ĕth’nō–sĕn’trĭz’em

First A Story
We took a break. I went to my office for a couple of minutes. When I returned it was obvious the class was dividing into two opposing camps.

They were discussing dogs and cats. The Dominicans/Haitians were presenting their perspective and the Americans were presenting the perspective.

The Haitians could not understand why anybody would spend any money on a dog or cat unless it was to catch them to eat.  For the Haitians, the thought of letting them in the house and sharing your bed with them was incomprehensible and disgusting.

When the Americans learned the dogs and cats were tolerated only because they helped keep the rats at bay, ate some of the garbage and were valued as a source of food during lean times––the Americans thought, well..these people were just cruel to animals. In fact one the American accused them of being cannibals.

Next An Explanation
Both groups were being ethnocentric.

It was OK to discuss and recognize cultural differences. However, they became ethnocentric when they judged the people for another culture by the standards of their own culture.

The Americans could have been more compassionate if they put themselves in the Haitians culture where eighty–percent of the population lives in severe poverty. More people in Haiti are hungry and malnourished than are well fed and well–nourished.

Had the Americans done this they would have been practicing cultural relativism. Cultural relativism says that we should judge the people of that culture by the standards and norms of that culture––not some other culture.

The problem with ethnocentrism is that it blinds us to our own faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses. It also causes us to stereotype other people groups.

A good example of what is at the end of stereotyping is Archie Bunker in All in the Family (a popular TV sitcom of the 1970s). Stereotyping and ethnocentrism cause a vicious spiral of one feeding off the other. As the spiral deepens, the divisions between groups become wider and more polarized.

Then A Diagnostics
Stephen Grunland and Mayers Grunland in their book Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective say, "ethnocentrism produces evil instead of good; loss of respect instead of respect; abandonment of principles instead of reinforcement; immaturity instead of growth; and falsehood instead of truth."

Now the Challenge

  • How ethnocentric are you?
  • Do you judge others by the way you see the world?
  • Do you judge them through your cultural lenses that color reality the same way theirs does?

Finally An Open Question
I was talking with a neighbor in the Dominican Republic. I was telling him about this post. He asked an interesting question. “What is the difference between racism and ethnocentrism?"

As we discussed it I think we came up with an answer––but we will save that until a future post!

(This was written while I lived in  Bávaro, Dominican Republic.)

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