Teaching Race through the Lens of Gaming

Akil Fletcher

Image courtesy of pxfuel.

Race can be a difficult topic for both students and teachers to discuss and it has not gotten much easier over time. In fact, in many ways conversations around race have only become more complicated with the increasing use of social media and digital technologies. One particularly effective technique to critically discuss race is by analyzing video games. The goal of this activity is to introduce critical race theory to students and to help students engage in aspects of race such as race in virtual spaces, race in online social networks, and other areas which may escape their typical purview. The lesson can be used in any class that addresses the topic of race or online/gaming communities and would be especially appropriate for courses such as “Race and Ethnicity” and “Race and Power”.

Assigning the Literature

This lesson is focused around three short readings:

  1. Kishonna Gray’s Intersecting oppressions and online communities: Examining the experiences of women of color in Xbox Live (2012),
  2. David Leonard’s “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other” (2003),
  3. Akil Fletcher’s White Fans, Liberal Ideologies, and the Erasure of Black Stories in Gaming (2019).

These three texts serve as the foundation for the lesson. Gray’s piece offers a harsh but powerful example of gaming communities and race by analyzing discrimination through the experiences of black female players. Leonard and Fletcher offer examinations of the industry by examining high budget video game titles that help shape these communities. Leonard explores the typical trends in the video game industry such as the high rate of violence against black women in games like Grand Theft Auto, and Fletcher examines a controversial decision around Jax, a black character in Mortal Kombat 11.

The readings serve to present students with real instances in which race has come to the forefront of gaming communities and engage them with diverse topics related to race. After all, many forget that race is just as prevalent in digital spaces as in physical spaces. These readings also bring an intersectional approach by providing students with questions of how inequalities based on gender and class compound those based on race. This helps to underscore the large-scale effects these topics have within the industry.

Grouping and Videos

Once the students have read the articles, they should be broken up into three groups. Each group will be assigned a short video (see the links below) to analyze taking into consideration what they learned from the readings. Each group must highlight a list of themes, images, and instances in which race is at play, and should consider how the developers, fans, and players may have reacted or used the images and ask for what purpose were they used. The students should consider who is the main subject of the images or audio and should additionally ask who is at risk by creators and players, making these images something to be played or played with. For example, is playing through Jax’s story a successful attempt at diversity or is it an offensive reduction of a black character. The three videos are:

  1. “Mortal Kombat 11 Jax’s Arcade Ending”, the controversial video mentioned in Fletcher’s piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmE_TuekaYU
  2. “Leeroy Jenkins” an older staged video made by PALS FOR LIFE a guild in World of Warcraft:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLyOj_QD4a4&t=99s
  3. “Do you know the way: Ugandan Knuckles”, a video which became a popular meme from VR Chat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJp_3-VZZjI

Each of these videos illustrate aspects of race and provide instances in which game producers and gaming communities engaged directly with race, either directly or implicitly. Notably, “Do you know the way” which features the once popular meme “Ugandan Knuckles” is a powerful example. It is a fan creation based on Knuckles the Echidna (a character from the Sonic the Hedgehog series) transformed into a smaller pygmy or “chibi” version given a heavy Ugandan accent taken from Ugandan film Killing Captain Alex. The Knuckles is featured clicking in a stereotypical fashion and coveting women who it calls the queen. This provides easy examples of stereotypes to deconstruct for the students as both the clicking and the chasing of women are easily identifiable African and Black stereotypes. With this being both a game and meme phenomena, one could ask the students if this is harmful or simply a joke. Or, you could ask, just because people found this entertaining does this make it less harmful? Here questions of embodiment and representation emerge that can be pointed out to students so they can question what race and its representation come to mean. For instance, is playing this embodiment of a black stereotype (Ugandan Knuckles) a form of digital black face? Why or why not? Considering the character is not black but rather is perceived to be, how can such a clear cut usage of black cultures not be a form of racial embodiment?

The same can be done for “Leroy Jenkins” which is a staged video that ends with the player saying “at least I have chicken” (a racialized stereotype). A similar analysis can be done with“while different”, with Jax who offers the player a literal chance to end slavery. The objective of this task is to have students think broadly about race and racism and how it incarnates within digital spaces, where race is not so easily defined. Analyzing the intent and reception of these videos helps students think about race in these ways.

