modern/primitive

Martin M. pointed out some ironic happenings in Peru that illustrate the complexities of trying to deal with long-term stereotypes and prejudice. Back in November 2009, the Peruvian government officially apologized for discrimination against AfroPeruvians. So far so good–a step toward acknowledging that AfroPeruvians have suffered both economically and socially because of social attitudes and government policies.

But, of course, long-held stereotypes aren’t that easy to change. Peruvians of African descent have often been portrayed as backward, uncivilized, and possibly cannibalistic.

Just a few days after the government’s apology and declaration that poor treatment and negative stereotypes of this ethnic group needed to end, the newspaper El Comercio began advertising their new section on healthy eating with a TV commercial that draws on all the old stereotypes. The video is in Spanish, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get the gist of it, and I describe it below:

El comercio- Los canibales from Pao Ugaz on Vimeo.

What’s going on here? The mother is mad, not because her younger son ate someone, but because he ate someone who was too fat, and thus not good for them to eat. They need to eat less fattening people to improve their health. She warns him about his cholesterol. The caption says, “You eat healthy, you are healthy.”

According to Reportaje al Perú, the newspaper pulled the spot after receiving complaints and apologized for it.

As with any society with a history of widespread, blatantly racist stereotypes and discrimination, attempting to heal racial wounds will be a very long, painful, and difficult process. It’s one thing to officially apologize. It’s another to convince citizens that prejudice and discrimination are unacceptable and that everyone must play a part in ending them.

See also: El Correo ridicules Quechua speakers in government.

Larry of The Daily Mirror sent in an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times on January 26, 1920. Here are some screencaps of the most interesting sections:

Not surprisingly, civilization means only one thing: assimilation into Anglo culture. The other option? Extinction. How do we know a tribe isn’t civilized? They still live like their “forefathers” did. It’s a theme we see a lot in terms of Native Americans: in order to be authentic (which in this case means “uncivilized”), they must not change any cultural practices. There is an expectation that “real” Indians are culturally frozen in time, as though their cultural practices and lifestyles had not changed throughout history just like every other group’s has.

And also, I’m pretty sure lots of groups have combined elements of two or more religions “without any difficulty or embarrassment,” but whatever. I’m sure they were, indeed, of immense interest to artists, scientists, and writers (also, physiognomists). And since they are of interest to them, that should definitely be taken into account when we decide what to do with them. Taos still loves Indian art.

Still, Native American cultural customs are acceptable only to the degree they are compatible with assimilation. And learning to read and write, use a stove or a sewing machine, mean giving up “the Indian life.” Again, modernity cannot be combined with existing cultural practices.

It’s a great example of how Whites felt entirely comfortable discussing what the future of American Indians should be, either romanticizing them as noble savages or insisting on their cultural backwardness, without any sense that Indians themselves might have any ideas on the issue worth paying attention to.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Christina S. sent along a link to the British commercial below for Twingo. There’s a twist ending, so I’ll let you watch it:

Notice that, at the very end, the narrator refers to how “we live in modern times,” meaning that we drive socially responsible cars and tolerate cross-dressing.

The idea embedded in that commercial is: now that we’re “modern,” there is no more prejudice and intolerance. Or, “modern” people are tolerant of social differences. Things like bias, hate, and discrimination are “in the past,” confined to those who are “traditional” or otherwise somehow regressive.

This makes sense to us (and the commercial, therefore, works) because many of us have a model of history that assumes that everything will, inevitably, always get better… or at least not get worse. This is a linear model where the line for “progress” keeps going higher and higher over time.  However things are today, we assume, things must have been worse before.  Thinking like this makes invisible the possibility that people were more tolerant in the past as well as the possibility that we could become increasingly intolerant in the future.  As I wrote in a previous post about cavemen:

There are serious problems with this idea:  (a)  We may stop working to make society better because we assume it will get better anyway (and certainly never get worse) with or without us.  (b) Instead of thinking about what things like gender equality and subordination might look like, we just assume that equality is, well, what we have now and subordination is what they had then.  This makes it less possible to fight against the subordination that exists now by making it difficult to recognize.

History doesn’t move along in a linear or predictable way.  And it certainly doesn’t produce equality just by plodding along.  We need to do the hard work of figuring out what an egalitarian society looks like and how to get there.  Conflating “modernity” with social tolerance makes it seem as though the work is already finished.

UPDATE! Ashleigh V. sent in another Twingo commercial.  This one conflates modernity with sexual permissiveness:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sociologist Stephanie Coontz, in her acclaimed, fascinating, and fact-dense book, The Way We Never Were, illustrates the way that what is considered “traditional” must be socially constructed. For example, when people say “traditional marriage,” do they mean marriage between a man and his property? Between a man and more than one woman? Is the ideal age for marriage 13, 20 or 27? Is it for love, political maneuvering, survival, babies, or kitchens?  How you answer these questions depends on when, exactly, in history you’re talking about.  (See here for some humorous takes.)

