The Problem of Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is the belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group. Though it sounds like ethnocentrism is bad, ethnocentrism has positive and negative qualities. For a minority group in oppressive conditions, ethnocentrism enables the group to create and sustain an identity over extended periods of time. The downside of ethnocentrism is that it causes a people from an ethnic group to look down on those who are from other ethnic groups.

The unfortunate fact is that we American evangelicals can be ethnocentric, and when we are, we live out our ethnocentrism when we travel abroad. The way I have seen it expressed the most is when we view other ways of living and doing things as wrong rather than as different.

There are reasons why we make these kinds of evaluations. One of the reason is that the USA is a very wealthy country and our infrastructure works well most of the time. This subconsciously makes us think our ways are better- or they are right. When we encounter the suffering, the sickness, and the abject poverty that afflict so many people in the two-thirds world, we assume that their poverty and suffering are a result of doing things the “wrong” way. And some of the ways other people do things are wrong. For example, viewing some stomach illnesses as if they are caused by evil spirits rather than due to poor hygiene is wrong. However, there are many other ways of doing things in other cultures that are just different. There are often good reasons for why people in other countries do what they do. However, we may not be quick to understand or appreciate the reasons for why they do what they do. When we are slow to understand, some of us evaluate these customs or behaviors as wrong rather than different. The problem is that we tend to say what we think. When we verbalize our judgmental thoughts, we can hurt the feelings of those in our host culture. This is the sad result of ethnocentrism.

However, we Americans are not the only ones who are ethnocentric. Every ethnic group can be ethnocentric. When we travel abroad we also become exposed to other people’s ethnocentrism. When we encounter it, especially from those we consider our brothers and sisters, we are often unprepared for it. When we do encounter it, our feelings can get hurt.

So, as we think about traveling abroad, it is good for us to recognize that non-Americans may evaluate some of our cherished ways of doing things as wrong, not just different. When this happens, please be prepared to respond in a gracious and patient manner. One good thing that comes out of this when it happens to us is that it makes us more sensitive to how it feels. This encourages us to strive to not be ethnocentric.

When we are overseas, if we strive not to look down on the different practices of others, even when the ways don’t make any sense to us, and if we strive not to be critical in our speech, we will avoid acting ethnocentrically, and we will spare those who are hosting us from unnecessary heartache. :-)