Usha
It is one thing to be sensitive about the implied violence or hurt to people in usage of certain terms and refraining from such usage and another about simply trying to be 'correct' and sweeping the underlying issue under the carpets. With most people I meet it is the latter. For example when people try to describe my complexion as dusky I do get irritated - why not call it dark and what is wrong with being dark anyway? That is the complexion of our race in the south of Vindhyas. It is genetic, it has to do with our ethnicity and I have no problem being that. So don't invent nicer names to describe it and make me feel bad. It is the same with a nice, plump figure - I suppose ethnically we are not an anorexic, thin race. Look at our statues on the temples. They are nicely plump and curvy and it was considered beautiful. I think there will be a lot less implied judgement if we freely used the words, 'fat', 'dark', 'old' etc rather than hushing them as if they were some kind of bad words. It is when you people try to go to great lengths to avoid using a term that you begin to get a feeling that it is not an acceptable state. I am pretty sure that people felt nice and beautiful in the dark and plump glory until some fair -skinned people came and started using 'dusky' and 'rounded' in hushed terms.

I noticed another dimension of the same kind of this 'correctness' violence in some American shows. Any reference to the ethnicity of people is considered incorrect - for example this white couple meet a doctor of South-Asian descent and one of them tries to make references to Asian culture and cuisine in the conversation much to the embarrassment of his white companion. The doctor herself coldly responds that she is not familiar with the Asian dishes he mentions as she is from Denver and NOT South Asia. To me the South Asian's refusal to acknowledge her ancestry seems more embarrassing than the White man's reference to her culture. Unless she feels that 'being American' is superior to 'being South Asian', why would she be upset by the man's South Asian references? And what is wrong with acknowledging your ethnicity/ ancestry/ origins?

Say it like it is and it is just a plain name for it. Try to tone it down, wrap it in semantics, used hushed tones and correct terminology - I know that you have contempt, pity or simply don't think it is alright to be that way. The term Devar adiyal were used for the temple dancers who were supposed to be servants of God. They were married to the temple deity and had some privileges during temple festivals.
Writer V. Sriram in his biography of a famous devdasi bangalore Nagaratnamma titled The devadasi and the saint writes:
The concept of dedicating women to temples, a common feature of most ancient civilisations, was well-known in South India. Devadasis, the handmaidens of God, were dedicated to the arts outside the temple precincts too, attached to kings and rich patrons and entertaining masses with music and dance. Many of them were literate, learned and enjoyed absolute right over all properties bequeathed to them by the temple, protected by a matriarchal system which ensured property went from mother to daughter. Girls were the preferred progeny here. "Chastity' was redefined by these women and they were never seen as common prostitutes.

It wasn't a bad word - it just meant handmaiden of God. When royal patronage stopped and their sources of income dwindled, girls of these families had to seek the patronage of wealthy men who expected favors from them and soon the term began to have a contemptuous connotation in society. Growing up I only knew of this as a bad swear word and never knew the origin of the word until I read about the devdasi tradition in South Indian temples. So when Nagarathnamma renovated the samadhi of the saint poet Thyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru and had a function to open it to public she thundered into the microphone: I am a devar adiyal! She was one and she clearly felt no embarrassment being one. Oh, I would have given an arm and leg to see the faces of the judgmental people who were in the audience that day.

Thin, tall and fair are not universally normal.People come in all shapes, colors and sizes - just see the animal kingdom. If you want to feel good about how sensitive and humane you are , start by accepting diversity rather than hushing issues that you consider are not normal or not so good. Just let people be without making them feel bad about the way they are.

P.S.:Just read this myself. It seems almost like an extension of the topic of previous post! Well may be I am just a little too obsessed by this topic. Might as well publish and get it off my system!
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14 Responses
  1. Usha:
    I suppose ethnically we are not an anorexic, thin race.

    Who is ethnically/racially anorexic or thin? If you are referring to the"fair-skinned people", you should take a look again at the classical paintings from Europe. Here's an example from Rubens.

    Preference for the light skin and more generally neotenic or infant-like features (especially in females) is more universal than you might think. It has biological/evolutionary roots, and you will find plenty of material on this here: Neoteny, Autism, and Evolution".

    There is nothing wrong with acknowledging one's ethnicity/ ancestry/ origins, but there is nothing wrong in not acknowledging it either. Take the example of this Denver woman in your TV episode. Suppose she were born to parents in Chandigarh, and was adopted by a couple from the U.S., whose grand parents were from Ireland, Japan, Namibia, and New Zealand. What is her ancestry and why is it relevant? Could her refusal to acknowledge her "South Asian"-ness, what ever it means, be because she didn't feel South Asian at all, and not because "she feels that 'being American' is superior to 'being South Asian"? What is the ancestry of Sasha and Maliya, Obamas' children?

    Labels and identities mean what we would like them to mean in the context in which we use them, as I have argued here - Idea and Violence. What is important is the idea behind their use.

