Cultural Entrepreneurs

Coldplay1Accusations of cultural appropriation have been especially prevalent recently. The depiction of Jeff Bezos as Vishnu on the cover of Fortune magazine elicited complaints from some people who identify with Hinduism, as did the Krewe of Galatea parading their court as Hindu deities during Mardi Gras festivities. The recent Coldplay/Beyoncé music video release “Hymn for the Weekend” also has generated complaints about its depiction of India and the ways some artists profit off of these images.

Images of India have been used for decades, from the 007 film Octopussy to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the complaints that they have spawned have basis in the colonialism and neocolonialism of India and the global inequality that such images — in their construction of India as some place totally different — reinforce. One critique of the Coldplay/Beyoncé music video expressed concern for artists profiting from images of Indians always throwing colors, as if everyday was Holi. However, the author’s own discussion actually suggests one limitation of claims of cultural appropriation. Continue reading “Cultural Entrepreneurs”

Expanding the Terrorist Label

NYDailyNewsRobert Dear’s attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs just over a week ago and the shooting in San Bernardino last week have brought the question of who is identified as a terrorist back into the limelight. Lots of people have highlighted how the ethnicity or religious identification of the attacker has often influenced whether the attacker is identified as a terrorist or a mentally disturbed individual in a lone wolf attack. The Daily News cover following the San Bernardino shootings (4 December 2015, pictured above) illustrated this critique by identifying Ronald Dear, Dylan Roof, Adam Lanza, and James Holmes as terrorists, as well as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre. In this cover and statements from figures like Mike Huckabee (calling Dear’s actions “domestic terrorism”), the critiques of the reluctance to apply the terrorist label to white Christian attackers have won a victory, of sorts. Continue reading “Expanding the Terrorist Label”

Freedom Fighter or Prophet

Indian_freedom_fighter“Look! . . . Up in the sky. . . . It’s a bird. . . . It’s a plane. . . . No, it’s Superman!” When someone points out something in the distance, like an object flying through the sky, it can be hard to recognize just what it is. We attempt to name it, place it in a clear category, but sometimes our categories don’t fit, especially when working with complex societies, and the category that we attempt to force it into often influences what we actually see.

Arkotong Longkumer, in Reform, Identity and Narrative of Belonging (a 2010 book on the Heraka movement in northeast India), analyzes an intriguing community and movement that engaged politics, economics, social change, ritual shifts, and ethnicity, to name a few areas of interest. The context of the movement was the increasing imposition of British rule in the region in the early twentieth century, including the British encouragement of immigration to the area that disrupted the traditional migration cycle and the agricultural system that required it. The simultaneous opportunity for education and government jobs combined with the necessity of alternative forms of labor in the wake of declining agricultural production. All of this required a revision in ritual practices and social restrictions to reduce the expense of animal sacrifices and the limitations on mobility and individual independence from the community, as they adapted to the changing environment. The contexts also fostered interest in uniting different groups politically in opposition to, at times, the British and other communities. In fact, the image above of one of the leaders is entitled “Indian Freedom Fighter”. Continue reading “Freedom Fighter or Prophet”

Korean on the Outside Only

Korean Flag

Photo Credit: flags.net

I was at a dinner party the other night with a longtime friend. Although his parents are first generation immigrants from South Korea, he and his siblings were never taught to speak Korean, as their parents thought it important that they assimilate to American culture as much as possible. As our conversation evolved to talk about the stereotypical markers of Korean culture with which he has little personal affiliation, his wife laughingly remarked that he’s “Korean on the outside only.” His cunning retort was quick: “So couldn’t I say the same thing about you – that you’re German on the outside only, too?” Continue reading “Korean on the Outside Only”

What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 1

huffpostThe Huffington Post has a new article that opens with:

Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka may have been divided through political strife over the years, but they have one important thing in common. Her name is Pattini to Sinhala Buddhists and Kannaki to Tamil Hindus, but she is one and the same goddess shared in religious practices by the two faiths.

And it closes with the following:

Most importantly, in her shared worship among Hindus and Buddhists Pattini-Kannaki is an ironic reminder of the parallel cultural traditions that may exist between groups divided along ethnic or political lines… Continue reading “What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 1”

What Do We Do With Ukraine?

Ukraine_CIA_map (1)

My colleagues and I at Culture on the Edge have argued that historical narratives, labels of identification, and sociological analysis often reflect the interests and assumptions of those producing the assertions rather than simple description. When our assertions focus on furniture advertising, analysis of the Nones or interpretations of frescoes, such assertions may seem benign. How do these analytical approaches operate when facing an international crisis such as recent events in Ukraine? Continue reading “What Do We Do With Ukraine?”

Bayart on Ethnicity

edgebayart“A great many anthropological and historical studies have shown that pre-colonial societies were almost always mutli-ethnic, and included a great diversity of cultural repertoires; that the principal forms of social or religious mobilisation were trans-ethnic; and that ancient Africa most definitely did not consist of a mosaic of ethnic groups. This does not mean that ethnicity is a pure construct … produced by colonising powers that sought to divide the better to rule, as African nationalists — and, paradoxically, some ethno-nationalists — still like to believe. Colonised peoples took part in its ‘formation’ by appropriating the new political, cultural and economic resources of the bureaucratic state. In one of the many working misunderstandings, ‘Europeans believed Africans belonged to tribes; [whereas] Africans built tribes to belong to’, as John Iliffe brilliantly expressed it.* The political importance of ethnicity proceeds precisely from the fact that it is an eminently modern phenomenon connected to the ‘imported state’, and not a residue or resurgence of ‘traditional culture’.” (29-30)

*John Iliffee, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 324). The role of African middlemen, especially the literate ones, in the process of colonial ‘imagination’ of ethnicity is now better understood than a few years ago, when emphasis was placed on the intervention of European administrators and missionaries….

[This is one of a series of posts, quoting from Bayart’s The Illusion of Cultural Identity, that further documents the theoretical basis
on which Culture on the Edge is working.]

Habla Espanol?

menu_crispy_tacosI was at Chipotle this weekend, waiting to order my favorite fast food (crunchy chicken tacos with veggies, heavy on the corn salsa).   The man behind me in line spoke fluent English to a child with him, but when it was his turn at the counter, he looked at the young female employee and began ordering in Spanish.  The glitch in the plan was that while he was talking to a woman with brown skin (who, according to popular identifiers, might have a better chance of being a Spanish-speaker than others), she was not a Spanish speaker at all; in fact, as she pointed out to him, she was Asian.  After a few embarrassing laughs the burrito bowls and extra guac were ordered, and everyone scooted out the door. Continue reading “Habla Espanol?”