Veiled Ethnocentrism, a Reflection
Photo courtesy of National Geographic
The articles of “Lady Science” are all extremely well put together, containing great insight on issues that, in order to advance our society, require a continuous dialog. It is pieces of writing like this, that if accentuated a little bit more into the mainstream that can really fuel societal progress in a way that can’t be overemphasized. So often in society we just push forward in our lives, accepting everything at face value, but it is the type of reflective thought contained within these types of works that really provoke reflective thought into the cultural norms of today, whether that be “oh shoot, maybe one human should not have the right to own another” or “maybe women actually contain the mental capacity to be informed and vote, and are deserving of input into the democratic process”. Examples of this are infinitely contained within the past.
The individual article that I found of most interest was titled “National Geographic and the Modern Lens of Empire”. As common this article really contained a very well thought out and comprehensive analysis of National Geographic Magazine, and the ways in which they portrayed women of different cultures, most notably the “Afghan Girl”; I must admit that, although I spent a great amount of time looking through our family’s collection of the magazine, this was never something I gave much reflective thought to, the ways in which human depictions give a strong sense of primitivism in order to really captivate the reader. This is ethnocentrism at its finest, these beautiful portraits of the animals of the world, and between these women of all different cultures portrayed in a manner that in our star spangled glasses we think, how could someone of our human race even live like this? Not surprising to me was the Bush administration, notably Laura Bush’s exploitation of this (perhaps not even a conscious one) in a cry to make United States intervention in the Middle East have a tone of humanitarian work.
This also makes me think of further examples of this taking place even today. Although I applaud the intentions of “Humans of New York” Facebook page in their efforts at raising awareness of the human tragedy occurring in Syria, really humanizing these men women and children I feel that their work done within the states somewhat proves problematic, and is in great parallel to the ethnocentrism of National Geographic. A man scans the streets of New York, searches for a person of particular interest and interviews them. On its surface there appears not to be a problem with this; however at a deeper look the ethnocentrism really starts to come out. This essentially is a white male, searching for someone mainstream culture finds as particularly of interest, interrogating them for 10 minutes searching for a single sentence that reinforces this interest in an immensely stereotypical manner and broadcasting these stereotypes for the world to see, furthermore reinforcing them.
Questions for further research I might pose are, how many avenues in American media are doing this same thing? This might however become very subjective, but an awareness of this common theme is essential in breaking apart the walls between certain groups in present day, and has been such since the beginning of time. This is also the question that I would pose to the author; how many other mediums are responsible for this type of societal phenomena, perpetuating further human nature of ethnocentrism and holding us back from a more perfect society?
Leila here. Thank you for your interest in this article. It’s one of my favorites that I have written for Lady Science so far. I also applaud your sharp critical eye when looking at things like “Humans of New York” because it is so important to be aware of the power dynamics inherent in interactions like this. As to your question, this type of ethnocentricism plays out across mediums- photography, science journalism, film, and television. With his book Orientalism, cultural historian Edward Said became one of the first to analyze and criticize the way Western scientists, explorers, artists, and writers portrayed the people of the East, and he contends that these portrayals have become so deeply embedded in the West’s consciousness that we replicate them without even knowing that we’re doing it. This, as I say in my piece, disproportionately affects and dehumanizes Middle Eastern women. For an example of how this plays out in the history of film, you can watch for free online Jack Shaheen’s documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.