Toward Pluralist Unity in Guyana
By Prem Misir
October 20, 2003
National unity must mean pluralist unity. National unity must create space for all cultures. National unity must not mean giving a higher status to some cultures to the exclusion of other cultures. National unity must not be confused with something called 'Guyanese culture' because some people are really desperate to see the races 'come together'. The term 'Guyanese culture' will only be meaningful to the masses if it means pluralist unity, that is, an acceptance and incorporation of all cultures within the dominant institutions of this society.
Races 'coming together'
However, people who constantly talk about the need for races to 'come together', lack a basic understanding of the power dynamics of race and ethnic relations in a multiethnic society. This 'coming together' is invariably intended to mean the development of national unity in developing societies where only some cultures are allowed seating at the head table. The cultures of the masses, in this context, are excluded and are reduced to a subordinate status.
National unity could imply the sexual blending of racial and ethnic groups, that is, miscegenation. In effect, this fusion of the races represents a cultural loss to all groups involved. The 'melting pot' phenomenon comes closest to this description. Intermarriage can produce a new group. This type of amalgamation is expressed as A + B + C * D where A, B, and C symbolize different groups and D denotes the end result.
National unity could also mean an assimilation of the dominant group's values that exclude recognition of minority ethnic cultures, as these perceived higher values belong to the vested interests of the power elite. Assimilation is the process whereby a person renounces his/her culture to become part of a different culture. Assimilation is expressed as A + B + C * A where A dominates B and C, inducing them to absorb A's culture. This is not the kind of national unity that Guyanese want, or for that matter, any person from a multiethnic society.
Strangely enough, national unity could also be applied to signify the physical separation of different groups of people by residence, workplace, and social functions. An example of segregation is the use of apartheid in South Africa from 1948 through 1990.
National unity could also mean pluralism where there is mutual respect among different groups in a society for one another's cultures. Pluralism can be expressed as A + B + C * A + B + C where all the groups coexist in the society. Let's explore this issue of national unity.
The Spanish writer Ortega Y Gasset who authored INVERTEBRATE SPAIN, aptly explains the process that keeps a multiethnic group of people together, thus "People don't live together just like that. That kind of cohesion exists only within a family. The groups who make up a state live together for a purpose. They are a community of projects, desires, big undertakings. They don't come together simply to be together, but in order to do something tomorrow." Ortego's cohesion is not achieved because the minority people's cultures are underemphasized.
Naipaul in a keynote speech at a conference held at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, tried to paint a picture of the impact of the colonial attitude. His position on how diversified groups of people come together, supports that of Ortego. Naipaul drew attention to a European colonial administrator who complained about why the local people don't come together.
He criticizes this colonialist's cognitive process that sees the local peoples as having no distinctive qualities, and that all of them can be compartmentalized into one cultural non-distinguishing brownish mass. Naipaul rejects this colonialist's assertion as "It concedes humanity, it concedes a past, a particularity, and a pride, only to one particular group. It concedes these things only to one people - the administrator's people - and it denies them to everyone else."
The European colonialist's conception of national unity was the compartmentalization of all the locals into one cultural group, resocializing them to show deference to Anglo-culture and to subscribe to Anglo-conformity. This colonialist's thinking and action amount to cultural imperialism where everything that is 'White' is superior and that whatever is nonwhite is inferior. Naipaul rejects this cultural imperialism.
This scenario is an illustration of assimilation of minorities to a dominant White group's culture. That was the basis of national unity in colonial times. Naipaul was right. But Naipaul went further to say that this colonial conception has persisted. In the case of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T), Naipaul believes that T&T people present to outsiders their picturesqueness, and the cosmopolitan population at a trivial level. In other words, they use tourist concepts to introduce their society. Such tourist concepts solidify simplicities and ignorance about diversified people's history and achievements. We do this because we have been socialized and re-socialized by the colonialists to accept that the many different local people are really one people. We are not. We are different, as we have different cultures.
If we accept this position of being one people, and as such, national unity, then we are acknowledging cultural loss to each ethnic minority group. We are admitting to the society being a cemetery of cultures. If you doubt this, look at the impact of cultural imperialism in education and politics in the Caribbean. This overwhelming aura of the colonialists' conception of national unity, seeing all locals as one people has reached maturation in the Caribbean, as we continue to use the colonialists' rules.
Avoiding a cultural irrationality
Politicians thought that use of the term 'Guyanese culture' and baptizing everybody as having a 'Guyanese culture' would heal all and eliminate the deformities of the society. Using the term 'Guyanese culture' is just like an admission of the cultural non-distinctiveness of all the peoples of Guyana. The cultural content and parameters of the application of the term 'Guyanese culture' is fully controlled by the dominant group. This is so because the cultural capital of Guyana is owned and controlled by the group that wields considerable economic and political power. Naipaul would say that it is disheartening to think that these attitudes, such as using the term 'Guyanese culture', which at first might seem revolutionary, is really the other side of the old colonial attitudes. He said "What looks new is only a reaction to the old, is conditioned by the old. I think this is the kind of irrationality that we must avoid."
Let all people in Guyana do some self-examination of links to their cultural heritage. This process involves going beyond the boundaries of slavery and indentureship. We must connect to our roots. In the United States, no credence is given to unifying all the people's cultures in the society. Attempts in Guyana through the National Service were previously made to effect this goal. The policy failed. Such cultural unification in the U.S., if it becomes a reality, would still be subordinated to the power elite. This would be assimilation to Anglo-conformity which is highly irrelevant and unnecessary. In the U.S., pluralism, implying the coexistence and acceptance of each ethnic group's culture is in vogue, and is characterized by an element of permanence. People in the U.S. together engage in projects and work collectively, against a background of institutional recognition of each ethnic group's culture.
Pluralism and multiculturalism are the most logical, secure, and enterprising form of national unity in a multiethnic society. To be a 'Guyanese', is to accept and celebrate the diversity of ethnic cultures in Guyana. This is the kind of persisting national unity that Guyanese want and deserve. 'Guyanese culture' must not be applied to mean merely one culture; there is not one Guyanese culture, but many Guyanese cultures.
Guyana can enhance race and ethnic relations by eliminating the term 'national unity' grounded in this thing called 'Guyanese culture', from the political lexicon. In theory, 'national unity' implies the presence of an elite determining the parameters of societal unification, and hegemony over other ethnic groups in the society. This type of national unity trapped in a 'Guyanese culture' is not feasible, and is antagonistic to cultural diversity.
But Guyana, being highly stratified by class and race, with considerable amounts of inequality, cannot embrace a national unity that excludes pluralism. Real political acknowledgment and institutionalization of each ethnic group's culture will improve race and ethnic relations.
The 'national unity' goal, devoid of a pluralist base in a multiethnic and stratified system, requires as a pre-condition some significant cultural loss to all ethnic groups, but not to the elite. This is so because 'national unity' based on a 'Guyanese culture', as a political expedient and rhetoric, refers to the acceptance of some different and higher values advocated by the elite, and are not part of the minority multiethnic landscape. Generally, the elite's values are contradictory to those of the minority groups.
The elite wants to see the acceptance of these higher values because these values, being treated as having more potency than the minority multicultural values, sustain their vested economic interests.
The 'national unity' goal, under these conditions of excluding the values of minority ethnics, is fertile ground for an emerging community of irrationality. People will not come together in this community of irrationality.
Pluralist unity grounded in an equal status among all ethnic cultures is a more feasible and attractive alternative. If, however, you still are turned on to use the term 'national unity', then that 'national unity' must be grounded in pluralism. 'National unity' must not pander to one ethnic culture, at the exclusion of other minority cultures.