ETHNIC CULTURE VERSUS CIVIC CULTURE
BY PREM MISIR
April 12, 2004
ONE of the private print media reported that the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) believes that children should not be tutored about the six races in Guyana, but rather only about one human race. I have not seen the ERC's media release, so I will not pronounce on their alleged remarks. However, I will take this opportunity to explain the absurdity about a common ethnic culture.
Cultural similarities & differences
These six races really are six ethnic groups where each group has a shared cultural heritage. Each group's culture represents adaptations to solve problems and to fulfill needs. We must understand the different cultural adaptations utilized by different ethnics, in order to better appreciate their ways of living. A difficulty in ethnic and race relations is that we tend to focus a lot more on the differences among ethnics, and de-emphasize similarities. However, this cultural appreciation would enable us to identify such similarities.
How? In one word, 'cultural universals'. These are common practices found in all cultures. The common practices weave cultural similarities among different ethnics. Anthropologist George Murdock gave a few examples of these practices as: family, marriage, dancing, language, music, housing, sexual restrictions, laws, food habits, etc. These common practices really are adaptations people use to fulfill their essential needs, as need for food, shelter, entertainment, family. However, although these practices are universal, the way in which they are expressed may change from one ethnic group to the next. At any rate, widespread acceptance of cultural similarities by different ethnics is sustained. Therefore, the need to appreciate other people's cultures is necessary. Why? Appreciation helps to recognize similarities among us, and appreciation assists us to understand how people from different cultures adapt to solve their problems. This cultural appreciation is a product of learned behavior - absurdity of a common ethnic culture.
At another level, obsession with ethnic differences and not similarities has driven people to believe that in Guyana as in all multi-ethnic societies, the achievement of a common ethnic culture is the panacea for resolving race-ethnic problems. The common ethnic culture argument is absurd. Why? You tell me why people should surrender their individual culture to take on another cultural make-up, when it's unnecessary. Where one group's culture dominates a subordinate group's culture to the point of eliminating the minority cultures, we have a case of assimilation. Assimilation is a situation where a minority group, by force or voluntarily, divests itself of its own cultural make-up to take on the culture of a dominant group.
Theoretically, in the Guyana situation, assimilation would involve East Indian people stripping themselves of their 'Indianness' to take on 'Africanness' or some other 'cultureness', if the dominant group is African or some other group, and vice versa. The U.S. with a multiplicity of cultures, and it has a lot more than six, does not have a common ethnic culture. People who are naturalized American citizens or Green Card holders in the U.S. generally comply with the civic requirements of the system, and still sustain their own cultural heritage and contribute to nation building of that society.
We must appreciate other people's culture, and understand that we already have cultural coexistence among Amerindians, East Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, and Mixed. 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 'common Guyanese ethnic culture'? These slices would not be given, and they are not necessary because this ill-conceived 'common Guyanese ethnic culture' presupposes a condition of forced assimilation on minority groups by any dominant group. Cultures in Guyana do not have to be fragmented or diluted; these cultures have to coexist. Children have to learn the core of cultural coexistence.
Common civic culture
Given the confusion about a national culture, we, therefore, must distinguish between ethnic culture and civic culture. An ethnic culture refers to shared distinctive cultural traits as language, religion, family customs, food preferences, etc., within a group. What we need is a universally-shared civic culture that comes from the common civil code of the Constitution, the Judiciary, Parliament, and other similar-type instruments. We do not need a common ethnic culture where some groups lose their cultures. The civic culture could become the common Guyanese culture.
The common civic culture will have a familiarity with and acceptance of ethnic cultural differences. In so doing, it can champion equal rights and life chances for every Guyanese. Tageri, writing on the nation versus the constitution, believes that we need to have a "...culture which is to be shared equally by all citizens independent of their respective religious or cultural identity. But this...culture should remain neutral and separated from all particularist cultures and collective identities...The state and its legal order, however, must maintain neutrality vis-à-vis these sub-cultures." Neutrality is achieved through separating the dominant ethnic culture from the civic culture. Once this occurs, the civic culture becomes the national culture. In this way, no group loses its ethnicity. This cultural transformation means that Guyanese will have to learn both civic and ethnic cultures. The ERC has a pivotal role to play in this impending cultural transfiguration.