Jay’s “Around the Web column”:http://savageminds.org/2008/05/04/around-the-web-11/ that featured the “Missions for Dummies post about how Latin Americans ‘are touchy feely’”:http://missionsfordummies.blogspot.com/2008/05/touch.html has been rolling around in my head for some time. Mostly this is because I have spent a lot of time reading cultural history of America as background for my new research project on World of Warcraft and have been thinking a lot about American theories of selfhood, markets and commodification, what constitutes human flourishing, and so forth.
I was struck by Irwin’s (the Missions for Dummies guy) insight that ‘Latins’ are ‘touchy feely’ since, in much of the United States, this is a stereotype that ‘white ethnics’ (Italian American, Irish American, Jewish, etc.) have of themselves — that they hug, kiss, and touch each other with a frequency and gusto that is a bit unseemly. The other stereotypes that I’ve heard from my friends in these communities is that ‘their people’ are 1) too loud and 2) prone to serve Too Much Food at family functions – or any functions really.
Now, an anthropologist you always want to ferret out the unexamined side of the contrast — the ‘what is taken for granted in my assumptions’ that goes unsaid. In this case I think what these stereotypes point to is not some distinctive way that white ethnics act, but an implicit contrast with the anglo-protestant norm, which appears to be that anglo-protestants prefer to sit together without touching, silent and hungry. Which is, actually, not a bad way of summing up a certain interactional style which I must admit I have witnessed in certain areas of rural Wisconsin and Minnesota during my time with local church parishioners there.
There are other bodies of stereotypes which, when taken together, form a coherent system that perhaps says more about the implicit assumptions it makes rather than the minority group it is describing. Consider, for instance, stereotypes about groups which have never been widely or successfully missionized:
Jews: good with money. Educated. Once small business owners (tinkers, green grocers), now doctors and Lawyers. Secretly already run the world. Extremely hard working.
Chinese: Excellent business men. Taking over the world economy. Extremely hard working. Educated. Once small business owners (restaurants, laundrys) now Math and science experts.
Japanese: Took over the world economy in the 80s. Extremely hard working. Educated. Ingenious engineers. (in California/Hawaii: once plantation workers and gardeners, now doctors, dentists, and optometrists).
South Asians (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh): Incredibly hard working. Once small business owners (convenience stores) but now taking over the worlds of computers science and engineering. Educated.
It is these sort of stereotypes which implicitly inform ill-thought research projects to find the genetic code that makes Jews and Chinese people so smart. But when considered together we can see that they say more about the people making the statements than the people described in them. I would argue that these sort of steretypes express deep-seated themes in anglo-protestant culture currently experiencing a wave of nativism greater than anything we’ve seen in a century and a half: a sense that work is enobling but that prosperty and virtue are antithetical, and a plain-speech tradition which sees erudition and education as corrosive of an authentic and morally valuable simplicity.
This is, of course, an extremely simplified picture of both the streotypes and the ‘other side of the contrast’ — perhaps a bit too “sadness of sweetness” and unnuanced. But… it was what I was thinking of this morning. Happy Monday!