph.D.
Guyana Chronicle
June 15, 2000

PEOPLE who constantly talk about the need for races to `come together', lack a basic understanding of the complex dynamics of race and ethnic relations in a multiethnic society.

This `coming together' is invariably intended to mean the development of national unity in developing societies. National unity could imply the sexual blending of racial and ethnic groups.

In effect, this fusion of the races represents a cultural loss to all groups involved. National unity could also mean an assimilation of a higher set of values that exclude recognition of minority ethnic cultures, as these higher values belong to the vested interests of the power elite. This is not the kind of national unity that Guyanese want, or for that matter, any person from a multiethnic society. Let's explore this issue of national unity.

The Spanish writer Ortego who authored `Spain Invertebrate', aptly explains the process that keeps a multiethnic group of people together. "People don't live together just like that. That kind of cohesion exists only within a family. The groups who make up a state live together for a purpose. They are a community of projects, desires, big undertakings. They don't come together simply to be together, but in order to do something tomorrow," he wrote. Ortego's cohesion is not achieved because the minority people's cultures are underemphasised.

Naipaul, in a keynote speech at a conference held at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, tried to paint a picture of the impact of the colonial attitude. His position on how diversified groups of people come together, supports that of Ortego. Naipaul drew attention to a European colonial administrator who complained about why the local people do not come together.

He criticises this colonialist's cognitive process that sees the local peoples as having no distinctive qualities, and that all of them can be compartmentalised into one cultural non-distinguishing brownish mass. Naipaul rejects this colonialist's assertion as "it concedes humanity, it concedes a past, a particularity, and a pride, only to one particular group. It concedes these things only to one people - the administrator's people - and it denies them to everyone else."

The European colonialist's conception of national unity was the compartmentalisation of all the locals into one cultural group, resocialising them to show deference to Anglo-culture and to subscribe to Anglo-conformity. This colonialist's thinking and action amount to cultural imperialism where everything that is white is superior and that whatever is non-white is inferior. Naipaul rejects this cultural imperialism.

This scenario is an illustration of assimilation of minorities to a dominant white group's culture. That was the basis of national unity in colonial times. Naipaul was right. But Naipaul went further to say that this colonial conception has persisted. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), Naipaul believes that

T&T people present to outsiders their picturesqueness, and the cosmopolitan population at a trivial level.

In other words, they use tourist concepts to introduce their society. Such tourist concepts solidify simplicities and ignorance about diversified people's history and achievements. We do this because we have been socialised and re-socialised by the colonialists to accept that the many different local people are really one people. We are not. We are different, as we have different cultures.

If we accept this position of being one people, and as such, national unity, then we are acknowledging cultural loss to each ethnic minority group. We are admitting to the society being a cemetery of cultures. If you doubt this, look at the impact of cultural imperialism in education and politics in the Caribbean. This overwhelming aura of the colonialist conception of national unity, seeing all locals as one people, has reached maturation in the Caribbean, as we still use the colonialists' rules.

Politicians thought that use of the term `Guyanese' and baptising everybody as `Guyanese' would heal all and eliminate the deformities of the society. Using the term `Guyanese' is just like an admission of the cultural non-distinctiveness of all the peoples of Guyana. The cultural content and parameters of the application of the term `Guyanese' is fully controlled by the dominant group. This is so because the cultural capital of Guyana is owned and controlled by the group that wields considerable economic and political power.

Naipaul would say that it is disheartening to think that these attitudes, such as using the term `Guyanese', which at first might seem revolutionary, is really the other side of the old colonial attitudes. He said: "What looks new is only a reaction to the old, is conditioned by the old. I think this is the kind of irrationality that we must avoid."

Let all people in Guyana do some self-examination of links to their cultural heritage. This process involves going beyond the boundaries of slavery and indentureship. We must connect to our roots.

In the United States (US), no credence is given to unifying all people's cultures in the society. Burnham attempted to effect this goal through the medium of National Service. The policy failed. Such cultural unification in the US, if it becomes a reality, would still be subordinated to the power elite. This would be assimilation to Anglo-conformity which is highly irrelevant and unnecessary. In the US, pluralism, implying the coexistence and acceptance of each ethnic group's culture is in vogue, and is characterised by an element of permanence. People in the US together engage in projects and work collectively, against a background of institutional recognition of each ethnic group's culture.

Pluralism and multiculturalism are the most logical, secure, and enterprising form of national unity in a multiethnic society. To be a `Guyanese', is to accept and celebrate the diversity of ethnic cultures in Guyana. This is the kind of persisting national unity that Guyanese want and deserve. `Guyanese' must not be applied to mean merely one culture; there is not one Guyanese culture, but many Guyanese cultures.

Guyana can enhance race and ethnic relations by eliminating the term `national unity' from the political lexicon. In theory, `national unity' implies the presence of a power elite determining the parameters of societal unification, and hegemony over other ethnic groups in the society. The concept of `national unity' referring to some higher level of values, might work if there is a level cultural playing field. But such level playing field is still a fiction of some people's imagination. This type of national unity is not feasible, and is antagonistic to cultural diversity that is not a constituent of the higher values associated with national unity.

But Guyana, being highly stratified by class and race, with considerable amounts of inequality, would not embrace a national unity that excludes pluralism. Real political acknowledgment and institutionalisation of each ethnic group's culture would improve race and ethnic relations. The proposed new Constitution is a useful starting place.

The `national unity' goal, devoid of a pluralist base in a multiethnic and stratified system, requires as a pre-condition some significant cultural loss to all ethnic groups, but not to the power elite. This is so because `national unity', as a political expedient, is referring to the acceptance of some different and higher values that are advocated by the power elite, and are not part of the minority multiethnic landscape.

The power elite wants to see the acceptance of these higher values because these values, being treated as having more potency than the minority multicultural values, sustain their vested interests.

The `national unity' goal, under these conditions of excluding the values of minority ethnics, is fertile ground for an emerging community of irrationality. People will not come together in this community of irrationality.

Pluralist unity, grounded in an equal status among all ethnic cultures, is a more feasible and attractive alternative. If, however, you still are turned on to use the term `national unity', then that `national unity' must be grounded in pluralism.

`National unity' must not pander to one ethnic culture, at the exclusion of other minority cultures.

Follow the goings-on in Guyana
in Guyana Today