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 seeking peace, 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 the perspective of seeking peace, I would argue that ethnocentrism, while “natural” to people, is not compatible with living in a way that will lead to building peace between peoples.
I recently wrote up some “peace lessons” from the women and men I have met in Israel and the Occupied West Bank, who are actively engaged in trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ( Among the lessons:

* We must learn to see all people – including our “enemies” – as human beings created in the image of God, due respect and honor and treatment as such (regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc., and regardless of how they are treating us). The way Sheikh Ghassan put it, to see that “the person in front of me is me with a different language, religion, ethnicity, etc.,” and to “make my enemy into my friend.” The way the Quakers put it is to find “that of God” in all people. The way Jesus put it is that we must learn to love our neighbor and love even our enemy, and “do to others as we would have them do to us.”

* We need to develop an understanding of God, of religion, and of people that rises above the ethnocentric “tribalism” of believing that God is for us and our people and against others (and that uses religion/the name of God to justify fighting and killing others).

* We need to build relationship with those on the other side of a conflict. We need to share our stories, get to know each other, find what we have in common, embrace our shared humanity, and find ways to work together to end the conflict.

* Conversely, walls and checkpoints and occupation and humiliating others; enshrining our own ethnicity and religion and nationality; playing the role of the victim; and justifying actions which serve ourselves and our interests while mistreating others, do not lead to peace.

Living in a state of ethnocentrism will prevent us from the above positive steps, and will lead us to the negative ways of interacting with others. If we are living in ethnocentrism, we will not see other people who are different than us (racially, ethnically, religiously, in their nationality, etc.) as fully human. We will not be inclined to understand people, to relate to them, to seek to build bridges and friendship. If we are living in ethnocentrism, our god will be a tribal god, belonging and loyal to our people, and against others who are against us. If we are living in ethnocentrism, we will build walls to keep out the alien other, and we will do to others what we would never think of doing to ourselves or our own people (in fact, we will justify doing to others what we would never tolerate others doing to us).

Even at the most positive, least destructive stage of ethnocentrism, minimization, we will fall short of the full potential of building peace between ourselves and others. Peace, as many people have pointed out, is more than the absence of conflict. True, deep, lasting peace, the kind of peace that creates a context within which people can live their lives most fully, requires relationship, understanding, empathy with those who are different than us.

If there is ever to be true peace between Israelis and Palestinians, they will need to move beyond dismantling the separation Wall and the Occupation, agreeing upon borders, and addressing the various legal issues that have accrued over the past 60+ years. For true peace, salaam, shalom – a blessed life, characterized by harmony and well being – Palestinians and Israelis will need to build relationships and come to know each other, listen to and care about each other’s stories, understand each others’ suffering and perspectives (please note: the peace activists in the situation are working on this, and are seeing some success – this is not only possible, it is necessary, and it is not “pie in the sky” idealism). And ethnocentrism will hinder these efforts.

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 that if we want to work for peace in the world, we need to reject, and seek to identify and grow beyond, ethnocentrism in all of its manifestations.

Coming soon: Beyond Ethnocentrism…

* For more on each of Bennett’s stages of Ethnocentrism, 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.

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