Nacirema and Racs

Below is an excerpt from Horace Miner’s 1956 article “The Body Rituals of the Nacirema.” In the article, he relates the culture, practices, values, and beliefs of a seemingly exotic and strange people. Skim the whole thing, and then continue reading below to find out where this strange and exotic Nacirema live.

Read backwards, Nacirema spells “American.” Instead of describing a far-away and exotic tribe, as readers expect, “The Body Rituals of the Nacirema” describes very “normal” aspects of American life–dental hygiene and medicine– using language like “magical powders” and “medicine men” that frames them in a very abnormal way (source). In this sense, Miner’s article was a satire on anthropological papers about “other” cultures (source) and shows how ethnocentrism can affect how we see a culture (source). You can read the entire piece here.

A similar article is “The Sacred Rac” by Pat Hughes. Like Miner, he uses words such as “sacred,” “tribe,” “rite,” “tribesman,” “temple,” and “ceremonies”–vocabulary we associate with “primitive” cultures–to describe a central part of American lifestyle and culture. He then concludes:

Despite the rac’s high cost of its upkeep, the damage it does to the land, and its habit of destructive rampages, the Asu still regard it as being essential to the survival of their culture.

What is a rac? A car. (And “Asu,” of course, is “USA” backwards). “The Sacred Rac” was meant to show that just as we might think the importance of, say, cows in Indian society is weird and abnormal, others might think the same of the centrality of cars in American society. Such ethnocentric perspectives obscure the fact that both the car in America and the cow in India evolved as responses to different historical social pressures. (Regarding the history of the cow in India, see Marvin Harris’ “India’s Sacred Cow.”)

Both articles help us see how things we take for granted as natural, normal, and necessary, such as cars, can from a different perspective be interpreted as unnatural, exotic, abnormal, and unnecessary. In this sense, both “The Body Rituals of the Nacirema” and “The Sacred Rac” are illustrations of the “sociological imagination”: stepping out of our own culture, trying to look at it through the eyes of an outsider, and recapturing the ability to be astonished by what we normally take for granted (source).

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