Author Archives: Will Hagle

Legend— Illinois

Jordan told me that, in the fall of 2010, a handful of stories began circulating around his hometown of Champaign, IL.  The stories were different each time, but the main theme was the same:  a group of young African-American males attacked an overweight white person in public.  Because the victims of these attacks were all supposedly overweight, the act was dubbed “Polar Bear Hunting.”  It was said that the attack was part of a local gang initiation ritual.

A few incidents of attacks on overweight white people did actually occur, but they were never confirmed to be a part of a specific gang initiation.  Still, the story became somewhat of a media sensation throughout October-December 2010.  There were several newspaper articles about the topic, and the thought that these attacks could occur definitely scared people from walking around town alone late at night.  Different legends about the attacks spread rapidly throughout the town.

Jordan said that he learned of this legend from his friend, who happened to be an overweight white male.  His friend said that he felt slightly threatened walking around the University of Illinois campus late at night because of the threat of Polar Bear Hunting.  Jordan informed me that, as an African-American male, he did not feel threatened… but he thought the legend was somewhat racist and could have caused people to look at him differently.

Jordan also said that he thinks polar bear hunting is little more than a sensational news story.  Even though most people are not aware of a particular occurrence, most inhabitants of the town know about the attacks and/or believe that they exist.   Also, despite the serious nature of the supposed attacks, the title “polar bear hunting” is somewhat humorous.

For the most part, I agree with Jordan.  Because Champaign, IL is a fairly small town, it’s easy for a story like this to spread quickly throughout its citizens.  Also, the story is not as popular as it was a few months ago, demonstrating that it was likely a product of the media.  Even if these attacks  are still occurring, people aren’t hearing or talking about them as much.

Furthermore, I think the concept of “polar bear hunting” has something to do with white citizens’ general fear of black citizens in the town.  Champaign, IL has a large white population and a large black population and problems (usually minor) surrounding this topic occasionally arise.  Although racism is no longer outwardly present in the community, legends like this prove that at least some form of racism or fear of “the other” (even if unconscious and/or perpetuated by the media) still exists.

More information on the Polar Bear Hunting stories can be found in the following news articles:

Folk Speech

Pam demonstrated a game/demonstration that she used to perform as a child.  She said “Chinese, Japanese, Americanese.”  After saying “Chinese,” she used her hands to pull her eyes upwards and sideways.  After saying “Japanese,” she pulled her eyes downwards and sideways.  Then, after saying “Americanese,” she touched her own knees.  This is a play on words, insinuating that “Americanese” sounds like “American knees.”

Pam said that she learned this game from one of her neighborhood friends growing up in Elgin, IL.  She said that the neighborhood was mostly white and Hispanic children, and that there weren’t many Asian children at her school or in her town.  She said that kids would show this to each other just for laughs.  Once you saw someone else perform this for the first time, it lost much of its humor because the punch line was already learned.

Pam says that, looking back on the game, she thinks it is awful because it’s obviously racist.  She acknowledged that she almost felt bad about performing it at her age because of its use of stereotypes.  However, she said that it was probably just a way for kids to deal with differences in race that they were just starting to realize.

I agree with Pam’s observation that children preform this game at a time in their lives when they are just beginning to notice differences in race.  Eye appearance is a commonly highlighted difference between Western and Eastern people, and it makes sense that children would find a humorous and innocent (although occasionally offensive from a retrospective view) way to understand this phenomenon.

In addition, the game is likely a way for children to show off their new understanding and mastery of words.  Many children games and riddles include wordplay, because young children are just beginning to understand how words work.  That “Americanese” sounds like “American knees” is a humorous example of wordplay.

I also remember preforming this activity as a child, but with slight variation.  After saying “Americanese,” I would simply drop my hands so that my eyes returned to their normal state (rather than touching my own knees).  This still demonstrates the same concept of differences in race.

It’s interesting to note that this activity is usually performed by children, who have less of a concept of societal race relations.  While an adult might appear racist when preforming this game, children have the innocence of just beginning to understand differences in appearance.

Protection Ritual— India

The practice as described by Anish:  “So when I was younger and I used to have nightmares and stuff, there’s a concept in India that you have a ‘bad eye,’ or like a negative energy looking down on you.  So what you do is you put a black dot underneath your left ear, and that’s supposed to keep away bad thoughts and bad energy from you.”

Anish told me that he learned this practice from his parents, who would draw a black dot behind his left ear from the time when he was a baby until he was around ten years old.  He said that he did not think this practice had religious origins, as his father is Hindi and his mother is Christian.  Instead, he always considered it a secular practice, more like an Indian/geographical superstition rather than a religious one.

