Tag Archives: Ethnicity

Ethnic Studies Under Attack in Arizona High Schools

November 21: Mayflower.

Image via Wikipedia

Legislation that will end ethnic studies programs in Arizona high schools looks set to be signed into law by the state’s governor. Promoted by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, the law will deprive public schools that do not eliminate ethnic studies courses of 10% of their state funding.

The target of the bill appears to be Tucson Unified School District, whose Raza Studies program serves some 1,200 Latino students. Interestingly, students involved in this program show a marked improvement over the state average on the state’s standardized testing (which goes well with other evidence that students involved in bilingual education, as well as students given access to electives like art, photography, and creative writing perform better on standardized tests – they tend to be more focused on and more engaged with school overall than students who are deprived of these “optional” courses). Continue reading

Pocket God

For some time now, an application named Pocket God has consistently been at the top of the iPhone application store list of bestselling apps. One review describes Pocket God as “an entertaining app that lets you explore multiple ways of tormenting your cute little islanders.” But see for yourself:

I just wonder how it is that Apple finds an application in which people can throw shoes at a virtual Bush unacceptable, but find the virtual torture of Pacific Islanders perfectly OK? And how is it that after weeks of being one of the bestselling iPhone games, hardly anyone has commented upon the game’s racism? Just imagine, for instance, a game in which one were presented with a virtual shtetle filled with Jews one could torture, or a plantation full of African slaves? How is it that such applications would certainly be rejected by the Apple Store, and yet Pocket God does not even provoke controversy?

I suppose that most people who play this game think of the island’s inhabitants as fictitious primitives, rather than representatives of a particular ethnic group. I doubt people playing the game bear any hatred towards Pacific Islanders. And yet, I can’t help but see our inability to view cartoonish depictions of indigenous peoples, such as sports mascots, as representations of living peoples as problematic. In particular, I feel it ties in with the myth of a vanishing race, of a people who, defined in terms or their primitivism must have already given way to the forces of modernity, their very existence denied.

UPDATE: I don’t personally think Apple should be in the business of censoring applications based on content, but here is another story that is relevant to the current discussion:

The release (and subsequent removal) of an iPhone app called Baby Shaker this week has Apple in hot water with angry parents and children’s groups, who are demanding answers from Apple.

UPDATE: Seems that Canterbury University Lecturer Malakai Koloamatangi is now raising a stink about the game. See here and here (via Indigeneity)

UPDATE: Looks like the developers are going to make some changes in response to criticisms. (They are also hiring a PR firm.)

McDonalds:Chinese Food::Windows:Linux

That’s the thesis of Jennifer “yes 8. is my middle name” Lee’s new book. Or at least how she presents it in the TED talk on the book. Her point being that whereas McDonalds is a large centralized company which plans out its release of new products years in advance, Chinese Restaurants are decentralized open-source powerhouses of culinary innovation.

I’m glad to see that the book also covers the various incarnations of “Chinese Food” around the world. I had a chuckle when the Indian post-docs at my university served “Gobi Manchurian” as part of an “Indian” meal they cooked for their Taiwanese colleagues in the chemistry department. Lee’s book might be a fun counterpoint to Golden Arches East.

In a similar vein, I recommend Kenneth Guest’s article, in AnthroNow, on the labor relations which keep America’s Chinese food economy afloat (PDF download).

And finally, in the spirit of the holidays, here’s a link to one of my favorite holiday songs.

The myth of the “untouched” Amazon

Whether we read the racist rants of Rush Limbaugh, or the concerned exhortations of Survival International, we get the impression (intentionally or not) of “uncontacted tribes” as a kind of living museum of our collective human past.

This view is based on a very nineteenth century vision of unilinear social evolution, in which human beings gradually progress from the most primitive state of hunter-gatherers, up through simple agricultural societies, on to early kingdoms, and cumulate in the wonder that is modern Western democracy.

The problem with this view is that it overlooks important exceptions in the archaeological record. There we find a different story, where complex societies can occasionally move in the other direction. I don’t know the current state of research which first made a splash in 2003, but then there was a spate of news coverage about the “Lost cities of the Amazon” discovered by Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida and his colleagues:

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Gujjars: OBC, ST, SC or DNT?

I’ve been trying to make some sense of the recent violence which have left at least 36 people dead in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is indirectly related to my research in the neighboring state of Gujarat since the Gujjar protesters are one of India’s estimated sixty million Denotified Tribes (DNTs), although that fact is left out of most news stories.

I have not been able to figure out the reason for the silence on this topic. One possibility is that it is simply too complicated for newspapers to explain the category of DNTs – a category which is not well known by most Indians. Another is that the Gujjars are themselves resistant to being thought of as DNTs. The “Gurjar’s Community Online” website refers to the Gujjars as upper caste Kshatriyas, which they may have been in Rajasthan, although many Gujjars are Muslims and Sikhs as well. In fact, it seems they specifically rejected a move by the Rajasthan government to have them listed as DNTs.

