US and THEM: Challenging the Divisions

Barbara B. Brown

Students often approach the study of the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America with an assumption that "they" are different from "us." The two activities outlined here challenge the divisions between "us" and "them." One focuses on the cultural life of people, while the other focuses on public issues-political and economic.
The centerpieces of both activities are playful: they don't moralize and they don't give the students "the" answer on how to conceptualize poor or "developing" countries. Each piece in its own way encourages students to play with ideas around similarities (and differences) between people in rich and poor countries. Through playing with these ideas, students may then challenge their own preconceptions.

The first activity focuses on a mock anthropological report. Titled "Body Ritual among the Nacirema," the report describes a weird people and their odd practices revolving around tooth care. The weird people turn out to be American ("Nacirema" spelled backwards).

The second activity, "Where's the Problem?", asks students to determine whether newspaper headlines are likely to be describing rich or poor countries. As it becomes clear that a number of the headlines could fit both rich and poor countries, students discover the difficulties of simple categorization. For example, rich men may live and ask to be buried in their fancy cars in any country; polluted waters can harm fishing anywhere.

Organizing the Activities
"Body Ritual among the Nacirema"
A useful way to start with "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" is to tell students that it is an introduction to a study of Africa/Asia/Latin America. Ask them to consider how the Nacirema are similar/dissimilar to Americans. Once students catch on to the joke about who the Nacirema are, turn the discussion to the techniques the author, Horace Miner, used to hide that they're American.

Two areas are particularly interesting. The first is Miner's use of language to make a people appear exotic. By choosing words such as "the natives" to describe citizens of a country and "magic" to describe their spiritual matters, he makes them seem different. Second, Miner's choice of focus (tooth care) and his interpretation (tooth care as spiritual ritual) raise important questions about how we study a foreign culture. Miner reminds us of the danger of interpreting a culture based on first impressions of practices which seem unfamiliar to the observer. If we jump to conclusions about "nature" practices, we may interpret them in ways that seem odd or distorted to the "natives" being observed.

Miner's spoof reminds us to take care in choosing what we study about a foreign culture and how we interpret this information. In approaching a new culture, students need to explore typical situations. For example, a focus on Africans living intermingled with wild life would mislead students, because most Africans are settled farmers (or city dwellers) who are likely to meet lions and giraffes only at the zoo or in a special game reserve. American students studying Nigeria sometimes learn only about traditional board games, failing to notice that soccer is the most popular leisure activity of Nigerian youth.

Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

The magical beliefs and practices of a group of people known as the Nacirema are interesting because they are so unusual. The Nacirema have many magical beliefs, but the most interesting are those about their own bodies and how they should be cared for.The Nacirema are a group of people who live in the territory north of the Tarahuamare people of Mexico. No one knows much about their origin, but traditional legends say they came from the east. Their customs have been studied for many years, yet their culture is still poorly understood.The Nacirema have a highly developed market economy. They live in a rich natural habitat. The people devote much of their time to economic activity. However, a large amount of money and a great deal of time each day are spent on ceremonies. The subject of these ceremonies is the human body. The Nacirema are extremely concerned about the health and appearance of their bodies. They believe that certain rituals and ceremonies must be practiced to maintain and improve the condition of their bodies. Though it is not unusual for people to be concerned about their own bodies, the rituals practiced by the Nacirema are unusual and extremely time consuming.The main belief of the Nacirema appears to be that the human body is ugly and that the only way to prevent it from growing weak and diseased is to practice powerful rituals devoted to this purpose. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this goal. The more powerful people in the society have several ritual shrine rooms in their houses. In fact, the wealth of the owners of the houses is often measured in terms of the number of such ritual shrine rooms in a house. The shrine rooms of the more wealthy people are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine room walls.While almost every family has at least one shrine in the home, the ritual ceremonies associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally discussed only with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to make friends with the natives and they allowed me to examine the shrine rooms. Though they were reluctant to talk about them, they finally described the rituals to me.The most important part of a shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. The natives get the charms and potions from specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with generous gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curing potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.The charm is not thrown away after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charm box of the household shrine. Since the people believe that a new magical material must be obtained each time a new problem arises, and since the real or imagined problems and diseases of the people are many, the charm box is usually full to overflowing. The packets and containers of magical materials are so numerous that the people often forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we commonly assume that the reason for keeping all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm box-before which the body rituals are conducted-will in some way protect the worshipper.Beneath the charm box is a small basin. Each day every member of the family, one after another, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm box, mixes different sorts of holy water in the basin, and conducts a brief ceremony of ritual cleansing. The holy waters come from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.The Nacirema have another kind of specialist whose name is best translated as "holy-mouth-man." The Nacirema have an almost extreme horror and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Several times each day, the natives rub the insides of their mouths with a small bundle of hog bristles. Those who neglect the ritual are forced to visit the holy mouth man who, as punishment, digs holes in their teeth with sharp instruments. Though small children must be forced to undergo this punishment when they neglect the mouth ritual, adults willingly accept it. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. I observed that those nearing marriageable age even decorate their teeth with strips of metal which are believed to improve their appearance.The medicine men have a special temple, or latipsoh, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed in this temple. The maidens who conduct the ceremonies move quickly about the temple chambers wearing special costumes and headdresses. No matter how ill the native may be, or how serious the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client who cannot give a rich gift to the temple.The people willingly go to the latipsoh even though they fear it. In fact, I observed that many people who went to the latipsoh for a cure died during the curing ceremonies, which appear to be very harsh. One curing ceremony which takes place in this temple involves allowing the medicine men to cut out and throw away parts of their bodies. The Nacirema believe that this ceremony will remove the evil from their bodies and improve their health. The medicine men who conduct these ceremonies own a large collection of special knives which the client is never allowed to see. The Nacirema also allow the maidens of the temple to place sharp wires in their bodies and to remove small amounts of their blood in order to cure them.Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens they have imposed upon themselves. nReprinted by permission of the American Anthropological Association from Horace Miner, American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 503-507.

Where's the Problem?
For the activity "Where's the Problem?", the class can be divided into small groups. After students have made their decisions as to the countries referred to in the headlines, ask each group to report its conclusions/categories. As a group announces the category chosen for a given headline, ask if any other group came to a different conclusion and why. After the report-outs, discuss with the class the reasons why some headlines were difficult to categorize.

Headlines for "Where's the Problem?"

Water Declared Unsafe:

Tens of thousands without drinking water

Poverty rate declines

Construction of New High Rise Runs Into Opposition

Opposition Party Charges: The Election was Rigged

Pollution puts fishing industry at riskCorruption Uncovered in President's Office

Birth rate falls Floods devastate much of the country Rebels Seize Strategic Highway

Militia seizes government building

Recent graduates fear lack of jobs Rich Man Asks to be Buried in his Mercedes

Taking each headline, decide whether it would likely be:

A. strongly linked to a rich country
B. mildly linked to a rich country
C strongly linked to a poor country
D.mildly linked to a poor country
E.not strongly linked to either a rich or a poor country

Be ready to discuss the basis for your decision.In addition to newspaper headlines, this activity could also focus on photographs, such as a very modern office building or office block; a nuclear power plant; or cattle grazing, any of which can be found in both rich and poor countries.Adapted from Andrew Day, Teaching Geography, October 1989.

Other Activities to Explore the Issues
Students may write their own versions of the two pieces. For inspiration, they may want to read other published spoofs of culture, such as "The Sacred Rac" by Patricia Hughes Ponzi in Cultural Sight and Insight (New York: Global Perspectives in Education, 1979). As an extension of "Where's the Problem?" students could create their own newspaper headlines and photos, perhaps to be saved and used as the handout for the next year's class.
Students might also be encouraged to keep a critical eye as they explore other texts and visuals on Africa, Asia and Latin America. For example, do the texts and visuals focus on atypical situations or contain prejudicial language? Are problems only discussed in textbooks when poor countries are the topic, as if rich countries were problem-free?

Finally, a class might enjoy hearing African/Asian/Latin American visitors reflect on their perceptions of the U.S. and their impressions of how Americans look at them and their home country.

Barbara B. Brown is Director of the Outreach Program at the African Studies Center of Boston University. Among the recent products of the Outreach Program is the video, What Do We Know About Africa?