The meaning of ethnocentrism is revealed by the smaller words that make up the larger one: ethnicity and center. Ethnocentrism means placing your ethnicity at the center. In this case center means “most important.” Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging other cultures and ethnic groups against your own culture and ethnic group while seeing your own group and culture as the ideal.
For example, many Americans hold the viewpoint that the English language is the best language, the most natural language, and certainly the only language to be spoken in the United States. Those imbued with ethnocentrism would conclude that other languages are inferior. The same holds true with many cultural practices. Those possessed by ethnocentrism would conclude that their religion, their holidays, their economic system, and their family structure are clearly the best ones.
Ethnocentrism results in prejudice and discrimination based on culture and ethnicity. Racism and ethno-centrism are parallel concepts and processes, both having to do with attitudes and behaviors. Both imply a sense of superiority of one race or ethnic group to others. Both become justifications to oppress groups.
Sociologist Andrew Greeley sees ethnocentric people concluding, “Why can’t they be like us?”
Invidious comparisons are inevitable when viewing members and practices of other ethnic groups through the lens of ethnocentrism, which sees all other cultures and groups as lacking and inferior. This often leads to frustration and hostility for those who are ethnocentric. Prejudice, discrimination, proselytizing, verbal hostility, and violence are ways ethnocentrism may be made manifest. In the United States, hate crimes are one of the outcomes of ethnocentrism. Indeed, ethnicity and race account for the great majority of hate crimes.
Being ethnocentric may facilitate regrettable decisions. For example, on a large-scale level, country “A,” which is led by ethnocentric rulers, makes war on country “Z.” The leaders in country A believe that the Zs are suffering under a bad government, subject to an oppressive religion, and the citizens are impoverished because the economic system in country Z is outdated and needs to be modernized. The leaders of country A expect the population of Zs to be supportive of the invasion and “liberation” of their country. They expect Zs to embrace a new and “better” form of government and support the new Z leadership installed by the As. However, the As find out that even though most Zs were not totally happy with their lives, overall the Zs were fairly satisfied and so they resist the invasion by the As. As a micro-level example, ethnocentric U.S. college student Bill takes a semester abroad in Mexico. Bill attempts to convince the members of his host family that they should shower at least once a day, work longer hours, forgo their siesta, allow the young women to date without chaperones, and increase the amount of meat in their meals. In addition, Bill was only trying to help the members of the host family when he told them about the “one true religion.”
- Chan, Sucheng, ed. 2006. The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight and New Beginnings. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Hagopian, Elaine C., ed. 2004. Civil Rights in Peril: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims. London: Pluto.
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