Who are we away from ‘home’? A View of Diaspora Identity – By Lear Matthews

Who are we away from ‘home’? A View of Diaspora Identity

Opinion - commentary -analysisBy Lear Matthews

Participants in Guyana’s Golden Jubilee Symposium Series will explore four interrelated questions: Who are we? What has been our journey? What can we become? How can we get there? In this article, the writer interrogates the first question: “Who are we”? specifically as it relates to the Diaspora (i.e. Guyanese immigrants). My goal is to begin the conversation.

Diaspora Identity: How is it shaped?

The experience of the immigrant community can be both gratifying and challenging, characterized by opportunities and risks. Adaptation and identity are shaped by trans-cultural and psychological factors, including the extent of social/emotional place attachment to country of origin.  Bi-national labels such as Caribbean-American, a function of sustained links to the homeland, may reflect ethnic grounding and national pride. In this regard, cultural practices/customs among immigrants demonstrate expressed identification with the home country.       

‘Guyanese-American’ may also be less symbolic than significantly representing the essence of a transnational existence, rooted in as much the country of origin as in the adopted country. Most Guyanese in the Diaspora, regardless of ethnicity or self-identification are defined by the host society’s subculture niches as ‘people of color’ or ‘black’ (e.g. in North America). They are seen as part of a ‘minority group’ because of physical appearance or ‘otherness’ which sets the parameters of class/ethnic categories.

Who we are perceived to be or the labels assigned to us, is informed by a history of global transmigration and geopolitics. Ultimately, pre-migratory socialization coupled with experience as transnationals is of consequence. Notwithstanding their significant human capital contributions to the host country, immigrants are viewed as foreigners, displaced persons, aliens, expatriates, even “traitors” (for abandoning country of origin).  Does how we are perceived by others matter? To what extent does the place we call ‘home’ define what/who we are? How well does a Guyanese/Caribbean culture translate into aspects of ‘American’ or ‘Canadian’ or ‘British’ culture? Are we ever complicit in denying our true heritage? Such questions may be at the core of a collective identity, although for some, personal/professional achievement, not heritage, determines one’s identity.

We often forget that Guyanese immigrants comprise more than the major ethnic groups, namely, Guyanese of East Indian ancestry and those of African ancestry. There are also Guyanese-born Chinese, Portuguese and Amerindians in the Diaspora. They too have narratives about the immigrant experience, which redefine who they are and what they have become.

In search of a collective consciousness: “Ahwhee Own”:

As we seek to answer the question: “who are we?” in the Diaspora, remember that ethnicity and social class affect self-concept. In addition, racial politics in the home country planted the seeds of ethnic divide. The resulting cultural baggage and its political ramifications penetrate virtually every aspect of Guyanese life, which includes group relations at home and abroad.  Consequently, the capacity to assess needs, form alliances and collectively commit to meaningful change has been compromised.

Furthermore, relations between the Diaspora and homeland seem in a state of tension, particularly with regard to the role, ambivalence and expectations of “comebackees”. Along with perceived “ethnic imbalance” at planned Diaspora events, these tensions need careful unpacking and measured response. A collective consciousness (“ahwhee own”) influenced less by politics than openness to diverse ideas from all stakeholders is essential. This may require a re-socializing and re-culturing of our views and beliefs about what it means to be Guyanese.

Diaspora Engagement: Helping to chart our destiny

We must have a vision to successfully chart our destiny. Commitment to national unity and the legacy we leave our children should frame who we are.  Such a commitment is symbolically expressed at ceremonial events when the pledge: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” is recited to reaffirm national harmony. The hope is that this is a genuine reflection of who we thrive to be, regardless of ethnicity, color or creed.

We need to get past the reluctance to talk honestly about racial/ethnic issues, reflect on our journey and strengthen group relations. Following the return of thousands for this unprecedented milestone, Diaspora engagement could be pivotal in launching various development initiatives. We will  hopefully emerge with a better understanding of who we are, making the nation a place where people embrace ‘oneness’ regardless of country of residence or political affiliation. The goal is to overcome psychological barriers, while harnessing ideas, resources and skills across nation states. This could help re-define the identity, values and destiny of the nation.

There is ample evidence of identification with, and commitment to homeland development, but Guyanese need to loosen the bonds of mistrust among ethnic groups, homeland and the Diaspora, This will hopefully increase inclusiveness in the new political climate. There are opportunities for this such as the government’s proposed plans to re-structure the educational system, inviting assistance from the Diaspora. The recently announced Guyana government/IOM collaborative “Go See Visit 2016” entrepreneur project is another example of such efforts.

Beyond the 50th: What we can become?

Thoughts expressed above apply mostly to first-generation immigrants and their children, who may define themselves as Guyanese –American.  For the third-generation, ethnicity, and the country of their grandparents’ birth may no longer be dominant in defining “Who am I?” They tend to assimilate into the mainstream society, accepting it as “home” and identifying with it.