It may help to provide students themes/prompts to look out for, for instance uses of racial slurs, racial stereotypes, accents, racialized visuals and so on. Additionally, asking the students to be on the lookout for the style or “point” of video may also yield a fruitful discussion. For example, both the Ugandan Knuckles and Leeroy Jenkins videos are meant to be comedic, if this is the case, who then is the intended audience? Who is meant to laugh and at whose expense? I typically provide at least 15 minutes for this exercise. I assign one student in each group to take notes or use large poster size paper for the groups to document their thoughts. Once the groups have had ample time to discuss,  I bring the class back together for a final discussion.

Wrapping Up

Gaming can be a sensitive topic for many students because, for many, these franchises hold a beloved spot in their hearts. However, providing the class an opportunity to come back together and share their thoughts can can offer students a chance to be heard. Nevertheless, these discussions can be divisive. It is common to get push back from students who are reluctant to be critical of games and topics they hold so near and dear. Worse yet, discussing games in the context of race, when many wish to see games as apolitical, can be a painful process and can result in strong and passionate conversations. As with discussing any sensitive topic such as race and gender, passionate discussions are to be expected and can in fact lead to authentic learning. The idea is not to drill in that these treatments of race in games are harmful (although this should be addressed), it is to get students to think critically about the online and offline spaces of gaming and provide them with tools in order to analyze them effectively.

References

Fletcher, Akil. 2019. White Fans, Liberal Ideologies, and the Erasure of Black Stories in Gaming. Platypus: The CASTAC Blog. http://blog.castac.org/2019/05/white-fans-liberal-ideologies-and-the-erasure-of-black-stories-in-gaming/

Gray, Kishonna. 2012. Intersecting Oppressions and Online Communities. Information, Communication & Society, 15:3, 411-428. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.642401

Leonard, David. 2003. Live in Your World, Play in Ours: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. 3 (4): 1-9. 10.3138/sim.3.4.002.


Akil Fletcher is a doctoral student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Irvine who researches race and gaming. His current research explores the expressions of race online and the ways in which black bodies come to be known and experienced online. His work explores the ways in which black people come to navigate the intricacies of online gaming spaces that are quite often perceived to be predominantly White and Asian. 

Cultural Differences and Positionality: Reflecting on Cultural Differences through a Roleplay

Sandy Wenger

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I discovered the blueprint for this roleplay years ago when teaching a seminar on cultural difference. As I am unable to trace the original source, I am sharing my own version of it here. The roleplay works best in smaller classes with both men and women present but can be adjusted for bigger groups, and any differences within a culture can fall along lines other than gender. However, gender has worked very well for me in the past because it is often perceived as an obvious, inherent, and fixed human trait. Thus, twisting ideas about gender is something that students tend to pick up on quickly, and it allows them to recognize that both gender and culture are fluid social categories that shape each other. This, in turn, opens the door to discussing and complicating students’ understanding of other social categories that are often seen as stable and universal.

Learning Objectives: I have used this roleplay in introductory social anthropology classes, courses on fundamentals of modern culture, and seminars about anthropological perspectives on issues of power and culture. Participating in the roleplay will enable students to identify and evaluate concepts such as culture, stereotype/stereotyping, the Other/othering, and cultural socialization. By reflecting on the roleplay experience and discussing their observations, students will be able to realize and analyze the ways in which their own positionality shapes interactions with people accustomed to different sociocultural expectations. It also allows them to think critically about social categories such as gender or ethnicity.

How to: One can easily spend 30 to 45 minutes on this roleplay, so it is not the kind of activity that lends itself to shorter classes. To get started, I divide the class into two groups, each of which is given a sheet outlining behaviors characteristic of the cultural group they represent. Each group will only know about their own traits. Here is a list of some of the traits that I have used in the past that has worked well:

The DurianiansThe Mangosteenians
All people like to chat and laugh a lot. Men may only speak when spoken to and never initiate conversations.
Eye contact is important as it is a sign of interest and respect for people.Men cannot look directly into a woman’s eyes.
People greet each other by hugging. Men must always be accompanied by a woman when going out- men should not go out alone.
In order to show interest, enthusiasm, assurance, or respect, people touch each other’s arms or hands. Physical contact of any kind is considered inappropriate and rude, especially when initiated by men.

Once the students know how they are supposed to behave, I tell them that both groups are abroad and meet at a party. Their task is to get to know one another in this party setting and act according to their assigned cultural norms. I ask them to pay attention to what people in the other group are doing, how members of the other group respond, and how these interactions make them feel. I let them know that after the party, each group will have to come up with a list of cultural traits they believe are important for the other group.

