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Standing up to injustice matters to anthropologist Mankekar

Purnima Mankekar

Purnima Mankekar

BY LISA TREI

People are as accountable for the consequences of what they do as what they choose to ignore, according to Purnima Mankekar, an associate professor of cultural and social anthropology.

"We need to be careful and wise in terms of what kinds of action we undertake," Mankekar said May 25. In some circumstances, she added, inaction can be the worst kind of action.

Mankekar shared what moral values inform her life and her work during her noontime presentation of "What Matters to Me and Why," a speaker series held in Memorial Church.

While it may be simpler to take an unequivocal ethical stand against spectacular acts of brutality such as the holocaust, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, Mankekar said the response to everyday acts of violence, such as poverty, is often more complex. "I've been struck by how the world responded to the destruction wrought by the tsunami [last] year, and the deafening silence surrounding the everyday reality of millions of people around the world dying because of starvation or malnourishment," she said. "How does the violence of starvation and malnourishment become so banal, so much a part of our everyday lives, that we can ignore it?"

The professor talked about her middle-class childhood in India and how her parents—journalists who pursued activist social agendas through their work—influenced her life. "Poverty was never something that was understood … in the fatalistic terms of individual destinies or, even less, about the individual 'choices' made by the poor," Mankekar said. "My parents did not believe that if people worked hard enough, they would 'make it.' In their writing, poverty was always the result of structural violence … that had been institutionalized quite a long time ago."

As an adult, Mankekar said she has learned about the importance of taking a stand from her work on domestic violence. "To put it very bluntly and crudely: Domestic violence happens because people … allow it to happen," she said. By choosing not to respond or get involved, "we allow domestic violence to happen, we create the conditions for its perpetration." The same goes for violence against other groups, she said: "Every time we tolerate a hateful joke about women, queers or minorities, we participate in the creation of a misogynist, homophobic and anti-minority violence because of the ease with which we look away."

During the talk, Mankekar discussed how the events of Sept. 11, 2001, fundamentally affected her research on how public culture, including mass media, creates "webs of connection" between people in India and the Indian diaspora in the San Francisco Bay Area. After the terrorist attacks on the United States, she said, the lives of many of her research contacts in the Bay Area changed. "The culture of fear actively produced by the U.S. state created a climate in which more and more people felt that it was OK, acceptable, even necessary, to racially profile individuals," she said. "Few people of color were spared."

As an anthropologist, Mankekar said she felt compelled to create an archive that would reflect not only the suffering of innocent people caught in a culture of fear but also consider their courage, resilience and dignity.

Mankekar vividly described a summer camp in a Sikh temple in the East Bay where she said children were taught how to cope with and respond to hatred and violence they faced in their everyday lives. "By using their wits rather than their fists, by actively seeking friends and teachers who could become their allies," they became stronger and more resilient, she said. As children related their personal experiences with hatred, some of them "seemed to get a little taller: They felt a lot less isolated, and a lot more heartened that here was a space in which they would talk about what had happened."

Mankekar also spoke about how the Japanese American community, which had personally experienced the cruelty of institutionalized hate violence, actively reached out to Muslims and Sikhs following the Sept. 11 attacks. In one case, she recounted how the chair of a Japanese American community center in Silicon Valley persistently tried to contact the head of an important coalition of American Muslims in Cupertino on the day of the attacks. When the Muslim leader eventually spoke with the caller, he said he was grateful for the man's concern and would contact him if necessary. At that point, Mankekar said, "His caller interrupted him and said, 'You will need our help. Trust me. You have no idea of the magnitude of what is going to happen.'"

Mankekar said she is not yet certain how she will integrate such experiences into her broader work on South Asian public cultures. "In some ways, I'm only continuing the legacy I've inherited from my parents in using my writing and my intellect to bring to light stories that night not see the light of day," she said. "We cannot always control the consequences of our actions, but what matters to me is to have the courage not to look the other way when I can do something about what is ethically repugnant."