However, as we reaffirm our heritage and political independence at 50 years, assessing the realities of a Diaspora identity is essential. These are difficult, important, deeply personal and political issues about identity. We also have to be cognizant about where race and class fit into all of this, in the Guyanese context. Self-knowledge, involvement of our youth, and vested partnership with the homeland could help construct what we can become, as we engage across cultures and reconcile a new identity. In this process, the third generation immigrant, as well as Guyanese millennials may develop an identity that transcends any particular nation state or ethnicity.

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 05/09/2016 at 12:26 pm

    “We need to get past the reluctance to talk honestly about racial/ethnic issues, reflect on our journey and strengthen group relations.”
    ~ Agree. Sadly, as a people – whether at home or in the Diaspora – we still have too many ghosts seeking justice and release.

  • Gigi  On 05/10/2016 at 12:19 am

    “We must have a vision to successfully chart our destiny. Commitment to national unity and the legacy we leave our children should frame who we are. Such a commitment is symbolically expressed at ceremonial events when the pledge: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” is recited to reaffirm national harmony. The hope is that this is a genuine reflection of who we thrive to be, regardless of ethnicity, color or creed.”

    I shudder to think about the kind of advise these folks have for spouses seeking to escape a situation/relationship that is both mentally, physically and sexually abusive, hostile, violent, threatening, traumatizing with the only outcome being a guaranteed untimely end at the hands of the abusive person. Do you encourage these spouses to stay and endure, to not pay attention to or focus on the dangerous and dire hopeless of their situation, but to instead conjure up some magical vision that will chart them toward a successful destiny? Do you preach that they should make the sacrifice to endure this living hell so as to strive for household unity to pass on to their equally traumatized and abused children? You seriously expect you kumbaya-ing to hold sway with us, the victims? Not in a million years!

    PS, reciting the pledge is propaganda gimcrackery for the brainwashed masses.

  • Lear Matthews  On 05/10/2016 at 4:09 pm

    Mission accomplished! The conversation has begun. Gigi’s comments are passionate and interesting, thought a bit pessimistic. Great contribution.


  • Thinker  On 05/11/2016 at 6:31 am

    Once the children were not born in Guyana, they tend to have more of a “Caribbean” identity rather than a Guyanese one. Mild curiosity is all that can be expected of most of them. So diaspora organisations will continue to have leadership composed of those who were actually born in the country.

    The pledge is useful to remind people that Gigi’s vision of a divided state along racial lines is not practical. Interesting to note that not many on GOL are actually responding to her repeated outbursts on this score or the crazy notion of becoming part of Venezuela. A case of recognised Irrelevance???

  • demerwater  On 05/11/2016 at 8:08 am

    I have an “identity crisis”.
    I was born in Guyana. In my middle age (based on 70-year lifespan) I emigrated to the USA and, by Naturalization, I am now an American citizen.
    I have never gone back to Guyana. From what I hear, I would be ‘lost’.
    Yet, I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to a number of people, ideas and ideals that have been the foundation blocks on which my character was moulded at first; morphing into a DIY project ever since I was about 20 years old.
    Most of the people are dead and gone. The ideas and ideals persist in me and I live them as best as I can. I do not feel a sense of belonging to the ‘diaspora’. I do not play any outdoor sport, I am not much into reminiscing ‘… yuh remembah when …?’ And things like that. Sometimes I am not sure that I fully understand the ‘diaspora’ concept.
    Do not get me wrong. I enjoy a drink, songs, singing and dancing – with close relations. The truth is that my career in the sugar industry involved a fair amount of ‘transfers’ and this had caused a ‘disconnect’ between myself and all but my closest relatives.
    So, how do I repay that debt? Contribute some useful items to this or that that barrel? Give some money to this or that group that does voluntary or missionary work in the country? Sure I can; and I do, maybe not as much as I should. I believe in the adage, “Give a man a fish and you give him a meal. Teach him to fish and he will not starve.”
    If the world were divided into artists and scientists, I would be in the latter group. My tendency is to put things under a magnifying glass or the microscope. And so, as I read of the tragedy of suicides, of the sacrifice (no less) of good arable land to housing; when I know that a program of diversifying from sugarcane into ‘other crops’ was started; when I know that the problems of mechanization were evaluated and documented from the “East Lothian” project at Albion; when I know that it does not require another costly committee report on the drainage problems of the front-lands I thank Cyril (I know that he is paying attention.) for this forum whence I can voice my opinion, and all the other contributors who make the discussions lively.

  • guyaneseonline  On 05/11/2016 at 9:46 am

    Demerwater… Yes! and thank you and other for their contribution of comments to this blog/website.
    Yes! I am listening….
    Maybe you can write us some short articles about growing up in various parts of Guyana … and your life in the Diaspora….. Thanks!!

  • Albert  On 05/11/2016 at 11:06 am

    Life could be complex. Finding your purpose in life may be a matter of to whom the message is directed. For many of us coming to America our effort was geared to making the best of the opportunities provided in this new land. For many it might be a matter of how to survive given their immigration status.
    Many find themselves in a situation in which they have done well but have well fed children/grandchildren, who live comfortable but lack motivation. They play on the computer all day, have fancy smart phones for which their parents pay but seem to have no interest beyond that. Its becoming a national problem for middle class Americans.
    How does one help such kids find their calling.

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