The point: Since all of history is potentially a source of tradition, identifying any given period of time as The Traditional, and therefore deserving of our nostalgia, is arbitrary.

The Daily Show did a great job of illustrating this idea this week:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


Binyavanga Wainaina does an excellent job, in this 3-minute video, describing ways that “Africa” tends to be written about in the West. See how many of the tropes you recognize:

To paraphrase Jose, at Thick Culture, it’s important to be engaged with the world, but our engagement shouldn’t be entirely on our terms. And, especially, not terms in which the Western world gets to construct itself as the savior of the less fortunate (e.g., Avatar).

Such ideas make it seem as if underdeveloped parts of the world are somehow inherently deficient (culturally or otherwise). When, in fact, insofar as underdeveloped parts of Africa or other continents need saving, it is partly (largely?) because of (1) a history of colonialism that stole their resources and disrupted their societies and (2) the current global economic system that continues to put them at a devastating disadvantage.

See also: The Single Story of “Africa”

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Robin H., Tomi L., and Kate McL. asked us to talk about the new movie, Avatar.   Tomi thought the gender politics were great, with men and women as equals fighting and ruling side-by-side.  I think she’s right.  It’s a great example of a cultural product that makes little of gender difference.  (UPDATE: Though commenters are disagreeing on this point quite insightfully.)

With that said, I want to comment on the race politics in the movie (I do so indebted to Annalee Newitz and Eric Repphun; you might also be interested in Meloukhia’s comments from a disability studies perspective).

First, a summary (super spoiler alert):

Avatar is a moral re-evaluation of colonization. In the movie, humans go about killing and displacing the indigenous population of another planet, the Na’vi, in order to extract a valuable mineral.

The Na’vi are a fantastical version of indigenous populations encountered by Europeans during colonization. They wear features, bones, and skins; they have a deep spirituality and a ritual-filled life; they are accomplished and principled warriors; they hunt and fight with bows and arrows; and they have an intense connection to nature (the end of the black braided ponytail of the Na’vi contains mysterious filaments that plug into the flora and fauna, allowing a sort of mind meld with the animals and the planet). They are, in short, the stereotypical “noble savage.”

Avatar

Capture4

In the movie, humans use technology to transport their consciousnesses into home-grown native bodies.

A character, Jake Sully, and his avatar:

Capture3

They use these bodies to infiltrate and befriend the Na’vi, all with the intention of furthering the goals of mineral extraction.  Through our hero, Sully, we discover the moral superiority of the Na’vi people.  His own exceptional nature is also revealed.

Sully being blessed by the Goddess, a sign that the Na’vi should accept him:

avatar_trailer1_017

Later, the chief’s daughter falls in love with him.

The anthropological effort to convince the Na’vi to give up their land fails and so the humans decide to take the land by force, wantonly destroying their home and killing any Na’vi that get in the way. A handful of humans, led now by Sully, defect and join the Na’vi.  During the battle, both the chief and the rightful inheritor of the role die.  After they win the battle, Sully assumes the role of chief, with the highest ranking female at his side.

In the end, Sully abandons his (disabled) human body and the Goddess transfers his consciousness into his avatar body. He has, literally, “gone native.”

Now, to the commentary:

Avatar is a fantasy in which the history of colonization is rewritten, but it a fantasy specifically for white people living with a heavy dose of liberal guilt. And it is one that, ultimately, marginalizes indigenous peoples and affirms white supremacy.

If it were a fantasy for, say, the American Indian population in the U.S., the story might go a little differently. In that fantasy there would be no Sully character. It’s that simple.

The Sully character is white redemption embodied; he “…is liberal guilt made flesh.”  His character redeems the human race (i.e., people of European descent) by proving that at least some of us (guilty liberals) are good. Whites can identify with Sully instead of the humans who orchestrate the genocide and displacement.

But Sully is not only a superior human being, he is also a superior Na’vi. After being briefly ostracized for his participation in the land grab, he tames the most violent creature in the sky, thereby proving himself to be the highest quality warrior imaginable per the Na’vi mythology.  He gives them hope, works out their strategy, and is their most-valuable-weapon in the war. In the end, with all Na’vi contenders for leadership conveniently dead, he assumes the role of chief… and gets the-most-valuable-girl for good measure. Throngs of Na’vi bow to him.

As Annalee Newitz summarized in her excellent commentary:

This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.

I’m going to speculate that, if this were a fantasy written for a colonized population, the hero would come from their own ranks and, at the end of the movie, they would continue life on their land, with their culture intact, under Na’vi leadership, without a human in sight.

But that would be a movie that alienated the colonizer. And since history is written, and rewritten, by the victor, Avatar is what we get.

And it is a safe fantasy because the fight is over. During most of the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous populations in the Americas, stereotypes were cruel and dehumanizing. The “noble savage” stereotype that we are familiar with emerged only after the threat of American Indian resistance was long gone. We re-cast our enemy in romantic terms only after we won the war. How nice for us. It turns out our foe was a worthy one, making us look all the more impressive for being the victor. We can now pretend that we had deep respect for them all along.

