May 06, 2021 Letters
In 2009, one of the questions in the USA Vanderbilt University LAPOP Guyana Survey was about socialising. Of those Guyanese who responded, seventy-eight (78%) stated that, in their organisations, most or all of the other participants were from the same ethnic community. Possibly, in the diaspora, there would be a similar response.
Therefore, while most Guyanese co-exist and interact, there is not much socialising across our Indigenous (Amerindian), African, Indian, Mixed, Portuguese, Chinese and European ethnic communities. This has led to misinformation and stereotypes about all ethnic communities.
When did this begin? The European colonial system prevented socialising across ethnic communities by deliberately separating us into specific occupations, specific residential areas and specific cultural and religious organisations. Along with those policies, European dominance was maintained by an ideology of ethnic/racial stereotypes that fostered an unequal and unfair rivalry between professionals, workers and farmers from all ethnicities.
Over time, all of us internalised the colonial ethnic stereotypes, unaware that they influence our thoughts, behaviour and our intentions towards a particular ethnic community. Like air, they are invisible but always present.
Here a few examples. Members of “S,” “T” and “U” ethnic communities are good at mathematics and doing business. But, they are clannish (keep mainly to their ‘own’), uppity (‘nose in the air’) and cold. They quietly look after their ‘own’ by supporting each other to take advantage of opportunities. Members of “W” ethnic community are good artists and writers. Because of their varied origins, they easily socialise across communities. But, they use family and other contacts to win unfair advantages and privileges. Members of “X” ethnic community are good athletes, musicians, dancers and they love to party. They are strong but lazy and unreliable employees. They like to bully and they are always complaining about discrimination when they do not get what they want. Members of “Y” ethnic community are hardworking, ‘tight’ with money and support their families by ‘putting away for the future.’ But, they are weak, greedy and conniving and they want to dominate everything. Members from “Z” ethnic community are good at fishing and hunting and they are willing to work for low wages. But, they lack culture and intelligence. They are unable to handle alcohol and they do not show up every day to work. They are shy and awkward.
These stereotypes are not true, whether they are positive or negative. They have no scientific basis. Because some of us had interactions with individuals from a particular ethnic community that reflect a stereotype, we cannot prejudge, generalise and fear that we will have similar experiences with every individual from that ethnic community.
Today, ethnic and class stereotypes persist because we continue to learn about them from supposedly “trusted” sources – families, schools, daycare centres, neighbourhoods, community organisations, friends, workplaces, the media and regrettably even in some of our churches, temples and masjids.
If we can guess who the S, T, U, W, X, Y and Z ethnic communities are, it means that those stereotypes ‘come to mind’ when we are talking about a particular ethnic community.
At the same time, drawing on our commonsense and direct experiences, at home and in the diaspora, there are male and female Guyanese of Indigenous (Amerindian), African, Indian, Mixed, Portuguese, Chinese and European ancestries who are brilliant and excellent farmers, agro-processors, chefs, bakers, fisher folk, artisans, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, manufacturers of craft and furniture, creators of fashion, workers, civil servants, auto mechanics, soldiers, police officers, taxi drivers, minibus drivers, truck drivers, boat captains, teachers, professors, scientists, engineers, technicians, accountants, auditors, experts in information and communications technology, lawyers, judges, magistrates, surgeons, doctors, businesspeople, hotel and eco-lodge owners, tour operators, managers, wholesale/retail traders, market vendors, miners, politicians, diplomats, salespeople, artists, musicians, cricketers, footballers, athletes and actors.
While it is clear that Guyanese from all ethnicities perform excellently in all the occupations and careers mentioned above, we need to question whether the ethnic representation is sufficiently balanced and proportional across those occupations and careers.
For instance, there is the stereotype that Guyanese of Indian, Portuguese, Chinese, Mixed and European ancestries are better at leading and financially managing businesses, than Guyanese of African and Indigenous (Amerindian) ancestries. Consequently, when the staff at a financial institution unconsciously and unintentionally accepts this stereotype, a male or female business person of African and Indigenous ancestry could possibly face ‘closed doors’ when they try to access credit and business support programs.
Two other stereotypes are that Guyanese of Indian ancestry desire to dominate the business sector and monopolise land ownership and that Guyanese from the Indigenous (Amerindian) communities want to dominate land ownership in the hinterland areas. Consequently, when the staff at a government agency unconsciously or unintentionally accepts this stereotype, a male or female of Indian or Indigenous ancestry could possibly face ‘closed doors’ when they try to apply for land.
The lesson from history is that more socialisation across ethnic communities is essential for the development of an equitable society. The current situation in Guyana provides an opportunity for all Guyanese to share and learn about our similarities, common beliefs, values and experiences. Then we will be able to better appreciate each other as human beings. If we know and understand each other better, we will not fear each other.
But we will not be able to effectively socialise, at home and in the diaspora, if we tolerate or condone discriminatory remarks and behaviour. Therefore, first of all, we have to challenge and debunk all the ethnic stereotypes, within ourselves and in the economic, political and social system.
If the opportunity is missed to organise grassroots socialising and networking across ethnic communities, like when the independence movement lapsed to do so between 1953 and 1957, then narrow-minded opportunist politicians will use ethnic stereotypes to destabilise and prevent national unity.
Geoffrey Da Silva
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