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Identity is complex; it is partly who we say we are and partly how others perceive us. It is also a historical phenomenon that is sometimes determined by migration- forced and voluntary—and by groups bonding together in the face of extinction or threat to their honor. Given Guyana’s historical evolution, multiple identities is a given, whether we as individuals choose to affirm them or not. Most people choose to affirm one of those most of the time.
There are different identities—Civic (Guyanese, Trinidadian, American, Pakistani, Nigerian); Cultural/Ethnic (African, Indian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, Hindu, Moslem, Yoruba); Racial (Black, Brown, White, Yellow, Red)—to name three. There are times when civic and ethnic identities are the same as in Japan and Portugal.
This is not the case in Guyana and most countries in the world. There can be no fusion of a single civic and cultural identity in Guyana because we have several cultures. So, when we say we are Guyanese we are affirming part of our identity—we are saying we join with other people living in this geographical space with defined boundaries, a distinct constitution and sovereign government to construct a civic identity.
But we must make a distinction between affirming one of our multiple identities at any given time and the fact that we do have more than one identity. Affirming one’s civic identity, as most people do, is laudable. In fact, the use of the civic identity in an ethno-culturally and politically plural society is a strong affirmation of cross-ethnic commitment to making the civic space an all-inclusive one. But that does not mean that our other identities disappear. Being Guyanese does not erase our other identities; it is just that we choose to affirm our Guyanese identity.
For all our frustration with ethnic politics in Guyana, history did not start in 1992 or 1966 or 1953. The experiences of our various ethnic groups in Guyana have been different. They came under different circumstances and their lived experiences have generally been different. Their relationship with each other has been largely, though not exclusively, grounded in competition — sometimes conflictual competition. So, their collective construction of what Guyana is will vary.
We must come to terms with the uncomfortable reality that though individuals from our various ethnic groups refer to themselves as Guyanese, there is no common view of what that means—not politically, not culturally and crucially, not on what Guyana’s history has been. As an aside, people usually raise the issue of where do Mixed people fit in the ethnic or racial scheme. Well neither ethnicity nor race is biological. Mixed people are part of the ethnicity, they are socialized in. In the racial schema or “Color Code,” there is no mixed color. The exception being Apartheid South Africa, which created a racial group for mixed people called “Colored.”
Before 1966 we were not Guyanese. We were forced to be British, but most of our fore parents rejected that imposed identity. They used instead their ethnic Identities–the very ones we seem to have a problem with today. If Guyana goes off the map, as some countries do, one will have to affirm another identity. If, God forbid, Venezuela were to annex the two-thirds of Guyana, would those of us who choose to stay in the annexed section become Venezuelans?
At the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviets became Russians and Armenians and Ukrainians again. Later Czechoslovakians became Czechs and Slovakians
Being born in Guyana does not make us Guyanese forever. Any political regime with the constitutional power can un-Guyanese us by changing the constitution to re-define who can be Guyanese. Our Guyanese identity is a privilege of the State. The immigrant who was not born in Guyana, once he or she gets citizenship from the government has equal rights and equal claim to Guyaneseness.
Indian indentured immigrants, in the face of and in competition with other ethnicities, developed a new cultural identity that cuts across caste and religious lines—what we now call Indian or Indo Guyanese. It is the same with African immigrants who, out of their different tribal identities and in the face of slavery, created a new identity that we now call African Guyanese. Here is a case of people faced with oppression developing “Survival Ethnicities.”
Difference is part of human nature. It is actually a positive thing. It is when we attribute meaning to difference and then use power to actualize and normalize those meanings that difference becomes negative. I am Buxtonian, African Guyanese, Guyanese, Caribbean and Black. They all contribute to who I am. I draw strength from all of them. They are the building blocks of my identification with other human beings. I love being all of them. And I refuse to let any politician or Civil Society correctness bully me into denying or demeaning the gift of my ancestors which they crafted in the face of dehumanization. I hold dearly to that gift as one of the tools to beat back and overcome modern-day slavery.
Guyana is a work in progress. We have to get to the point where we can all, in our differences, find sameness in the Guyanese experience. For all the negatives of difference, sameness, without acknowledgement of obvious differences, would always be suspect and ultimately transient. My own view is that that has been one of the biggest barriers to a more robust and cohesive Guyanese nationalism. Ironically, in trying to silence difference, we have widened it, thus making it easier for politicians to exploit it for accumulation of power and the privilege that comes with that unfettered power.