The question of categorization lies at the heart of the current conflict. The Gujjars are agitating to have their official status changed from “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) to “Scheduled Tribe” (ST). These are two broad categories in India’s complex system of “reservations.” As the BBC explains:

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The subtitle of Mike Dash’s best selling book Thug, “the true story of India’s murderous cult,” has a sad irony to it, considering that it takes as its main source the documents and testimony collected by William Sleeman and the Thuggee and Dacoity Department of the East India Company. [See update below.] To get a sense about the reliability of these documents it is worthwhile taking a look at how they were collected.

Parama Roy does just that in the chapter on thuggees in her book Indian Traffic:

The lack of independent witnesses, the unavailability in many cases of both bodies and booty—the sheer paucity of positivist evidence, in other words—could only be resolved in one way. The most important criminal conspiracy of the century (of all time, some of the authors claimed) could be adequately engaged only by a new conception of law. … Since the law as currently defined made the complicity of individuals in particular crimes almost impossible to establish, specific criminal acts were no longer punishable as such. Instead, it was … enough to be a thug, without actually being convicted of a specific act of thuggee, to be liable to the exorbitant measures of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department. … It permitted the arrest of entire families, including women and children, as legitimate means of entrapping active (male) thugs; since thuggee was supposed to be a family affair anyway, transmitted in the genes and passed on from father to son, wives and children were also fit targets for the colonial state’s punitive and corrective measures. The act admitted the testimony of approvers [convicts who confessed in exchange for a pardon] in lieu of the testimony of independent witnesses (which had been disallowed under Islamic law), a move which created a remarkable mechanics of truth production and conviction.

… All those identified as thugs by approvers’ testimony were automatically guilty, even if no specific crimes could be proved against them and even if there was no (other) evidence of their ever having associated with other thugs.

Of course, the British where themselves a little worried about the quality of such evidence:
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Colonial Ethnography

Orientalist critique can sometimes seem like an intellectual game of “gotcha,” but for India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), orientalist colonial policies, and the regimes of knowledge upon which they were built, are a very real burden which informs nearly every aspect of their daily life. The stigma of criminality that prevents, for example, someone with a masters degree in English literature from finding a job as a schoolteacher, or makes it imperative for a professional photographer to carry his camera receipts with him so he can prove he bought his own camera, or makes DNTs afraid to talk in their own language when traveling by train, are a direct result of colonial practices.

When doing research last summer in the British colonial archives I read numerous colonial ethnographies of the so-called “Criminal Tribes” (as DNTs were then known). Many were written by policemen, and the information in them was written for the express purpose of identifying such criminals. Gunthorpe’s 1882. Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in, or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, Lemarchand’s 1915, A Guide to Criminal Tribes, and, also from 1915, Naidu’s The History of Railway Thieves : With Illustrations & Hints on Detection are all in many ways the same book with slight variations. They freely stole from each other and the style was essentially the same. Numerous other such guides were circulated among the various colonial agencies.

They are like bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds. From Lemarchand:

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Fingerprinting, Thievery, and Bob Marley

One of the most difficult issues we have had to confront in making a film about the Chharas is that of thievery. It is a fact that a sizable minority of the community still make their living from petty theft. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about this on camera. It is important, however, in talking about the theater (the subject of our film), because the Chharas themselves see a link between their skill at acting and their skill at thieving. It is also historically important, since the Chharas (or, more precisely, the Sansis who speak the same language) were the first group to be labeled as “Criminal Tribes” after the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.

It was in the course of searching for some more information about the topic that I came across Vinay Lal’s review of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu’s 1915 book: The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection. Lal’s article discusses the role of colonial anthropology in creating the category of “criminal tribes”, but since I am already well aware of this story, my attention was caught by his tangential account of the origins of fingerprinting in colonial India:

Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. … Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity.

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How to spot a Chhara

Last night, sitting in Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, I asked him a question that I have been asked at nearly every screening of Acting Like a Thief: namely, how are people able to identify Chharas?

Beyond the historic injustices Denotified Tribes (DNTs) faced during the British Colonial period, Chharas (and other DNTs) continue to suffer from ethnic discrimination. Stigmatized as thieves, it is difficult for them to get legitimate jobs in mainstream society. As a last resort, they turn to criminal activity. It is a vicious circle from which only a few are able to escape.

But how do people know they are Chhara? They don’t look noticeably different from the rest of the population, and even if they did, they could easily be from a neighboring state. They speak their own language (Bhantu), but they can speak Gujarati as well as anyone else.
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Acting Like a Thief

Since I became involved with India’s Denotified Tribes, or DNTs, I’ve been trying to encourage anthropologists to study them. There is have been some good writings about DNTs, but the literature is still relatively sparse. Almost all of it is historical, with very little in the way of contemporary ethnography.

So I’m proud to announce the release of Acting Like a Thief! A short documentary film I shot and co-produced with Shashwati, who did an amazing job editing it.

Acting Like a Thief
We are releasing the film as a free BitTorrent download for all those tech-savvy people (the less tech-savvy can get a DVD for a $50 donation to our next project). I hope that this short piece will help raise awareness about DNTs and maybe even encourage some grad students who are still thinking about what they might like to research for their dissertation. If you think you might like to do such research, please contact me and I can help arrange some introductions.