Anish said that he had to walk around in public with a large black dot under his left ear very often when he was growing up, but that he never thought it was unusual even though he didn’t understand the exact reasoning behind the practice.  He said that he sometimes felt strange if other children pointed the black dot out, but for the most part it was a common practice in the part of India in which he grew up.  Others would also have the black dot occasionally, and it didn’t seem unusual.  The fear of the “bad eye” or “negative energy” was common, and there were several other practices to get rid of it.

Although Anish did not specifically use the term “evil eye,” opting instead for “bad eye,” the concept sounds very similar.  This practice is likely just another way for people to ward off evil spirits and feel more comfortable after performing a superstitious act.  The black dot probably acts like another eye staring back, keeping the “bad spirits” from entering into your brain.

This is likely a way for children to feel better about their nightmares and more protected by their parents.  Anish said that only children have the black dot drawn behind their ear, which is likely due to the fact that children have a hard time understanding and dealing with things like nightmares.  Children feel comforted knowing that their children are protected from the “bad eye,” and parents feel comforted knowing that their children feel protected.

Tradition— Iran

The practice as described by Tara:  “In my family, it’s kind of like Northwestern Iranian tradition.  If someone gets sick, you grab a pencil and an uncooked egg.  You start circling names of people that the sick person has been around in the past week, during the time that they might’ve gotten sick.  Then you put the egg between two coins and put it above the person’s head.  Then you exert pressure on the egg and start saying those people’s names.  When the egg breaks, whoever’s name was said last is who got that person sick.  So what you do is you burn this weed called esfand, and by burning that weed you get rid of the evil eye by clearing the air and getting that person better.”

Tara told me that she learned this technique from her mother when she was growing up in Iran.  Every time that Tara became ill, she would have to go through this process.  She explained that she very much believes in the “evil eye,” and that there are many other examples of traditions that help ward the evil eye off.  Tara also explained that even though it was annoying to have an egg cracked over her head, it was worth it because she believed it would make her feel better.  Tara said that her family continued this practice after they moved to the United States when she was ten years old.

Tara said that she thinks people do this because it gives them a sense of comfort.  Even though most people know that it doesn’t logically work, the practice makes people feel better by doing it.  It’s more of a superstition than a serious belief, as people know it’s irrational but still feel better after doing it.

I think that this practice represents a more modern mix between science and traditional belief.  Because the ill person has to write out the names of people with which they’ve been in contact, the practice recognizes the scientific nature of the spread of contagious diseases (before science people knew that diseases spread from contact, but the act of staying away from people with colds and getting rid of germs is extremely prominent in modern popular culture).  However, the rest of the practice is less rooted in science and rationality.  Because this practice is performed in Iran, an area in which more traditional folk medicine practices are more common (according to Tara, who has lived in both Iran and the United States), this practice demonstrates a balance between science and tradition.

Also, Tara’s analysis of the practice is likely accurate.  Even though people might not necessarily think that the process works, they still feel better doing it rather than not doing it.  It’s much like many common, modern superstitions.  Even if people recognize that they are irrational, they still perform them just in case.

“Chigger” Joke

The Joke as performed by Lauren: “So there’s these two workers out in the field out in the Midwest, working in the woods or whatever.  One is like ‘Oh, fuck!  I’m getting bit up by a bunch of chiggers.’  And the other worker goes, ‘Whoa. Whoa.  They prefer chegroes.’”

Lauren told me that she learned this joke from one of her friends at high school in Santa Barbra, CA.  She said that the joke immediately became her favorite, and that she tells it whenever she’s in a group of friends that are sharing jokes.  She says it always makes her laugh because of its unusual quality and surprise ending.

Lauren said that she thinks the joke is obviously a play on words, with “chegroes” meant to sound like “Negroes.”  She thinks that the joke is a way of exposing the ridiculousness surrounding politically correct words, as the well-known “n-word” that rhymes with “chigger” is usually considered extremely racist and offensive, especially in the United States (where the joke takes place).

I agree that this joke is a way of poking fun at the sensitivity and political correctness surrounding words.  “Chigger” obviously sounds like “nigger,” the term most offensive to African-Americans, but the word “chigger” itself is not offensive (it’s a common word for a specific bug).  Still, the joke points out that words are simply words, and it’s context that makes them either offensive or inoffensive.

The joke also represents the common fear of using the “n-word” that exists amongst non-African-Americans.  Because the word is offensive to the particular race, many people outside that race (and within) consciously avoid using it in everyday speech because they don’t want to seem racist.  Hence, the worker that says “Whoa whoa whoa, they prefer chegroes” demonstrates a consciousness carefulness with offensive speech and words.

Lauren told me this joke in a room with one white male, one white female, and one black female.  Every one in the room laughed out loud when she was finished, demonstrating that the joke doesn’t cater to a specific race, but rather exposes the extreme degree to which some people take political correctness.