I usually give them about five to seven minutes to play out the party, after which I give them an additional three to five minutes to discuss what they have observed in their respective groups. Then, we spend about five minutes as a class to compile two lists of behaviors that the groups have observed about one another, which I write down on the whiteboard. It is important to record the precise language used to describe the groups, because that is often very revealing when discussing perceptions. Once this is done, the groups get to share the list of traits that was given to them at the beginning of the session. I usually add the information to what is already on the whiteboard to make it easier to compare what is known to what has been observed.

We then discuss their experience and analyze how and why perceptions of other people’s behavior can differ so much from their intentions—what does that tell us about understandings of cultural differences and how we should approach them? I also use the discussion to introduce and discuss different concepts (e.g. the Other) that are associated with cultural differences. One of the things that tend to happen is that the perceived traits are viewed negatively, and students are often surprised when they compare their own perception to the list that the others have been given. This allows the class to reflect on notions of prejudice and stereotyping. During the discussion, I encourage students to reflect on moments in their lives when they have felt misunderstood or experienced a cultural clash. Usually, a few of the students are happy to share some of their experiences, which can help bridge the gap between the roleplay and real-life experience.


Sandy Wenger is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines how queer men in Malaysia navigate competing societal ideas about masculinity, sexuality, and the body, and how this is negotiated in understandings of love and through different types of relationships. Before moving to UCI, Sandy spent several years working as an assistant professor at KDU University College in Malaysia where she taught courses on modern culture, food and culture, media policies, and personal development planning. She also has extensive experience teaching German and English as foreign languages at universities and in language schools.

Teaching Early Societies (as a prelude to environmental anthropology)

Teaching Early Societies (as a prelude to environmental anthropology)

Arial view of winding road ocean.

In introductions to cultural anthropology, teaching hunter-gatherer societies might seem like a necessary (although boring) pitstop on the way to the exciting, recent ethnographic studies. For me, the “early societies” week in the syllabus is one of my favorites. While students might be reading about the Azande or the Trobrianders, I use this activity to remind them how these seemingly outdated perspectives are pertinent to their own relations with the environments around them.

I like to teach this week as if it were a prelude to environmental anthropology, encouraging my students to think about the ways they engage with their immediate environments, in this case, the college campus. I find that this activity is also an opportunity for some of my quieter students and kinetic learners to shine among their peers. My objective for this lesson is to have students understand that the way society is structured shapes their environmental engagements and imaginaries.

This activity can be conducted in several ways depending on how much time you have or your objectives for the class. The first iteration is fairly simple, teaching the hunter-gatherer perspective with a competitive spin. The second is to teach hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural societies in comparison to one another. This iteration is more complicated and takes more time, but it makes for better discussions and a more holistic perspective.

First Iteration: Hunter-gatherers

I separate my students into small groups, usually four or five students depending on the class size. Each group is a hunter-gatherer society, and as a team they have two tasks. First, they must research what local edible foods they may forage for, and what animals they may hunt. I generally give them fifteen minutes for this part of the activity. All of their potential food sources must be native and local to the area – no invasive or introduced species. With ten minutes left to the activity, each group elects one person to leave the classroom, tasked with finding something edible on campus (no, they may not buy or find processed food) and bringing it back to share. Groups not able to bring back anything edible fail as a society.

I had a student once bring back a poisonous plant. Her society died. In another class, one of my quietest students rolled off with his skateboard, coming back within eight minutes, and with nine oranges! His knowledge of the campus environment earned him applause from his society.

Second Iteration: Comparative early societies

In the more complex iteration of this activity, I separate my students into small groups (4-5 each), but groups are separated into either hunter-gatherer, pastoral, or agricultural societies.

  1. Hunter-gatherers have the same tasks I detailed above.
  2. Pastoral societies must research where on campus they would be able to raise animals, and how long this would take. The group must provide data on where and what they would raise, and why. In the first ten minutes of this activity, the group elects one person to scout the nearby campus, taking photographs of the animals they see and bringing them back to the group for analysis.
  3. Agricultural societies must plan where they would plant crops, what crops they would plant, and how many people these crops could feed. This society must research local weather and soil conditions in order to make these decisions. This group may elect one member to scout possible growing areas, this person has ten minutes to take photos of places and plants that the group could use to plan their society.

The group research and scouting part of this exercise takes about 15-20 minutes. I always bring students back together after this activity in a group discussion, asking them to reflect on how their perspective of the campus environment changed as a result of their tasks. I usually give them three-five minutes to do this in their small groups before we discuss as a class. Below are some possible questions for the class discussion.

