The Dougla identity
September 30, 2006
More than 125,000 Guyanese defined themselves as 'persons of mixed heritage' in the last census. At nearly 17 per cent of the population, this group is now the third largest after Indians and Africans and more numerous than Amerindians. When traditional political parties at the last elections boasted of winning 'crossover' votes from other ethnic groups or of making a 'breakthrough' into other areas, it is likely that 'persons of mixed heritage' made the difference.
The overwhelming majority of such persons are of mixed Indian and African ancestry. It is difficult to estimate the number of dougla people in Guyana as there is no official category on census forms or in other demographic data for them; rather, dougla is incorporated within the diverse category of 'mixed heritage' which includes bovianders and mulattoes.
Although the term 'dougla' is widely used, many who are proud of their origins would not care to describe themselves as such. This is because 'dougla' still has pejorative connotations in certain ethnic communities, though not in the country as a whole. The word dougla itself comes from the Hindi term dogalaa meaning hybrid; although it usually describes the offspring of one African and one Indian parent, many douglas are themselves the offspring of douglas.
The current position of dougla people in Guyana has been exacerbated by the tensions between African and Indian social groups and between political parties, particularly the People's Progressive Party-Civic (PPP/C) and the People's National Congress Reform (PNCR). This re-definition of self has contributed to the reduction in number of both the Indian and African groups which have now fallen to 43.5 per cent and 30.2 per cent respectively, causing concern for the PPP/C and PNCR.
Douglas do not constitute a cohesive community, successfully remaining outside the bi-polarity of African-Indian political rivalry yet being affected by it. Nevertheless, the importance of dougla identity to racial politics is increasingly being recognised, though rarely rewarded.
Guyana's dougla population ballooned in post-Independence years as the consequence of changing occupational patterns, urbanization, social interaction and, inevitably, inter-religious and inter-ethnic marriage. Dougla Guyanese, therefore, tend to be younger and more likely than adults to identify themselves as 'mixed' on the census returns. Seventy-five per cent of Guyanese were born after Independence and are below 40 years; the younger the age group, the more diverse the population.
Significantly, Miss Olive Gopaul appeared on the scene as one of the few beauty queens to be selected without controversy in recent years. A person of mixed heritage, she fits in with the melting-pot aesthetic in the latest marketing trends of using faces that are ethnically ambiguous. Advertisements, particularly some produced in Trinidad which has a similar Indian-African ethnic balance, deliberately highlight models with ethnically ambiguous or indeterminate features that have tremendous appeal in the marketplace. A face whose heritage is hard to define is most desirable. Strong Indian or African features attract only a limited clientele.
Increasingly, race is being seen as the human contrivance it really is: an invention to categorise the perceived biological, cultural and social differences between human groups but with little relevance to character, competence or conduct. Being perceived as a dougla might have opened doors of opportunity for persons whose mixed background has become an asset. The faces of Guyanese beauty and politics have changed forever!