Whenever one grows up in an environment with limited interaction with people of other races and cultures, one becomes guilty of ethnocentrism without being aware of it. As anthropologist Ken Barger explains, “Everyone is ethnocentric, and there is no way not to be ethnocentric… it cannot be avoided, nor can it be willed away by a positive or well-meaning attitude.”
No, ethnocentrism isn’t a nefarious code word used by people who believe that all cultures are morally equal.
Dr. Barger defines ethnocentrism as “making false assumptions about others’ ways based on our own limited experience.”
The influence of ethnocentrism is illustrated in the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. In it, authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien describe how an upbringing in a modern-day Western society can cause one to misinterpret the ancient Eastern literature that the Bible is comprised of.
Ethnocentrism extends into the political arena as well. For example, it is common for white Republicans to be bewildered by the fact that non-white Americans tend to favor the Democratic Party. The bewilderment of the former is due in part to their ethnocentric thinking.
The Republican Party tends to champion individualism. For way too many Americans of color, surviving as individuals hasn’t been a luxury available to them. In order to survive in a society in which minorities have historically been subjected to racism, minority members banded together.
In their academic paper Personal and Collective Self-Esteem of Ethnic Minority Teenagers of Arad County, Romanian psychologists Tiberiu Dughi and Anamaria Ile write, “Members of a minority group, being disadvantaged by the majority of the population, develop a sense of ‘group solidarity’, a sense of belonging together, due to the fact that the experience of prejudice and discrimination, often strengthens feelings of loyalty and common interests.”
As a result of this group solidarity, American minorities tend to favor whichever political party provides for the group, as opposed to whichever party provides for the individual.
Such collective thinking is foreign to white Americans who have been taught that the individual comes first. From their ethnocentric view, everyone should believe that the individual comes first.
In the college textbook Introduction to Sociology, Dr. Ron Hammond gives a glimpse into one reason for ethnocentrism in America:
You see I, too was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1963. I was privileged to witness the transition years in the South where Blacks were once oppressed by the older generation that included my parents and grandparents and have experienced more and more equality than ever before (there’s still much change to take place and I hope it will happen in my lifetime). As a child my parents forced me to drink from White-only water fountains, my teachers forced me to sit in front of Black students (in classrooms and buses). My coaches forced me to bond to high school teammates, while simultaneously discouraging any after-school interactions with non-Whites. None of that felt right to me and my friends. We felt confused about why our innocent friendships were so tightly regulated by the adults around us.
In short, black Americans were treated as second-class citizens.
Ethnocentrism is even present when Americans talk about privilege. Americans view privilege through the narrow lens of American living. Residents of Third-World slums, on the other hand, view privilege from the lens of the poverty that they live in. What counts as standard living in the USA counts as privilege in those Third-World slums.
Of course, ethnocentrism isn’t limited to white Americans. Anyone can be ethnocentric just as anyone can be a racist. Indeed, ethnocentrism is present in all societies and has existed for as long as there have been societies.
We can’t completely eliminate ethnocentrism, but we can become aware of it, especially when it comes to political disputes influenced by ethnocentrism.