The problem of ethnic identity

Stabroek News
May 15, 1999

In debates on Guyanese culture that arise from time to time the question is often asked, who are we. The answer is complex and there are contradictory strands.

We were a British colony for over l60 years. During that time, we absorbed an enormous amount of British culture, the language, the educational system and the literature (the library of the old, educated Guyanese is not too dissimilar from that of his British counterpart), the legal system, the business and commercial practices, the structure of government. In the course of this long transition a lot of our old culture rubbed off and we are now quite different creatures to our original countrymen who never left home as is readily proved by a quick visit to the land of our forefathers where we may find ourselves unable to speak the language, most certainly be treated as a foreigner and feel quite out of place in many ways.

Whatever we are therefore we are not Indians, Africans, Chinese or Portuguese though we may so describe ourselves in an ethnic sense. We are culturally a new hybrid, potentially cosmopolitan, creation. The problem has been portrayed most vividly in the case of persons of mixed descent as immortalised in the verse of Derek Walcott from as early as `A far cry from Africa' (l962), and other Caribbean poets.

The issue is not of purely academic interest. It means, for a start, that the whole question of ethnic identity must be approached circumspectly. So, for example, for a Guyanese Indian to describe himself as Indian is in an important sense false as he is in fact far more West Indian or Caribbean in views and outlook than he is Indian. The ethnic identity being claimed is partly misconceived though there are still obvious religious and cultural links. The same would apply, perhaps more strongly, to the other "ethnic" groups in Guyana. After well over a century of living here they are far more Guyanese or Caribbean in identity than anything else.

Differences in temperament and lifestyle remain. Yet even these are far from being as stereotyped as they seem and part of the reason can be found in our own historical circumstances here. Thus any model of ethnicity here must be approached with great caution and it can easily become both opportunistic and distorted.

There are `ethnic' voting patterns as any analysis of the votes in the fair elections from l957 to date will show. Yet who exactly is this Indo-Guyanese or Afro-Guyanese that we talk about? What are their characteristics, what is the nature of this ethnicity? Are the differences more apparent than real, given the increasing mixing and socialisation in the last fifty years as the Indians moved in large numbers to the cities, despite the voting patterns and despite the tensions in the early sixties and again more recently?

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples