The ethnic debate
October 19, 2002
For years there has been an ongoing debate in our letter columns over what may for ease of reference be called the ethnic issue, namely relations between the ethnic groups, socially, culturally and politically.
Does a debate like this get anywhere? Is it useful or a mere diversion or worse an irritant that can damage relations between the groups? We believe that it is valuable and important indeed we would go as far as to say that it is essential to our future as a nation that we have an extended and honest dialogue on this issue. We have to be prepared at some stage to discuss honestly how we feel about each other, our fears, our insecurities, the stereotyped images that we have inherited. It is part of the dialogue that should take place in an open, democratic society as we grope for some concept of nationhood and try to work out if we can live together, peacefully and productively.
But is this the time to have such a debate, when relations between the ethnic groups are particularly strained due to the unsettled political situation and the vicious crime, some of which has an ethnic tinge? It is an important question which cannot be lightly discarded as issues of great delicacy are involved in our examination of relations between the ethnic groups, and if this is done with insensitivity and even anger it can be counterproductive. Indeed there are some who would argue that these issues should not be discussed at all, that we have to learn to co-exist as we are with our prejudices, that that is how people are everywhere and that it is futile and naÔve to believe that by attempting to discuss it rationally we can achieve some improvement in the situation by improving our understanding of and respect for each other.
Painful the debate certainly is, even if it is conducted with some level of intelligence and decorum, for it involves trying to deconstruct historical prejudices which have been inherited and are almost ingrained.
Our historians will readily explain, for example, the distrust that arose when the indentured labourers arrived from India as a replacement for African slave labour after emancipation thus posing an immediate threat to the wages and well being of the free African. That is no oneís `faultí, except perhaps that of the then imperial power which saw the plantation society essentially as a vehicle for economic exploitation, it is a structural fact of our history. The African was acculturated sooner than the Indian to the British cultural mainstream that became the norm in this British colony, thus creating another set of differences and cross-cultural frustrations. The African was more `deculturisedí than the Indian due to the devastating experience and institution of slavery, thus creating another level of resentment. And there were in any event fundamental differences in socialisation and culture between people who had come from different continents and different backgrounds.
All of this is playing out today in the complex maelstrom that is modern Guyana.
Indeed it is probably the increasing integration in the last seventy or eighty years, as the New World analysts had recognised, when many Indians `migratedí to the cities from the rural areas and entered the educational, social and cultural mainstream (the late Dr Cheddi Jagan being a classic example) that there were increasing tensions as the `otherí became visible and present and a competitor, socially, professionally and most crucially politically.
Can one properly discuss issues of this complexity and sensitivity in the letter columns of a newspaper? Perhaps not and perhaps especially not at this time when nerves are raw, prejudice and even hatred are rife and activists or propagandists on both sides seek to make cheap points. The fabric of the society is in danger of unravelling. Yet can one systematically refuse to discuss such fundamental issues, which involve our future as a nation? Is that not a form of blindness, of censorship, of confessing defeat and acknowledging that we cannot deal honestly with each other, that many things are better left unsaid?
Guyana is not unique. Most nations have faced these problems in the course of their development. Sir Arthur Lewis had told us of the problems of tribalism in the West African countries he had worked in. We are all aware of the ethnic-religious problems in India that had led to partition. We know of the ethnic-religious and ethnic-linguistic problems in Northern Ireland and Canada respectively.
We remember apartheid South Africa and the miracle of rebirth with the inspired leadership of Nelson Mandela. Any outcome is possible, the worst and the best.
Perhaps the optimists among us believe that dialogue is useful, that nothing is too hurtful if it is said in the spirit of reconciliation, to use imagery from one of Martin Carterís great poems that the wound of the wind on our faces can be healed by the work of our lives and the growth of the pain in our sleep can be stopped in the strife of our days. Perhaps we believe or hope that if we have a future together it can or should be on the basis of honesty and dialogue, however hard it may be and whatever degree of courage it may take to get to know each other and to strip away our fears and prejudices.