Discussion questions:

  • What are some of the challenges you faced when planning your society?
  • What kind of political or legal conflicts would you have encountered based on your society’s plan?
  • What kind of social conflicts might you have encountered?
  • How far in the future did you have to think when you were planning your society?
  • How did you see the campus environment as you were planning your society, and how is this different than how you see it on a daily basis?
  • Which type of society do you think would best flourish here (on this campus, in this city, in this state)? And why?
  • What type of society do you – as a college student today – live in?
  • How does this shape the way you understand your environment (on campus)?

Kyrstin Mallon Andrews is a cultural anthropologist of environments, borders, and health on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. Her research examines how diver fishermen navigate changing ocean environments amidst emerging politics of conservation. She is currently finishing her dissertation as at UC Irvine, where she prefers to be outdoors or in the ocean, activities that are tertiary resource, of course.

Teaching Personal Narratives of Youth, Gender, and Activism in the Middle East

Teaching Personal Narratives of Youth, Gender, and Activism in the Middle East

Mural exploring gender relationships in downtown Amman, Jordan.

I use this resource in three classes: my introduction to sociocultural anthropology (when talking about the social construction of gender), a class on everyday subjectivity in the contemporary Middle East, and a class on Arab activism after the Arab Spring. I will outline the lesson plan from my intro course here, but I use it similarly in the other courses.

Sample Lesson Plan: Introduction to Anthropology, Topic: Gendered Subjects

The goal of this lesson is to get students to think about the ways that gender is constructed in everyday practice, as gendered subjects encounter social boundaries and policing mechanisms. In preparation, the students are assigned a reading, “Gendering the City, Gendering the Nation: Contesting Urban Space in Fes, Morocco,” by Rachel Newcomb (2006). This article examines the ways that women in Fes, Morocco negotiate social spaces where gender roles are not clearly defined, including cafes, internet cafes, and gyms. I open the class with a debrief of the reading, asking first, generally, how social space connects to gender in the article, and then how gender roles are enforced. After laying out the basic concepts, we discuss the specific spaces analyzed in the article: cafes, internet cafes, and gyms, asking why gender roles are ambiguous in these spaces, and how the subjects of the article negotiate these ambiguities.

We then turn to the videos. I break students into groups of four or five and assign them a “jigsaw” exercise where they view and then discuss videos from the website. Students are instructed to visit the website, pick a video, and watch it. Each student in their group should watch a different video. As they watch, they should pay special attention to the following questions: What happens in the video? What social situations make the narrator especially aware of gender? How do they negotiate and/or challenge gender roles? (For example, one young woman becomes aware of gender while riding a bicycle. One young man describes being criticized for playing with dolls).

Then, students should discuss the videos with other students in their group. Each student should share with their group mates, describing the video they saw and how it addressed gendered experience. Students should compare their observations with one another. In what ways were the experiences described in the different videos similar? What differences could be observed? How does this build on (or challenge) themes raised by the reading?

Optionally, as needed, we can take 5 minutes of class time for students to read the attached publicity article. This can be useful in two ways: first, the article draws explicit connections between the different gendered experiences discussed in the videos (helpful if students are having trouble drawing these connections themselves), and second, it provides additional context, including commentary from the video makers (useful for students who are ready for a more in-depth conversation). Once students have had a chance to discuss, we’ll reconvene as a large group and work together to draw out some general observations.

Finally, I challenge the students themselves with the prompt that the activists in these videos were addressing. I ask the students to describe a social situation where they became aware of gendered difference and their own gender role, preferably the earliest such situation they can remember. “What is an ordinary social situation where you became intensely aware of your gender?” Depending on the available time, students can either write a short response or they can storyboard an imaginary video similar to those created by these activists. Sharing is optional, but there should be time for discussion.

Important note: It is important for the instructor to be prepared to help relativize the experiences described in these videos. The aim is for students to understand how subjectivity is constructed through everyday encounters that help define gendered selves. This exercise connects the student’s own experience with the experiences described in the reading and the videos. It would be a mistake for students to take these as evidence of exceptional Arab difference.

Accompanying Ancillary Materials:

https://www.challengemystory.com/7iber  (The video collection)

https://doi.org/10.1525/city.2006.18.2.288 (Recommended preliminary reading: Gendering the City, Gendering the Nation: Contesting Urban Space in Fes, Morocco,” by Rachel Newcomb)

https://www.dapp.dk/ligestilling/challenge-my-story-unges-egne-fortaellinger-koen/ (Optional: A short publicity piece I wrote about the video workshop as part of my participant observation. It needs to be read through a translator app, but it scans pretty cleanly in English. Students can use this for additional context on the videos or as a discussion prompt).


Teaching Resource Contributed by: Colin McLaughlin-Alcock, Scripps College

Colin McLaughlin-Alcock is a visiting lecturer at Scripps College. His research examines the community building practices of artists in Amman, Jordan, and the political impacts of artistic community. He received his PhD from University of California, Irvine.

Visualizando la discapacidad: Caravana en silla de ruedas a través de Bolivia

Visualizando la discapacidad: Caravana en silla de ruedas a través de Bolivia

Caravana de integración sillas de ruedas del 2011-2012

Guía pedagógica

Este recurso educativo, también disponible en inglés, involucra a los estudiantes en cursos de antropología cultural de pregrado y posgrado para pensar críticamente sobre una amplia gama de temas como la discapacidad, la medicina, el cuerpo, los sentidos, la ciudadanía y América Latina utilizando fuentes primarias. Usando una narrativa original, videos y preguntas que hacen reflexionar, los estudiantes aprenderán y analizarán la “Caravana de integración en silla de ruedas”, una movilización masiva de bolivianos con discapacidad que se llevó a cabo en Bolivia entre el año 2011-2012. Primeramente, los estudiantes leen la narrativa, “Caravana de silla de ruedas en Bolivia”, en la que Mariaca detalla el profundo papel que jugó el apoyo colectivo cuando los activistas se esforzaron por realizar tareas complementarias y no jerárquicas que hicieron posible su arduo viaje a través de Bolivia. Luego, los estudiantes ven dos videos de dos minutos producidos por los medios que muestran un importante momento en la jornada de la Caravana que culminó en una plaza pública en Santa Cruz, donde los activistas expusieron sus cuerpos para ganar visibilidad para exigir y captar la atención sobre el sacrificio de la lucha por la igualdad de derechos que estaba invisible y a menudo no dan la importancia necesaria. El primer video de los medios, “Caravana entrevista activista”, creado por ATB Digital, proporciona comentarios de un periodista y una entrevista con una activista. En el segundo video de Viva, “Caravana entrevista pública”, las imágenes y las entrevistas muestran las reacciones del público. Finalmente, los estudiantes pueden escribir o discutir activamente sus respuestas a las preguntas proporcionadas por este recurso. En suma, esta actividad multimodal ofrece a los estudiantes una oportunidad única para analizar críticamente estas fuentes primarias a medida que los estudiantes exploran comparativamente cómo los activistas, los medios de comunicación y el público interpretan de manera diferente el significado de la Caravana de integración en silla de ruedas.

Caravana de silla de ruedas en Bolivia de Carlos Mariaca Álvarez

Por 100 días, desde el 15 de noviembre del 2011 al 26 de febrero del 2012, las Personas con Discapacidad (Pcd) en Bolivia realizaron una histórica movilización en silla de ruedas, recorrieron 1520 km. a través de 5 Departamentos de Bolivia, desde el Departamento del Tridad, Bení  hasta La Paz, ciudad sede de gobierno. “La Caravana de integración en silla de ruedas” liderizada por los dirigentes de la Confederación Boliviana de la Persona con Discapacidad (COBOPDI) junto a los dirigentes de las Federaciones departamentales (FEDEPDIS), tenían el objetivo de reivindicar los derechos de las Pcd, proponiendo el Proyecto de Ley “Trato preferente para las Pcd” que mejore la calidad de vida de este sector social y les otorgue un bono anual de 3600 bs.  Además se exigía la creación de albergues integrales comunitarios, para quienes no tienen familias y vagan huérfanos por la vida en condiciones de extrema pobreza.

La Caravana de la integración iba por la carretera, exponiéndose a las condiciones climáticas y a los peligros del tránsito vehicular, contando sólo con el apoyo de la ciudadanía Boliviana. Los acompañaban algunos de sus familiares y otros, que junto a sus hijos se sumaron voluntaria y solidariamente, para empujar las sillas de ruedas, preparar la comida, lavar la ropa y ayudarlos en la higiene personal. En un acuerdo mutuo con el Líder Carlos Mariaca Álvarez y los dirigentes, se tenía la responsabilidad de no hacerles faltar desayuno almuerzo y cena, proveerles de todas sus necesidades ya sea zapatos que se destrozaban en el camino y ropa que se recibía de donación. En dos movilidades se transportaba la cocina, utensilios, alimentos, víveres y algunos viejos colchones. La comida era preparada para todos, los niños tenían leche y  pañales que se compraban o eran la ayuda enviada de diferentes lugares del país.

La Caravana, al tener muy poca cobertura en los medios de comunicación y no ser atendidos por las autoridades del gobierno, se la denominó “La Marcha Invisible.” Para cambiar esta situación, al llegar a Santa Cruz una cuadra antes de ingresar a la plaza principal, las personas con discapacidad decidieron quitarse la ropa y bajarse de las sillas de ruedas al suelo. Ingresaron a la plaza el 24 de Septiembre arrastrándose por el suelo en un impactante y conmovedor esfuerzo por visibilizar su lucha. Quienes no podían movilizarse eran arrastrados por los voluntarios e incluso ayudo algún periodista y ciudadano de Santa Cruz . Esta impactante acción se hizo en homenaje a los hermanos y las hermanas con Discapacidad que al no tener condiciones adecuadas, se arrastran en sus casas, en las calles o donde viven, para salir de sus rincones, buscar comida o hacer sus necesidades biológicas. 

Era importante vizibilizar esta realidad y que la sociedad los vea como son y que vean que son esas las condiciones en que tienen que enfrentar la vida, por lo que exigen que haya en su país igualdad de derechos y oportunidades. Esta movilización no sólo fue sacrificada, sino muy emotiva porque expusieron realmente el dolor y la vida difícil y dura de aquellas personas con discapacidad, en una indefensión e indiferencia total del Estado y del actual gobierno Boliviano. La sociedad se conmovió, al igual que los medios de prensa y lloraron al verlos bajo esas condiciones y entendieron el mensaje, que los activistas los necesitaban para lograr sus objetivos. Los activistas expusieron su mensaje a los medios, que son seres humanos igual que todos, porque lloran, rien, aman, cantan y bailan e incluso sienten amor o rabia como cualquier persona que no tiene discapacidad. No son santos, ni angeles, ni demonios… Son seres humanos con una o múltiples discapacidades y que su lucha es por amor, amor a la vida, amor a su familia, amor a vivir aún a pesar de la adversidad y amor para no renunciar a la posibilidad de una mejor vida íntegra y digna en Bolivia.

Videos y Transcripciones

Cobertura digital ATB de la Caravana de sillas de ruedas de integración entrevista con la acticista
Viva Media Cobertura de la Caravana de sillas de ruedas de integración entrevista con el público

Preguntas para estudiantes

¿Cómo explicaron los activistas el significado de esta movilización? ¿Por qué dice Mariaca que era importante para los activistas lograr visibilidad?

¿Cómo usaron los activistas sus cuerpos para lograr visibilidad? ¿Por qué crees que usar sus cuerpos de esta manera funcionó?

¿Cómo movilizaron los activistas de la Caravana la acción colectiva en su viaje y en la plaza de Santa Cruz? ¿Por qué crees que querían hacer visible su acción colectiva?

Compare cómo los activistas, los medios de comunicación y el público interpretaron la movilización en Santa Cruz. Explica qué diferencias se destacan.

En Bolivia, las personas con discapacidades utilizan la terminología de la persona para enfrentar la deshumanización que experimentan en sus relaciones sociales cotidianas. ¿Cómo entendemos el impacto de la experiencia de este grupo con la deshumanización en la narrativa y los videos de Mariaca? ¿Por qué es importante para muchas personas con discapacidad combatir la deshumanización?

¿Cómo resaltan los miembros de la Caravana las limitaciones de la definición de discapacidad simplemente como un problema médico que requiere tratamiento? ¿Qué otras consideraciones sociales y culturales debemos hacer?

Notas sobre las traducciones

Al analizar estos recursos con los estudiantes, también es importante tener en cuenta que “persona discapacitada” es a menudo la terminología preferida en países occidentales como los Estados Unidos. Sin embargo, los bolivianos con discapacidad prefieren el término “persona con discapacidad” porque les permite desafiar mejor la deshumanización que experimentan habitualmente cuando la persona es primero. Estas diferencias matizadas resaltan la importancia de ser culturalmente sensibles a cómo se producen los diferentes significados de la discapacidad a través de las distintas relaciones sociopolíticas que las personas que viven en entornos locales tanto con la historia, la cultura y los modelos globales de discapacidad. Adicionalmente, en la narrativa de Mariaca lo vemos usar el término, “la movilización”, que se puede traducir aproximadamente a demonstration en inglés. Sin embargo, decidimos utilizar la traducción directa, mobilization, ya que subraya las afirmaciones de los activistas de la movilidad social, política y espacial en la Caravana.

