The Problem of Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is believing in the superiority of one’s ethnic group. Even 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.

We American evangelicals can unfortunately be ethnocentric. When we are we tend to express 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 it makes us think that our ways are right. When we encounter the suffering, the sickness, and the abject poverty that afflict so many people in the developing and underdeveloped parts of the world, we assume that their poverty and suffering are a result of doing things the “wrong” way.

In all honesty, some of the beliefs and behaviors of other cultures are wrong. For example, viewing dysentery as if it is caused by evil spirits rather than due to microbes and poor hygiene is wrong. However, there are many ways of doing things in other cultures that are just different. People often have very good reasons for why they behave the ways that they do. However, we may not be quick to understand or appreciate the reasons why they do what they do.

When we are slow to understand, some of us make the mistake of evaluating these customs or behaviors as wrong rather than different. What complicates this 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 can be ethnocentric. People from any and every ethnic group can be ethnocentric. Due to this, when we travel abroad we 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 be 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. :-)