The politics of identity

Stabroek News
February 23, 2000

Politics based on ethnicity can be extremely unpleasant for a number of reasons. In the first place, it can lead politicians to take positions on issues purely because of the ethnicity of the person or persons involved and without any or any proper consideration of what is at stake. Secondly, it can create assumptions of allegiances or hostility based on nothing more than skin colour, the politics of identity as it has been called, which leads to a mindless tribalism that is destructive of reason, character and culture. Thirdly, it quickly becomes irrational or at least induces a corrosive cynicism which seeks to force every issue into a common mould, it is `for us' or `against us'. Machiavellian subtexts are readily imagined or invented to provide linkages and explanations. But perhaps worst of all, ethnic politics is not based primarily on a sense of achievement or setting goals but on fear, fear of what the `other' may do to `us'. Its motivations are negative and defensive, not constructive.

Nation building must be built on common achievement, a sense that we have all worked together to create something worthwhile. It cannot be based on negative self-images, what Mr Martin Carter in a memorable essay had called self-contempt, [please note: link provided by LOSP web site] perhaps the most destructive legacy of colonialism. We have to build our economy, develop our culture, improve our educational standards and in so doing earn our own self-respect so that we no longer believe that we cannot run our own society properly. It is this image of self-contempt that facilitates dropping out at so many levels and which can eventually express itself in explosive rage.

It will be hard to build a nation, to get to the point where, as Cesaire had said in his famous poem, we know in truth "that we have not nothing to contribute to the world" (see the translation from a short extract from that work alongside). It will take all our energies, all our intellect, but it will be challenging, exciting and worthwhile to build constructively together with a common purpose. We have no chance at all of doing this if we spend our time tearing each other apart, looking for flaws and weaknesses in our respective make ups, doomed to condemn each other all the time. This is a prescription for frustration, hatred and disaster.

And there are already some things to celebrate. See the column on Coffy last Friday in History this Week. We can all surely cherish a Rohan Kanhai, a Martin Carter. We must acknowledge our own heroes as other nations have done. But we cannot do this in a partisan way. The good of the nation must surmount the interest, real or apparent, of any political party. The problem with ethnic politics is that it divides us, poisons us, reinforces negative tendencies and destroys character and culture. There is no future in it.

And here we are now on our feet, my country and I,
my hair flying in the breeze, my small hand clasped
in its massive fist.
And the strength is not in us but above and beyond us.
In a voice which soors through the night like some
winged harbinger.
And the voice announces
that over the ages Europe has pumped us with lies and
inflicted the plague on us
For now we know in truth
that man's work is by no means complete
that we have not nothing to contribute to the world
that parasites we are not
that no more need we squat at the gate
but that man's work has only just begun
and that he has to release his energies and conquer
and that no single race has a monopoly of beauty,
intelligence and creativity
and that there is room for all to conquer.
And now we know that our land too is within the orbit of the sun
which shines on the little plot we have willed for ourselves,
that without constraint we are free to move heaven,
earth and the stars.

(an extract from "Cahier d'un retour ay pays natal" by Aime Cesaire)