I must confess that I have had an ambivalent attitude to ethnicity for most of my life. My mother was a Hindu and so were all my relatives on both sides of my family. I grew up in the midst of celebrations of Hindu religious festivals, tempered by the dominant influence of the Lutheran Church in my mixed community, as in much of Guyana. Even though I was socialized as a Hindu and, therefore, considered myself, whatever the reality, as Indian by race, my approach to my own ethnicity was determined by factors that had little to do with high principle.
In my mid to late teenage years after I discovered girls, I unconsciously developed a certain approach on the issue of ethnicity, dictated by my dark complexion and curly hair which caused me to be viewed in a particular way. I would defend my Indian ethnicity to certain girls, if asked, and refrain from explaining to other girls, if asked, that I looked like my father, who in turn looked like his mother, who in turn looked like her parents, who came to British Guiana from Bihar. As soon as I adopted this strategy I gained entrée to a much wider community of girls than my friends whose ethnicities were more easily determinable. This doubling up of my opportunities allowed me to stay ahead in the boasting competition in relation to these matters that is part of teenage life.
From the vantage point of fifty plus years later, bearing in mind fading memories, a natural tendency of the male ego to exaggerate about such matters and the unconscious substitution of wishful thinking for reality, I do recall those brief years with nostalgia. Brief because, alas, no sooner had I embarked on my career as a teenage ‘sweet boy,’ and as it was picking up speed, it was wrestled to the ground (thankfully the fight took a good while) by one of the teenage girls that I caught in my widely cast net, a minor at the time, who quaintly insisted on fidelity, and has never since relented. For me, therefore, in my early and more formative teenage years, my considerations of my ethnicity were influenced by opportunism.
Ethnicity for most people is serious business, as it should be. Dr. David Hinds recently wrote a long letter in SN in which he set out some aspects of ethnicity and nationality in some detail. He explained the connection between the two and demonstrated that a proclamation of one over the other does not diminish the value of either and might be necessary depending on the circumstances in which, and the reasons behind, the proclamation.
In my case, even though I have been socialized by Hindu culture, religion and associations, my ethnicity had lost its importance except for opportunistic reasons as I explained above. As I entered my twenties I discovered class in a serious way. I became imbued with the basics of class society, class relations and their importance. Even now, the rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemas in Portugal have both been inspired by specific ideological assumptions and strategies, much of which is related to class. For me the politics of ethnicity and its exploitation by negative forces assumed dominant importance. The issue at the forefront was how to defeat negative forces and unite the working class in Guyana, that is, bringing Indian and African workers and their allies together for a common political purpose.
Since these confounded ideas entered my head, and the grip (some might be tempted to say noose) of fidelity took hold, at a personal level, I could not care less if there were people who were interested in my ethnicity. My teenage experiences, along with my adult views about class, had deepened my ambivalence but, however, unconsciously sustained my opportunism.
Still in our twenties or perhaps early thirties, I was shopping with the aforementioned young lady, now of matrimonial condition. One attractive shop assistant asked me with a smile, ignoring my companion: ‘You mix?’ Old habits die hard, so I automatically responded with the most inviting smile I could display: ‘Yes, I mix.’ I was, of course, later berated, not because I denied what was believed to be my true ethnicity, but because of what may have transpired if, by accident of course, I happened to be alone in the same store.
When Moses Nagamootoo proclaimed that he is not Indian but Guyanese, he was clearly motivated by sentiments of a different and nobler kind and quality than my own youthful exploitation of the issue. He was emphasizing part of his credentials to win the elections. He was saying that for the purposes of national unity, which he says is the objective of his alliance, our national identities as Guyanese are more important than our ethnic identities. He was pursuing the political agenda of unity, which is a major theme of the APNU+AFC alliance.
Some may legitimately disagree with such an approach and may view their ethnic identities as more important than their national identities. It is not known if the critics of Nagamootoo are of the above persuasion. In this questioning political atmosphere, they should clarify.