Teaching ethnocentricity is like teaching a fish to feel the water that surrounds them. Many students unabashedly think that their culture is the “right way to live”. Luckily, there are a couple of widely used activities that will help open your students eyes to the consequences of ethnocentrism. Both articles, “Body Rituals of The Nacirema.” and the “The Sacred Rac” use ethnocentric language to describe culture in the United States.
The first is a classic anthropological article titled, “Body Rituals of The Nacirema.” This article is a anthropological study of the United States (circa 1956) however it uses loaded language to frame very “normal” aspects of american life in a very abnormal way. I typically have my students read this in the first week of my Intro to Sociology courses. I ask my students to raise their hand if they would like to live with the Nacirema. Any student who raises their hand has either figured out the ruse or has done this activity before. I tell these students that they may not talk until I say they can. This prevents them from ruining it for everyone else.
The majority of my class almost always says they do not want to live with the Nacirema. I ask them to give me their reasons. Typically students say that the Nacirema are weird because they hate their bodies and they let “holy mouth men” drill holes in their mouths. I let the students go on for a little while and then write Nacirema on the board at the front of the room. Then as the students are talking I slowly write Nacirema backwards. A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n. Then I ask, “Does anyone find it strange that Nacirema is American spelled backwards?”
I let all the students then discuss how ethnocentrism can affect the way we see a culture, even our own. My students usually love this activity, but I always apologize for decieving them or at the very least leading them astray. I think it is important to reestablish trust with your students by acknowledging that this was only for academic purposes.
The second article, “The Sacred Rac” takes a similar ethnocentric look at our obsession with cars in the United States. The article starts off by talking about a Indian anthropologist who travels to visit the Asu, a people who worship the “sacred Rac” much like the people of his country honor their sacred cows. This article is a great jumping off point for a discussion of stereotypes about Indians and about ethnocentrism. After reading this students almost always ask something like, “Why would a people put up with these animals if the cost so much and hurt so many people?” When I tell them that this article is about cars not racs in the United States the students are floored. I then provide them with stats from the Center for Disease Control that find nearly 5 million people are injured or killed in car accidents each year and that the total economic impact of car accidents was $230 billion in 2000.
These articles put both US culture and ethnocentrism in easy to understand terms. Students typically enjoy these activities and many have told me they show them to their friends. I have found that both these articles provide the most benefit if you do them early in your classes. After these experiences students are often more tolerant and open to other cultures.