Thursday, March 24, 2011

What’s Wrong with Ethnocentrism?

To return once more to the topic of ethnocentrism (i.e., seeing and experiencing and interacting with the world from the perspective of your own culture / your own frame of reference, without an understanding of the different cultures of others, or the ability to enter into their frame of reference and experience), I would like to ask whether ethnocentrism is compatible with faith, and if not, what’s wrong with it?

Here are some of the characteristics of ethnocentrism, with reference to the stages of Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”*:

  • lack of awareness of cultural difference
  • lack of interest in cultural difference
  • inability to distinguish cultural difference (e.g., thinking of “Africans” or “Asians” or even “foreigners” as a broad category without internal differentiation)
  • isolation or intentional separation from different others
  • lack of understanding of cultural difference or others who are different
  • a negative experience of difference, and reaction against it – feeling threatened by difference
  • one’s own culture experienced as the only viable one
  • polarization (“us” / “them”)
  • generalizing and positively stereotyping one’s own people and culture
  • generalizing and negatively stereotyping other peoples and cultures
  • prejudice, denigration, possibly animosity, toward those who are different
  • in the extreme, dehumanizing and/or demonizing others
  • trivializing difference, acting as if people are basically the same (i.e., as if others are basically the same as ourselves)
  • thus, not relating to others as they truly are, in their uniqueness or fullness
  • lack of cultural self-awareness
  • generalizing from one’s own experience, principles, practices, to others – assuming that what “works for us” is universal, relevant and applicable anywhere and everywhere and to everyone
  • those in a dominant or majority group not being aware of how racial minorities experience race relations, men not being aware of how women experience gender issues, etc.
  • assuming we have “the answers” for everyone, not being aware that the questions that others are asking, may be different than our questions
In sum, ethnocentrism is a form of self-centeredness, on a group and cultural level. It ranges from ignorance through defensiveness to a somewhat benign assumption of similarity, but in all cases, one cannot know and relate to others as they are, from any point on the spectrum of ethnocentrism.

There are many reasons why someone might decide that it would be best not to stay in an ethnocentric state.

From a faith perspective, I would argue that ethnocentrism, while “natural” to people, is not compatible with living according to the example and teachings of Jesus.

Take Jesus’ central teachings, to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As a starting point, it would seem that these commands would necessitate having an interest in knowing others and relating to them. And both “loving” and “doing unto others” would seem to clearly imply not looking down on them, negatively stereotyping, being biased against, or despising them. Thus, it seems obvious from the beginning that the “denial” and “defense” stages of ethnocentrism do not square with Jesus’ teaching.

To go deeper, in the broader context of the teachings of the New Testament one might define love as encompassing many other relational teachings, e.g., the exhortations to accept one another and to honor one another. To take just those two, it would seem obvious that a depth of accepting and honoring another person requires knowing that person as they are. The more fully I know someone, the more deeply I will be able to (learn to) accept or honor them. And this would be true of the “do unto others” command, which is really a way of summarizing what it means to love someone – what I want of others is that they understand me as I am, and accept and otherwise relate to me as I am, not according to an inadequate or distorted image of me.

It doesn’t take much empathy to imagine that for a person of color, having a white person treat you as if you are the same as them, without any understanding of your personal or group experience of discrimination, etc., is not loving (or even tolerable); or for a woman, to have men blithely proclaim that “we have no problem with gender issues here,” without ever listening to your experience or perspective on the matter, falls short of a positive or even acceptable relationship (to say the least). And anyone who has been on the receiving end of some other person or group coming in with the (“universal”) answers to what they perceive to be your need or problem, knows how obnoxious that approach is. Therefore, “minimization” also falls short of relating well to other people, and thus, to living according to the teachings and example of Jesus.

Ethnocentrism, in one way or another, in one form or another, is at the heart of many of the problems which exist between groups of people in the world today (and throughout history). It seems clear to me, as a follower of Jesus, that living up to the ideals and standards of our faith should lead us to reject, and seek to identify and grow beyond, ethnocentrism in all of its manifestations.

Coming soon: Beyond Ethnocentrism…

* For more details on each of these stages, see:

For full treatment of Bennett’s model, see
Bennett, Milton J., “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.” In Paige, R.M. (Ed). (1993) Education for the Intercultural Experience (2nd ed., p. 21-71). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Bennett, Milton J., “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”  In Wurzel, Jaime S., ed., Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 62-77). Newton, MA: Intercultural Resource Corporation, 2004.

No comments:

Post a Comment