People have ethnic and other identities in addition to a national identity

Dear Editor,

Reference is made to Mr Seelochan Beharry’s  ‘Those born here are Guyanese first and foremost‘ (SN, Nov 18) in which he attacks me for holding on to my identity.  Mr Beharry makes a mish-mash of separate issues – ethnicity, his grouse with President Jagdeo, etc – and in the  process confuses various concepts.

Mr Beharry’s response on ethnicity is superficial and does not deal with ethnicity in a practical, realistic manner. His comments about how myself and other Indians relate to our ethnic background are without merit. Indianness or Africanness or Amerindianness, etc, is a badge people wear.  The outsider looking in sees them as Indian or African or Amerindian, etc. Their ethnicity defines them.

I agree with Mr Beharry that someone one born in Guyana is Guyanese, as would someone born in Ireland be Irish.  But in addition to a national identity, people also have ethnic and other identities. Mr Beharry seems confused about the differences between nationality and ethnicity. I refer him to Dr Ravi Dev’s brilliant commentary on the subject (KN, Nov 5). As Mr Dev wrote, our ethnicities are defined outside our “Guyaneseness.”  Being Afro or Indo or Portuguese or Amerindian Guyanese would not be contradictory in any sense. The first part of our identity would be specific while the latter universal, as Mr Dev explains. The “national” informs us of a space where ethnic communities can live and share. As such, I am Guyanese and Indian as well.
Contrary to what Mr Beharry penned about being identified by ethnic origin, the empirical evidence does not show that “it is counter-productive to proclaim a country of ancestral origin to define a human being.”

Everyone in Canada, where Beharry lives, and in the US is identified by national and ethnic origin.  Also, some 173 years later in Guyana, the descendants of people  from India are still referred to as Indians as they are also in Fiji, Mauritius, Reunion, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Natal, Martinique, etc.

Similarly, people from Africa, Portugal, Britain, Ireland, China, etc, as citizens of Guyana are identified by their ethnicity as they are in Canada, America, etc. The English whites have not returned to England to live but are still referred to as WASPs in America.  The descendants of Irish immigrants have not returned to Ireland but are still called Irish in America as are Italians and other ethnic groups identified by their ethnicity. In the US, each ethnic group has carved out its own niche. And each group has its own ethnic enclave or ethnic neighbourhoods like Little Italy, Chinatown, El Barrios, Little Guyana, Little Jamaica, Little India, etc.  People in the US live in segregated neighbourhoods not dissimilar from Guyana.

Mr Beharry must also understand that people not only define themselves by ethnicity but are also defined as such by others.  We can call ourselves whatever identity we choose but others may not define us as such.  I remember during my undergraduate studies at CCNY, several Indo-Caribbean people calling ourselves West Indians in the Caribbean Association Students meeting.  An African-Jamaican female corrected us saying we are not West Indians but East Indians.  She made it pellucidly clear that an Indian (even if born in the West Indies) cannot be a West Indian as the latter category belongs only to Africans. Since we could not be members of the Caribbean Students Association at CCNY, we founded the Indo Club.  At CCNY, there were at least 100 ethnic clubs when I was a student during the 1970s and 1980s.

I was elected to student government, disbursing funds to these different groups for their ethnic activities.  So clearly, Indos are not the only ones holding on to their ethnicity.

Mr Beharry accused me of failing to move away from my ethnicity. I can assure Mr Beharry I have moved on beyond mere physical appearance but my ethnicity does not disappear.  When I donate money to food pantries and charities in depressed neighbourhoods in NY, they don’t go to Indians. When I visit African and South East Asian countries and distributed assistance to children, that was moving beyond physical appearance.  The same is also true when I make donations to masjids and Christian churches even though I am an orthodox Hindu.

Mr Beharry is right to say it is hard to erase memories especially when people are abused by others because of their ethnicity.

My ethnic lens determines my perspectives to treat people as human beings and to be respectful of them regardless of their ethnicity.

I don’t treat or judge people by their ethnicity. Rather I judge them by their character as Dr Martin Luther King advised.

Prof Jean S Phinney, notes that ethnic identity is an important component of the self-concept and a significant predictor of self-esteem and is of increasing importance in the world. Prof Orville Boyd Jenkins also wrote about the importance of ethnicity as a form of identification.

English poet, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Donne’s famous statement goes to the heart of the social identity theory developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979 to explain how it is that people develop a sense of membership and belonging in particular groups. One has to wonder by what leap of logic Mr Beharry interprets “Mr Bisram’s views of being first and foremost ‘Indo-X’ or ‘Indian-X,’ when it is quite clear that the national and regional identities and psychology of belonging provide the larger context for the ethnic identities.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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