Lecturas complementarias

Choquetarqui Merlo 2017; Lyda Perez, Fernandez Moreno y Sandra Katz 2013; Rodríguez Cely 2019; Rodríguez Lores 2012

Paternidad literaria

Este recurso fue creado en colaboración de Carlos Mariaca Álvarez y Megan Neal.

Carlos Mariaca Álvarez, quien ayudó a liderar la protesta de la Caravana, selecciono los videos y escribió la narrativa “Caravana en silla de ruedas en Bolivia”. Mariaca Álvarez, quien tiene una discapacidad física (Triplegia, 75%), se desempeñó como Líder Histórico Nacional de la Confederación Boliviana de Personas con Discapacidades (COBOPDI) de 2002 a 2012 además, fundó el Movimiento Social Inclusivo (MSI) y la Sociedad Emergente de Bolivia (SEMBOL). Marica también es profesor autodidacta y escritor de Filosofía Oriental y Psicología Esotérica.

Megan Neal, antropóloga y candidata al doctorado de la Universidad de California en Irvine que estudia la discapacidad en Bolivia, fue quien haciendo uso de preguntas de los estudiantes y transcripciones de videos escribió la guía pedagógica. Su investigación examina cómo los ciudadanos con discapacidades en La Paz, Bolivia, desafían la comprensión normativa del desarrollo, los sentidos y la participación política. También se desempeña como productora de contenido web para el sitio web de la revista Teaching and Learning Anthropology Journal.

Visualizando la discapacidad: Caravana en silla de ruedas a través de Bolivia

Visualizing Disability: Wheelchair Caravan Across Bolivia

Wheelchair Caravan of Integration Across Bolivia

PEDAGOGICAL GUIDE

This educational resource, also available in Spanish, enables students in undergraduate and graduate cultural anthropology courses to analyze the “Wheelchair Caravan of Integration,” a mass mobilization by Bolivians with disabilities that took place across Bolivia from 2011 to 2012. As they progress through this activity, students will also learn how to think holistically and critically about a wide-range of topics like disability, medicine, the body, the senses, citizenship, and Latin America utilizing primary sources. First students read the original narrative, “Wheelchair Caravan in Bolivia,” in which Carlos Mariaca, a Bolivian activist with disability who led the march, details the profound role collective support played as the activists strove to perform the complementary, non-hierarchical duties that made their arduous journey across Bolivia possible. Next, students watch two-minute videos produced by the Bolivian media that show an important moment in the caravan journey when activists, frustrated that their mobilization was not receiving necessary public attention, got out of their wheelchairs at a public plaza in Santa Cruz and utilized their bodies to gain visibility for the sacrifices they made in their struggle for equal rights and to demand a financial benefit from the national government. The first media video, “Caravan Interview Activist,” created by ATB Digital, provides commentary by a journalist and an interview with an activist. In the second video by Viva, “Caravan Interview Public,” footage and interviews show the public’s reactions. Finally, students can write or actively discuss their responses to the questions offered in this resource. In sum, this multi-modal activity offers students a unique opportunity to critically analyze primary sources as they comparatively explore how the Bolivian activists, media, and public differentially interpret the Wheelchair Caravan of Integration’s significance.

Wheelchair Caravan in Bolivia by Carlos Mariaca

In 100 days, from November 15th, 2011 to February 26th, 2012, people with disabilities (PWD) in Bolivia achieved a historic mobilization in wheelchairs, traveling 1520 kilometers from Trinidad, Bení through five Departments of Bolivia to La Paz, the seat of government. “The Wheelchair Caravan of Integration,” led by the leaders of the Bolivian Confederation of Persons with Disabilities (COBOPDI), together with the leaders of the Departmental Federations (FEDEPDIS), had the objective of claiming rights for PWD by proposing a new law, “Preferential Treatment for PWD,” to improve the quality of life for this social sector and grant an annual benefit of 3600 Bolivianos or 521 U.S. dollars. They also demanded the creation of community shelters for people who do not have families and must wander as orphans through life in extreme poverty.

