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An oppressive curiosity

  • Published at 06:03 pm December 31st, 2019
Indigenous women
File photo of indigenous women participating in a community festival

Indigenous communities do not exist for the gratification of tourists

Md Hridoy Hasan, as his Facebook profile suggests, is on a mission to tell his audience about an indigenous girl. 

In his video, he is seen interviewing a 16-year-old Mro girl, and couldn’t contain his curiosity behind her marital status. “Is it because she doesn’t like anyone, or are there very few men in her community?” Hridoy’s mind wanders.

He quickly hosts a talent show, asking her to sing and dance. “Do you like Bengali men?” He wonders what it would be like to be with an indigenous girl. When the girl clearly says no, he asks the translation of “I love you” in Mro language, the answer to which, he turns into a statement directed towards him. 

Hridoy claims to be a content creator on Youtube. In an attempt to address his audience’s curiosity, he asks her what someone could do to marry such a girl.

Hridoy could be fooling his viewers that he was making an “educational” video. It is important to know why these questions were asked, and what they lead to. 

Difference matters, because what something is not is more important than what it is. Firstly, Hridoy approaches the girl with a preconceived notion. How could she be consuming pork without any guilt? Who are the deities she prays to? These questions are not asked to explore culture, but to otherize them. 

None of this is homage or celebration, but rather a form of control and domination, and a perpetuation of a stereotype towards indigenous communities. It is a precursor that negates indigenous groups and their power and strength. The reality of such content is far from rosy, and far from titillating.

What these questions hint at is an image of native communities as part of the fantasy rather than human world, one which serves subtly to undermine the idea that they should have social, economic, and political rights. Seeing them primarily in terms of their looks makes them look exotic, rather than structural. Shaming the practice of eating pork makes the indigenous cuisine appear gruesome, rather than contextual. 

Spellbinding it might be to observe the communities’ ability to live at one with nature, but to fetishize those characteristics leaves them vulnerable to human-made threats. 

The implications for indigenous women roll further. Much like discrimination, racial fetish is also based on generalizations, without considering the personhood. It creates a distorted reality and objectifies people of that race as sexual conquests. For many, it is a perfect fantasy. The perception and treatment of indigenous women as exotic show up in the ways their bodies are disrespected, exploited, and consumed on a daily basis.

The politics of this exhibitionism has consequences far beyond just the spectacle that this video produces for its viewers. In this case, it is a form of erasure of the history of state oppression, violence, land loss, and recognition as equal citizens.

The issue of trivialization has roots with consideration of ethnic traditions as secondary. It might sound unimportant, but when a race of people is constantly portrayed as exotic and thereby afar, the people of that race are delegitimized. One cannot be valued as a human being if one is exoticized, or otherwise dehumanized.

When you travel somewhere, it is important that you keep an open mind. You have to understand that the way things work in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Khulna, Germany, or Croatia are not the way things work back at home. Scottish men wearing kilts and Thai people snacking on insects appear interesting to me. However, none of those warrant awkward stares, uncomfortable questions, and patronizing reactions. 

Ethnocentrism is the use of one’s cultural norms, as a reference, to make generalizations about other peoples’ cultures and customs. It leads to false assumptions about cultural differences. More alarmingly, it makes us deem other cultures inferior. Can you imagine someone calling you inferior for eating food with your hands?

Even if you don’t agree with a custom or a request, can you be disrespectful as a visitor in someone else’s home? The role of that lifestyle in the lives of locals is far more significant than the fleeting satisfaction of a tourist.

Derogatory questions, direct and indirect, about race and identity need to be retired. Ethnic songs are not “performances,” thami is not a “costume,” and traditional ceremonies are not for others’ entertainment pleasure.

Indigenous communities don’t exist to be watched. The conversation we should be having is not about indigenous deficit, rather indigenous excellence.

Myat Moe Khaing takes an interest in indigenous and gender politics.

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