Thursday, February 16, 2012

Anthro 101: The Exotic and Mundane

Since I teach at a community college, I only teach introductory anthropology classes. While it would be nice to do an upper level class every once in awhile, I’m happy with my position and I do really enjoy introductory classes and think they potentially have a lot of social worth. However, they do pose significant challenges. One of the most daunting is how to make anthropology accessible and meaningful to first and second year students. Most of them have a million things on their mind besides the esoteric weirdness that can sometimes be anthropology. Most work close to full time job schedules outside of school and when in school, most are focused on classes as a means to an end--using school to get ahead professionally and financially. I can’t begrudge them any of those distractions. So I face a potentially tough audience several times a week. But, it’s an audience that I want to impact. I want them to leave my class thinking about themselves and their relationships with other human beings in a new way.

Enjoying the Exotic, Disdain for the Mundane
Over the past week, I’ve encountered what seems to be a particularly intimidating wall of resistance in one of my classes. At this point in the semester, we’ve already covered some of the “exotic” that is often much of the popular appeal of anthropology. Both Richard Shweder’s (2002) discussion of female genital cutting and Beth Conlkin’s (1995) examination of Wari’ anthropophagic funerary behavior have been centerpieces of class discussion. It’s cutting genitals and eating people--two of the greatest hits of anthropological exotica. Students automatically seem engaged with this material, titillated by the strange and foreign. By all appearances, they enjoy the discussions and “get” the point of my covering the material.

When the course moves into language, I shift gears to material much more automatically familiar to my students--the English language. I have not yet run into a student enrolled in one of my classes that doesn’t have a working mastery of the language. It’s here that I move into the mundane of my students’ familiar experience. Partly, that familiarity breeds some contempt of anthropological interpretation and also, I believe, some discomfort. It’s all well and good to “look deeply” at other ways of viewing the world, but it seems to go to far when the gaze shifts back to the self.

When I discuss the relationship between language and culture, I use Jane Hill’s work (see a previous post for some discussion of the details of Hill’s argument) on Mock Spanish (1998, 2008) and Emily Martin’s (1987) work on metaphors and medical descriptions of women’s bodies. Hill argues that informal use of Spanish words or Spanish-sounding phrases in English speech often indirectly invokes and reproduces racist stereotypes. Martin demonstrates how medical textbook descriptions of biological processes like menstruation are not transparent, objective accounts, but are informed by gendered, negative, cultural metaphors of death, decay and failure. I find both to be thought-provoking looks at how we unconsciously perpetuate racist and sexist notions through the use of seemingly mundane speech.

In both cases, students have been hesitant to accept the interpretations offered by Hill and Martin. In response to Hill, a healthy majority of students thinks she is a “reverse-racist” who sees every action done by white folks as KKK-style racism. Still other students reply, “If Mock Spanish is real, it’s just a joke, it’s not like white people are going out lynching other people. Doesn’t all humor target certain people” (this is an actual paraphrase of one student’s statement). In The Everyday Language of White Racism, Jane Hill describes the identical response she in public presentations of her ideas:

“I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.” [Hill 2008:180]

A common reaction to Hill and Martin is that both anthropologists are guilty of “looking too deeply” at finding something when nothing is really there. During the past week, I’ve left those class sessions feeling like I’ve alienated many of the students rather than provoking an honest reflection. Despite this typical reaction, I do often notice a few quiet students with acknowledging furrowed brows and nods that seem to get the point that I’m trying to communicate. That sort of indication provides me a bit more emotional energy as a teacher to keep it up.

Another thing I have to force myself to remember is, I was once like them--consumed with friends, work and school as a means to an end. My 18 year old self would have thought the same thing. It took quite a bit of anthropology and other social science to get myself reoriented to the real complexity of human social and cultural worlds. I guess I’m hoping to be one part of that process for many of my students.

I struggle with exactly how to communicate that what we see as mundane and what Martin and Hill “look to deeply” into are what would be exotic from another perspective. This is no new insight as it’s essentially the message of Horace Milner’s classic, the Nacirema. By looking deeply at the mundane and taken for granted, we can uncover what are actually strange and insidious meanings that reproduce patterns of social inequality. Keeping with the finest traditions of anthropology, I think the promotion of fairness and equality is one of the most important missions of the discipline.

I will continue to struggle, though, as I think this is one of the important social missions of anthropology.

References Cited
Conklin, Beth A.
1995 "Thus Are Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom": Mortuary Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society. American Ethnologist, 20(1):75-101

Hill, Jane
1998 Language, Race and White Public Space. American Anthropologist 100(3):680-689.

Hill, Jane
2008 The Everyday Language of White Racism. Wiley-Blackwell.

Martin, Emily
1987 The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Beacon Press.

Shweder, Richard A.
2002 “What About Female Genital Mutiliation?” and Why Understanding Culture Matters in the First Place. In Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies, edited by R. Shweder, M. Minow, and H. Markus. Russell Sage Foundation Press, New York.

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