The politics of shaping a cultural identity (Pt. 2)
By Dominique Hunter
Last week’s article marked the introduction of a series of ideas and theories regarding the problematic nature of shaping the cultural identity of a nation with such diverse cultures as Guyana. Central to the concerns of the time was the need for integration, both within the country as well as regionally. But it became evident that the commencement of that process necessitated the complete overhaul of a nation whose history has been firmly rooted in the assimilation of the cultures of its colonizers (the Dutch, French and British).
We would’ve no doubt inherited from our colonizers much more than just the names of streets and villages. Every time this territory would’ve come under foreign rule, the citizens (indigenous peoples, slaves and immigrants) would’ve been expected to adopt the dominant culture. In fact, the system of colonization meant that all inhabitants and indigenous peoples would’ve been considered minority groups and as such would be expected to assimilate in order to ensure a relatively uneventful rule by their colonizer.
A quick lesson on our country’s history will reveal that we changed hands several times in a rather short time span between the three vastly different territories. In addition to that, we’ve had not one or two or three, but six distinct groups of people inhabit this space (whether they were native to the land or brought here under varying circumstances). One can only imagine that these people would’ve tried to hold on to their own cultures and traditions in an effort to cope amid the unfamiliarity of the new dominant culture. Whether they were successful or even given the opportunity to do that is something else entirely.
Regardless, our history teaches us that diversity has always been a central characteristic of this particular space. And in the weeks leading up to our independence, it became obvious that there needed to be system that recognized and respected each culture without asking that they abandon anything in favour of a collective national identity. And so entered the theory of cultural pluralism, proposing ideas that could possibly be the solutions everyone hoped for. But what does this term really mean and is it an accurate descriptor for our cultural landscape? A number of terms would first have to be defined before we attempt to answer those questions.
In order for us to attempt to understand the implications of shaping a national cultural identity, we must first examine the meanings of those words and define their parameters. What do these words mean on their own and how do they change when grouped? Take for example the word culture: Culture refers to the ever shifting and dynamic group of characteristics that orient us in specific ways, evolving and adapting as social, political and economical conditions change. Identity, on the other hand, is a socially and historically constructed concept that is tied to key facets such as education, gender, race, class, religion and sexual orientation.
So what does it mean when those two words are combined? The psychologist Stephen Bochner describes cultural identity as being, “defined by its majority group, and this group is usually quite distinguishable from the minority sub-groups with whom they share the physical environment and the territory that they inhabit.” Cultural identity is therefore inextricably linked to power and ideology. It represents the intertwining of one’s self image and culture as the complete conception of reality. Further, it is comparable to the idea of a national identity, in the sense that it describes characteristics shared by members of a specific community that extend above and beyond their own individual differences.
Cultural pluralism, or simply pluralism, attempts to move beyond the mere acknowledgement and tolerance of minority cultures in a single society, by celebrating the diversity of those cultures. So rather than embrace the “melting pot” concept of cultural assimilation by indigenous peoples and immigrants, each ethnic group would have the right to exist on their own terms within the larger society without compromising their own cultural heritage.
This theory of cultural pluralism is not without flaws however and has, in the past, been attacked for justifying cultural separatism by promoting ethnically pure enclaves. Other critiques of the theory have been that it suppresses individuality, and that it elevates ethnic identity to a primary and more powerful status over other identities. However, proponents have responded that this theory thrives in an integrated as opposed to segregated society by fully accepting the dynamic nature and diversity of each culture.
Closely linked to the concept of cultural pluralism is multiculturalism, a theory often thought of as the same but is in fact, quite different from the former. Multiculturalism is a theory in political philosophy that demands solutions to the economic and political disadvantages that burden minority groups. And although it has been used as an umbrella term to describe the acknowledgement and tolerance of different cultures (particularly immigrants who are ethnic and religious minorities), it is quite unlike the pluralist theory. It attempts to impose a single uniform status on all cultures, suggesting that everyone’s identities and loyalties extend far beyond the parameters of nationalism and are connected to the much larger vision of worldwide community.
These complex cultural theories get even harder to decode when we consider that today there are increasing numbers of Guyanese citizens who claim multiple ethnic and racial backgrounds, and participate in multiple religious traditions. Is the theory of cultural pluralism still applicable to Guyana’s landscape or has it morphed into a hybridized version of cultural theories not yet documented? How do you attempt to shape a single cultural identity given so many overlapping and ambiguous variables? Could this difficulty perhaps be the reason for our apparent collective identity crisis? The investigation continues next week, as we get ever closer to understanding our dilemma.
Points of Departure is a four part series inspired by the pre-independence writings of several columnists of the then Guiana Graphic. The series is intended to reflect on key areas of cultural development and planning that were in discussions leading up the country’s departure from its British colonizer. As the name suggests, those discussions will be used as indicators to track the initial course of ideas proposed by thinkers of the time to present day realities.