Development of Ethnic Identity

Guyana Table of Contents

One of the dominant characteristics of Guyanese society and politics, ethnicity has received much attention from social scientists and historians. It is an oversimplification to describe Guyanese society as made of up of separate racial groups. Terms such as Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese refer to ethnic identities or categories. Significant physical and cultural variations exist within each ethnic category. Thus, two Guyanese with quite different ancestry, political and economic interests, and behavior may share the same ethnic identity.

All of the immigrant groups in British Guiana adapted to the colony's dominant British culture. In many ways, the descendants of the various immigrant groups have come to resemble each other more than their respective ancestors. Moreover, the immigrants' descendants have spread out from their original social niches. Indo-Guyanese are to be found not only on the sugar plantations or in rice-producing communities, but also in the towns, where some are laborers and others are professionals or businessmen. Afro-Guyanese are likewise found at all levels of society.

Among the experiences shared by all of the immigrant groups was labor on the plantations. After the abolition of slavery, the nature of the labor force changed, but not the labor itself. East Indians performed the same work as the slaves before them and lived in the same kind of housing; they were subject to the same management structure on the plantations. All of the immigrants groups were exposed to the same dominant British value system and had to accommodate their own values to it. Africans saw themselves as belonging to different cultural groups; Indian society was differentiated by religion and caste. To the British, however, race was the primary social determinant, and East Indians found themselves categorized as a single race distinct from the Africans.

Perhaps nowhere was assimilation more evident than in language use. English, the official language, has become the primary language of all Guyanese, with the exception of a few elderly IndoGuyanese and some Amerindians. The universal use of English is a strong unifying cultural force. English also brings the nation closer to other countries of the English-speaking Caribbean, although it has isolated Guyana from Spanish- and Portuguesespeaking Latin America.

As the descendants of the immigrant groups became more Anglicized, cultural differences grew less pronounced, and even physical differences became blurred through intermarriage. The cultural differences that remained took on a symbolic importance as indicators of ethnic identity. Many of these cultural differences had not been passed on by ancestors, but developed in the colony. Guyanese Hinduism, for example, is closer to Islam and Christianity than anything observed by the ancestors of the Indo-Guyanese, yet it serves to rally ethnic solidarity.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress