Overstanding Nacirema

I will never forget a lesson imparted by my 8th grade social studies teacher.  It’s one I trust many of you have encountered along the path of the US educational system.  She had us read Horace Miner’s 1956 anthropological study, Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.  Discussion followed and it was the girl sitting in front of me who lifted the veil: “Hey, I think he’s talking about us,” she said.  Talk about mind blowing!

If you haven’t yet read the piece, take a moment (you can find the full text here).  It’ll stick with you, I promise.  But for now, suffice it to say that my 8th grade social studies teacher was fabulous.  She taught me early on that living in a culture is definitely a down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass experience.

She taught me too that there is great value in stepping outside of my culture and looking in, of noticing the reflective distortions and not taking everything I’m told for granted.  On the flip side, I learned the importance of non-judgmental observation of other cultures.

The Rastafari use a term called overstanding.  It’s a concept that for me clearly conveys that feeling I get when an idea takes root in my mind.  I like it ever so much more than our term, understanding.  For ideas and knowledge don’t “weigh me down;” rather, they give me power.  And ideas communicated between humans give us shared power.

RastaReason offers a great description of the term:

“It is overstood that when one communicates, they are communicating an idea to another individual.  Ideas are created by men thus the idea cannot be superior to its creator; similarly to the concept (I-cept) held by the Islamic ideology that man cannot be God because God created man.

The Rastafari philosophy asserts that every man woman and child are equal hence the term InI, therefore the individual who is receiving the information is equal to the communicator of the information and superior to the idea being communicated. That being said, one should not “understand” or stand under an idea; when they absorb and correctly perceive an idea they ‘Overstand’ it” (1).

Do you know that feeling, when you’re talking to someone and suddenly the fog lifts and you can see it from their perspective?  Not saying you have to agree with their position, but you get it, you can see it.  That’s overstanding.

I’ve always imagined it quite literally as two people standing on a street corner talking.  I’m standing over all of the ideas I’ve learned in my lifetime, like a mountain supporting me.  You’re there standing over all the ideas you’ve learned in your lifetime, feet firmly planted in your mountain.  I’m not quite catching your drift, and then, all of sudden, you say something and it clicks: I get it, I get where you’re coming from.  It’s like a piece of your mountain has been added to my mountain and the extra height has lifted me that little bit higher above the fog.  Overstanding.

So why am I offering this?  Perhaps I simply want you to know that when I read an article in Reuters titled Iranian, Venezuelan leaders rebuff U.S., joke about bomb I’m definitely not reading it the same way most Americans do.  How can I when I’m overstanding Horace Miner?

Reuters reports Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez “joking [with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] that a bomb was ready under a grassy knoll in front of his Miraflores palace steps” (2).  I gotta say, this cracked me up.  It was simply, as the English say, spot on.  And the intelligence that showed in the bantering between these world leaders, the grasp of American history, and more, the grasp of what it takes to make it into the American press — marvelous.

Think about it.  The only time we get to hear from President Ahmadinejad is when our press reports on one of his outrageous comments.  I mean, really, does any one truly believe the holocaust didn’t happen?  The point is that the outrageous sound bite is only that, an attempt to gain attention, like a child deliberately acting out because they can’t get the attention they need in a positive way.  What is of import is what gets said after the offensive remark.

In this case, it seems that we, as a world nation, have some decisions to make about our international policy.  We should probably do some examining of imperialism, historically and presently.  It might behoove us to consider what Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters about US sanctions: “We are a sovereign nation, we don’t have dads punishing us and putting us in the corner for behaving badly. They (the U.S.) should instead be sanctioning the U.S. companies doing massive business in Tehran like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola” (3).

And I remember another case, back in 2009, hearing what President Ahmadinejad said after some other offensive remark.  He spoke on energy, saying that we are fooling ourselves if we don’t believe that energy is the issue of the future.  In an interview with SPIEGEL, in response to US concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, he continued this line of reasoning: “You can’t rule the world with a double standard . . . .  If a technology is beneficial, everyone should have it.  If it is not, no one should have it.  Can it be that America has 5,400 nuclear warheads and Germany has none?  And that we are not even permitted to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy?  Our logic is completely clear: equal rights for all” (4).

Hmmm.  Makes sense to me.  At least I’m thinking there’s something of common interest here.  Tell me more.

In conclusion today, I humbly offer simply this: that in foreign relations the least America can do is hold its breath through the initial outrage or offense, listening for what comes next.  It is in the exchange of ideas that we come to overstand each other; and it is this rooted overstanding that America so desperately needs.


(1) via Why do Rastas say Overstand? «.

(2, 3) via Iranian, Venezuelan leaders rebuff U.S., joke about bomb | Reuters.

(4) via SPIEGEL Interview with Iranian President Ahmadinejad: ‘We Are Neither Obstinate nor Gullible’ – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International.


One thought on “Overstanding Nacirema

  1. Iran…. Yet another example of “Team America World Police” sticking their noses where it doesn’t belong. If we expect Iran not to use nuke power than we need to outlaw it here as well.

    Israel is currently believed to possess between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads with the ability to deliver them by intercontinental ballistic missile, aircraft, and submarine.

    Oh OK… so its a do as we say proposition…. can you blame Iran for saying
    “Don’t tell me what to do?”

    How come we never hear the story from this prospective? I bet this argument would instantly draped in anti-Israel sediments if it was spoon fed by the media to the U.S masses.


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