Development of Ethnic Identity
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.
Data as of January 1992