Guyana Chronicle
May 3, 2003

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Monday, May 5, 2003 symbolizes 165 years of East Indian presence in Guyana. As we partake in these glorious commemorative activities, we need to engage in some serious reflections on the cultural ‘oneness’ for which we strive in Guyana. This ‘oneness’ may mean different things to different people. Is this a ‘oneness’ that is created out of groups surrendering their culture to a dominant group? Or is this a ‘oneness’ that is destroyed in order to give birth to a brand new culture? And we also may have to assess the amounts of similarities and differences that exist among all ethnic groups in this country, in order to work toward creating a ‘oneness’ that is a win-win situation for all.

The difficulty in race relations is that we tend to focus a lot more on the differences among us, and de-emphasize the similarities. If you go to restaurant and you observe an East Indian man sitting at a table with a non-Indian woman, you immediately begin to wonder as to how an East Indian would be able to cope with this non-Indian. You then start to concoct all the negative stereotypes that are associated with differences between them.

Yes, there are the manifest differences, such as, differences in culture. But if you write down the similarities and differences between the two ethnic groups, then in most cases, the similarities would outweigh the differences. Therefore, it is very significant that the education system in Guyana develops methods to disseminate ethnic similarities. Even the University of Guyana has not made enormous strides in this cultural dissemination process through engaging projects focusing on ethnic similarities. We need to make a special effort to relate to people who are different from us, even if they have a hard time interacting with us. We need to take that first step.

The obsession with ethnic differences and not similarities has driven people to believe that in Guyana as in all multiethnic societies, the achievement of a common culture or a common value system is the panacea for resolving race problems. Nothing can be further from the truth. The U.S. with a multiplicity of cultures, and it has a lot more than six, does not appear to have a common culture. People who are naturalized American citizens or Green Card holders in the U.S. generally comply with the legal requirements of the system, and still sustain their own cultural heritage and contribute to nation building of that society. Pluralism characterizes the culture in the U.S. A pluralistic society as the U.S. is a society that is comprised of many different ethnic groups. Anything other than pluralism may involve people assimilating another’s culture or diluting one’s own culture.

Where one group’s culture dominates a politically subordinate group’s culture to the point of eliminating the minority cultures constitutes a case of assimilation. This is a situation where the minority group divests itself of its own cultural make-up to take on the culture of the dominant group. Theoretically, in the Guyana situation, assimilation would involve East Indian people stripping themselves of their East Indianness to take on Africanness if that characteristic lies within the dominant group, or vice versa. Assimilation, however, can be ‘forced’ or ‘voluntary’.

Forced assimilation has not worked historically as we have seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Kosova, and at different points in Guyana’s history. As previously indicated, a false focus is used to promote assimilation toward a common culture, since some people believe that this focus can reconcile ethnic differences. However, a spotlight on ethnic similarities, even in the case of both East Indians and Africans, historically, has preserved and advanced each other’s culture. All ethnic groups here have to reduce their focus on differences, and picture the bridges, the coalitions they could form with their similarities.

We must respect other people’s culture, and understand that the cultures of the Amerindians, East Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, Mixed, can coexist. It is futile to bridge cultures, for cultures cannot be bridged. Would any ethnic group want to concede slices of its culture to a dominant group, where all these slices would together constitute an absurd ‘Guyanese culture’? These slices would not be given, and they are not necessary because this ill-conceived ‘Guyanese culture’ presupposes a condition of forced assimilation, manifest or latent, on minority groups by any dominant group. Cultures in Guyana do not have to be fragmented or diluted; these cultures have to coexist, for only relationships premised on ethnic similarities can be bridged. Only in this scenario would we have a Guyanese culture characterized by some form of pluralism. This is pluralist unity in all its glory. Guyanese should not accept anything less.

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