Europeans can enjoy Avatar precisely because there is no risk to admitting that colonization was wrong. We can wallow in guilt about it and, still, the likelihood that power dynamics will be reconfigured in any meaningful way is just about zero.

(Images borrowed from here, here, and here.)

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Judy Z. H. sent in Kanye’s video for Love Lockdown for analysis.  My first thought was: they should have just went with Qwest Crew. But I digress.

The video contrasts Kanye, singing in a nearly empty apartment, with tribal imagery.

Here’s my thoughts:  The song is about a man who loves a woman but knows intellectually that the relationship is wrong.  So he has to leave her, even as his heart breaks to do it.  So the song is about a conflict between his heart and his mind or, alternatively, passion and rationality.

The passion/rationality binary is often layered onto a primitive/modern binary.  Primitives, we presume, are superstitious, driven by passions, more instinctual than intellectual, more closely connected to animals and nature more generally.  Moderns, by contrast, are assumed to be rational, in control of our emotions; modernity has brought us science and technology and taken us farther away from nature.

Accordingly, the primitives in the video express strong emotions and are dressed in skins and feathers, decorated with the earth, while Kanye calmly sings about a heart-wrenching decision, surrounded by a clean, white, even sterile, apartment, and lounging in the kitchen (the most technological room in the house); the only item other than furniture that we see is a telescope.  A telescope!  How very modern.

The video works because Kanye’s audience recognizes the modern/primitive binary and all that it implies.  But, of course, it’s false.   Psychological research (and, as far as I can tell, all of the research on voting behavior) demonstrates again and again that rationality is not our strong point as a species.  If anything, what is modern is the inferring of rationality (hello rational choice theorists!), something that we see clearly in this video.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Way back in June Missives from Marx sent in a link to a story at Dark Roasted Blend about tourism in the rainforest along the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. One stop was at a small riverside village where tourists are taken to have an “encounter of two different cultures.” Here’s a photo from the post:

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Underneath the photo was the following caption:

A cruise ship arrival is a great event for the small village located on the mouth of Valeria River. The friendly villagers are always happy to welcome all visitors, eager to make contact and get news from foreign lands.

“Friendly villagers” “eager to make contact” and learn about “foreign lands”? It’s an incredibly patronizing description that sounds like it could have been in a travel brochure for the British Empire decades ago.

From the post:

Because of the small space, the visitors are literally poking into the river people’s lives. But they look happy enough to share with us their ways of life: we are being shown their schools, the local market and even the way their houses are made.

They seem to understand that visits like these sustain the little trade they are able to make by selling souvenirs and exquisite crafts. There are very few inhabitants and they are all very proud of their amazonian heritage. Although modern living is slowly making its way through, they dress up with traditional costumes.

Yes, they do understand that the tourist visits sustain their economy. They let people poke into their lives because they need the money. And they dress up in traditional “costumes” (?) because it makes tourists happy and then the tourists give them more money.

The kids, apparently, haven’t learned the etiquette for dealing with tourists. The post has several images of children with labels like “Little Warrior,” with descriptions such as:

They are not used being on display for the large audience and they all look like they would be happier playing, rather than demonstrating their skills. One particular girl attracted the crowds with her beautiful, magnetic eyes. She was demonstrating archery, but her eyes were throwing the real darts.

The poster acknowledges that the children don’t like being on display, but doesn’t think that might mean that a) you shouldn’t then treat them like tourist attractions or b) maybe the adults don’t really like being on display much either but have learned to play along better. I also wonder whether the children are demonstrating “their skills” or whether a kid holding a bow and arrows is part of the play-acting for tourists.

I once went on a river tour outside of Manaus; the one described here sounds almost identical. I felt uneasy about the idea of visiting the village but there wasn’t really a choice (they forced us off the boat at each stop) and my boyfriend at the time was excited, and so we walked around. It was an incredibly creepy experience. The people there were obviously poor, and tourists were walking around gawking at them, feeling entirely comfortable looking right into their yards and houses. I felt terribly awkward; even my boyfriend felt weird and just wanted to leave. I would not say the people looked thrilled to see us. Some did, especially those selling soda at the cantina (part of that “modern world”). But more than one person, mostly children, glared. And it was very clear that they were being nice to us and offering to be in photos with tourists in hopes of making a little money.

The whole thing felt like cultural tourism–hey, Americans/Europeans! Look at these people in their pre-modern villages and traditional “costumes”! Isn’t this a neat cultural encounter? Feel free to roam around and look at anything you want–the jolly villagers are just thrilled to death to have you here!

In another case of this, James T. sent in this video, found at 3quarksdaily:

It’s distressing to see this type of tourism prestened in such a positive light without at least discussing the ethical issues that might arise when relatively wealthy tourists encounter an impoverished group dependent on tourists’ money for some of their livelihood.