The Story of the Nacirema

Reading about the Couple in a Cage resurrected for me a similar pedagogic project. When I was in middle school, our class read a story about the “Nacirema.” It described the culture of an “exotic” North American tribe in language clearly designed to scandalize us. (I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that in the account, the Nacirema went to see a man who “carved holes in their teeth.”)

The big reveal at the end of the story is that the people in the story are American, or “Nacirema” spelled backwards. (The man who drilled holes in teeth was a dentist.) Whatever the context in which we read the story, it is one of very few classroom activities that stands out from my K-12 years.

I did some research on the Nacirema and learned that the original story, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” meant to satirize anthropological writing. Much of the story fixates on Americans’ obsession with looks. (The article contends, “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease.”) If the internet is to be believed, the story is still used for teaching in fields where intercultural communication takes place.  (Here’s an updated version from the Huffington Post mocking modern American dating, wherein the women wait obsessively for men to contact them through a loud “horn call.”)

I wonder about the implications of this approach to empathy: rather than humanizing the other, othering the self.  I think cultural self-awareness and criticism are among the most important goals of education, but using this lens also perpetuates the often problematic focus on visual and aesthetic difference. What positive work does the story of the Nacirema do? What risks does it bring?

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