    Ehtnicity, race, relgion, caste, etc. are distinctions created by those who want to control the lives of others. As Dawkins pointed out in a recent discussion, the only identity that makes sense is that "We are all Africans".


  2. Usha Says:

    Shaker; Thank you for your valuable inputs as always. I will carefully go through the site you have mentioned in para 2. Certain complexion and features may have been preferred but I guess there was no negative connotation about the natural way we were.
    Re; Not acknowledging your ancestry, what you say makes sense. But why should the reference to one's ancestry be considered inappropriate?

    While man made categorizations such as religion and caste may be tools for control, natural evolutionary distinctions such as ethnicity, race, may be just descriptions and nothing more.


  3. dr.antony Says:

    "Listen openly and speak honestly"
    Simple rules for better communication.


  4. Art Says:

    this is a nice topic... But I guess its human nature to be biased and to be judgemental.


  5. Raj Says:

    I am trying to formulate a correct response to this post. Will revert shortly.


  6. eve's lungs Says:

    "Is correct all that correct"? Not at all - it is a matter of perception .What's sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander .


  7. dipali Says:

    I do agree with you that political correctness is sometimes carried too far. However, this is probably a reaction to times when people were far less sensitive in their speech and could be offensive and hurtful. Words like 'nigger' and 'fatso' were commonly used and were offensive.
    I hope we soon reach a happy medium, in which we call a spade a spade, rather than either a digging implement, or a bloody shovel!


  8. I agree with everything but I am not sure if Devdasis were not exploited in the past. I read of how the King and the Senior-most priests had rights over them, they were dressed like brides and the King became their fist 'husband' and then the head-priest. But yes they were not powerless - they did own what they were gifted. And they were respected.

    I also agree with you about the ideas of beauty - being rounded and dark was seen as beautiful and our idols of dancers and goddesses prove that, so do our ancient descriptions of beauty.

    I think ideals of beauty in the West also included women with curves in the past.


  9. Also I think sometimes new terms are coined to protect the victims of prejudice from words that have become terms of insult due to prejudice and ignorance. Like, mentally challenged or differently-abled.


  10. Usha Says:

    Dr.Antony: Speak honestly should not include coating words with your prejudices.

    Art: Thw whole irony of trying to be 'correct' sometimes is that by the way it is used the whole purpose of the correctness in language is negated.

    Raj: :) too much delay might make the response Un-correct. So better make haste.

    M: Yes you are right. I began to think about this during my trip to Bali. You know thay also have the caste system but none of the varnas is considered superior to the other. They are just classifications.They are different. That's all.They even intermarry. So the driver who took us around matter-of-factly said he was a Shudra. In Tamilnadu I could not use this word so casually. It would be considered inappropriate. That is because traditionally we have had the hierarchy among the various varnas and Shudra has been a pejorative term.

    Dipali:Yes. And by applying correctness based on some imported or manufactured perceptions of body images, they cause more damage and ruin the whole purpose of that correctness.

    IHM: While I do not have a high opinion of a society that creates a system like devdasi system, it is important to know that their situation was not as miserable as the in-mates of red light areas. They were attached to their rich patrons and had certain rights. But down the years the word has come to be a swear word equating them to people indulging in prostitution. Again should sex workers be treated with contempt itself is another topic of discussion.


  11. Echoing Dawkins, I'd say: "We are all Prostitutes".

    Almost all of us rent our body (mind is, after all, brain) to whosoever we think is the highest bidder, some forced, and others unforced.

    Perhaps, if that rallying cry is spread, the social stigma attached to this profession will ease off.

    Having said that, let's call the institution of devadasi, for what it is - forced sexual servitude, be it to a god, king, or man. Calling a spade a spade, after all, is the subject of this post.

    Btw, does anyone know of an institution like devidasa, where parents forced little boys into generations long sexual servitude to a goddess, queen, or, a woman?


  12. Usha Says:

    Shaker, I agree it was probably started as a kind of office created by Royalty in return for sexual favors received.
    As for boys forced into sexual servitude - I read about something like this in Afganistan in a Kite runner. Little boys forced to dress like girls and dance who are also sexually abused by the men who "buy' them.


  13. starry eyed Says:

    Usha, I've been wanting to comment for a long while on this post, since I have different views on this. Finally posted on it, hope it's okay. http://starsinmeyes.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/does-language-really-matter/


  14. Anonymous Says:

    I generally feel the same.
    I AM Dark. if people call me black, I don't mind. The real racism is perceiving 'white' or 'fair' as a compliment and 'black' or 'dark' as an insult.
    I stereotype as hell, too; but I don't prejudice. There's a huge difference there.
    And even if people did think that fair,infant like females were more attractive, so what? Not everyone is a beauty.
    [Although, you know, I most certainly am. :P ]

    ::And I don't think that female in Modern Family was offended, she just wasn't familiar with the dishes;Mitch might have been a little upset 'cause all that bantering on Cam's part was pretty unnecessary. :P

    -Darky