April 9, 2004
In our Sunday edition we reported the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) as having recommended that children should no longer be taught about Guyana's six races, but instead should be told about Guyana's single race, the human race. This, it seems, was one of the themes which emerged from a meeting of the commission on March 23, which had brought together organizations, government ministries and individuals to "brainstorm" ideas for promoting peace education in Guyana in the long term, and the easing of tensions in the immediate term. In possibly contradictory fashion, the ERC was also reported as saying (among other things) that there was need to affirm and recognize the contributions of all the different sectors of society to the nation.
The term 'six races,' of course, has always been a misnomer, since the Portuguese, who are one of the six, should really be subsumed under the Europeans - but that is a minor point. For well over thirty years now, children in school have been taught about the cultural contributions to the society of the so-called six races, and the history of each at some level both before and after arrival. And it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. The various ethnic groups arrived here in chronological sequence, and only shared the same space - although not necessarily the identical historical experience - from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. As such, therefore, it is impossible to understand at a practical teaching level how the various groups could not be distinguished to children.
Culturally speaking too, the different peoples brought sometimes quite disparate traditions to this country, which are still in evidence today. Furthermore, as the ERC well knows, our multi-faith society is also explained by the arrival here of groups from different continents. If we do not teach about the 'six races,' are we not showing disrespect to all of them, and the contributions they have made to this country?
It is surely difficult for children to recognize the inherent dignity of their culturally different neighbours, if there is an ignorance about their beliefs and ways. And while some of the religious holidays have attracted participation at one level or another across the ethnicities, it would constitute a lack of respect for the relevant faith not to teach pupils the specific religious origins of those festivals, and the import they have for believers.
If teaching the history and cultural traditions of the 'six' in school leads to social division and inter-ethnic tension, then this country is in a very bad way indeed. One suspects, however, that this is not exactly what the ERC had in mind when it made its statement, and that what was intended, and the form in which it was expressed, were not quite in consonance. This is suggested by their second statement, which, as already noted, appears on the face of it to be out of harmony with their first. It may be that the only message which the commission wanted to convey was that children should be encouraged to see that no matter what their ethnic/cultural differences, everyone has intrinsic humanity. If so, it is certainly on the right track.
It is true that we have not yet explored the full dimensions of how a multi-cultural society in our context should work, or had discussions on what the core values are - moral values in particular - which give us an overarching Guyanese identity. One suspects that national identities, like nations, evolve, rather than are consciously fashioned. In the meantime, teaching children about the history, beliefs and cultures of the 'six races' is not in and of itself what will cause alienation and lack of understanding between the groups; that process is more likely to begin with lack of knowledge in the first instance, rather than the contrary.