The Wheelchair Caravan of Integration was on the road, exposing itself to the climatic conditions and the dangers of vehicular traffic, counting only on the support of Bolivian citizens. They were accompanied by some of their relatives and other Trinitarians who, together with their children, joined the demonstration in solidarity, to push wheelchairs, prepare food, wash clothes and help them with personal hygiene tasks. In mutual agreement with the caravan’s leadership, it was their responsibility to ensure they did not miss breakfast, lunch, and dinner and provide for all of their needs, whether it was repairing and replacing shoes that fell apart on the road or distributing clothes that were received as donations. Two cars transported the portable kitchen, food, rations, sleeping bags, and old mattresses. The food that supporters prepared was for everyone. The children who accompanied them were supplied with milk and diapers that were either purchased or donated from different parts of the country. The caravan, which had received very little coverage in the media and was ignored by government authorities, became known as “The Invisible March.” A block before entering the main square, people with disabilities decided to change this situation so they took off their clothes, got out of their wheelchairs, and onto the ground. They entered the 24 de Septiembre Plaza, crawling on the ground in a shocking and moving effort to make their struggle visible. Those who could not mobilize were dragged by volunteers or supporters, even a journalist from Santa Cruz helped. This impressive action was made in homage to the brothers and sisters with disabilities who do not have adequate conditions, must crawl in their homes, in the streets or where they live, to leave their corners, look for food or perform their basic biological needs.

It was important to make this reality visible to the public so they see them as they are and witness the conditions in which they have to face life and hear their demand for equal rights in their country. Not only was this mobilization a sacrifice, it was very emotional because they exposed the painful and difficult lives of those with disabilities, who live in total defenselessness to indifference of the State and the current Bolivian government. The public as well as the media were moved, openly weeping at the sight of this outward display of true suffering. They understood the message, the activists needed them to achieve their goals. The activists exposed their message to the media, so people could learn to see that people with disabilities in Bolivia are just like everyone else. They laugh, cry, love, sing, dance, and get angry like any person who does not have a disability. They are not saints, or angels, or demons; they are human beings with one or multiple disabilities and that their struggle is for love, love for life, love for their family, love to live even in spite of adversity and love so as not to renounce the possibility of a better and dignified life in Bolivia.

Videos and Transcripts

ATB Digital Coverage of the Wheelchair Caravan of Integration: Interview with Activist
Viva Media Coverage of the Wheelchair Caravan of Integration: Interview with Public

Questions for Students
How did the activists explain the meaning of this mobilization? Why does Mariaca Alvarez say that it was important for the activists to achieve visibility?

How did the activists use their bodies to achieve visibility? Why do you think using their bodies in this way worked?

How did the caravan activists mobilize collective action in both their journey and at the plaza in Santa Cruz? Why do you think they wanted to make their collective action visible?

Compare how the activists, media, and public interpreted the mobilization in Santa Cruz. Explain what differences stand out to you.

In Bolivia, people with disabilities use person-first terminology to confront the dehumanization they experience in their everyday social relationships. How do we understand the impact of this group’s experience with dehumanization in Mariaca’s narrative and the videos? Why is it important for many people with disabilities to combat dehumanization?

How do members of the caravan highlight the limitations of defining disability simply as a medical problem that requires treatment? What other social and cultural considerations should we make?

Translation Notes

When analyzing these resources with students, it is important to note that while “disabled person” is often the preferred terminology for activists in Western countries like the United States, Bolivian activists with disabilities prefer the term “person with disability.” They assert that the person-first expression enables them to better challenge the dehumanization they routinely experience. Additionally, in Mariaca Alvarez’s narrative, we see him use the term, la movilización, which can be roughly translated into “demonstration” in English. However, we decided to use the direct translation, “mobilization,” as it underlines the claims to social, political, and spatial mobility activists in the caravan have been making. These nuanced differences highlight the importance of being culturally sensitive to how different meanings of disability are produced through the distinct sociopolitical relationships people living in local environments have with history, culture, and global disability models.

Supplementary Readings on Disability 

Ginsburg and Rapp 2013; Imrie 2001; Meekosha and Soldatic 2011; Shuttleworth and Kasnitz 2004

Authorship

Carlos Mariaca Alvarez, who helped lead the Caravan protest, curated the videos and authored the original narrative, “Wheelchair Caravan in Bolivia.” Mariaca, who has physical disability (Triplegia, 75%), served as the National Historic Leader of the Bolivian Confederation of People with Disabilities (COBOPDI) from 2002 to 2012, and founded the Inclusive Social Movement (MSI) and Emerging Society Bolivia (SEMBOL). Marica is also a self-taught lecturer and writer of Oriental Philosophy and Esoteric Psychology.

Megan Neal wrote the pedagogical guide, student questions, video transcripts, and translations. Neal is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines how citizens with disabilities in La Paz, Bolivia challenge normative understandings of development, the senses, and political participation. She also serves as the Web Content Producer for the Teaching and Learning Anthropology Journal’s Website.