Earlier this month, a school teacher in Pflugerville, Texas, was recorded by students talking about how he views white people as superior to Black people. “Deep down in my heart I’m ethnocentric,” the teacher told the class, “which means I think my race is the superior one. I think that everybody thinks that, they’re just not honest about it.” The teacher was fired after the footage went viral (Vice). Some commenters on social media aimed to justify the teacher’s words, saying he was discussing what ethnocentrism means. But this falls short of interpreting the relationship between ethnocentrism and racism.
By definition, ethnocentrism is the practice of regarding one’s own ethnic, racial, or social group as the center of all things and holding other cultures against the cultural standards of your own (APA). This often appears in unconscious patterns and behaviors and isn’t intended to cause harm. But it shapes our biases and can lead to racist, sexist or xenophobic actions.
• Reflect on the last time you found yourself holding biases based on your racial identity, cultural identity, and country of origin. What were those rooted in? What were they compared to?
• Diversify the books you read and movies you watch to foster a more inclusive understanding of other cultures and identities.
We know that the U.S. is full of diverse cultures and identities. But dominant culture tends to judge others—here and abroad—if they don’t align. It’s evident in language, or how many in the U.S. judge others for not speaking English properly. We may judge products we consume by where they are made, casting an often negative perspective on what is made in the U.S. versus what is made in China. It appears in our perception of how to cook food the proper way. And how we may label other regions to be “dirty” or “dangerous.”
You may also notice ethnocentrism in the media and how many Western storylines will criticize or judge how people from other cultures live. For example, this user-generated Tiktok highlights how ethnocentrism leads to how Middle Eastern and North African cultures are portrayed in Hollywood.
In theory, ethnocentrism isn’t always negative. The pride and value we place on our cultural identities help us foster community and find belonging with others like us. For marginalized communities, this pride helps to preserve significant cultural markers in the face of white supremacy. But because certain communities already wield more power than others, ethnocentrism only helps to encourage a false sense of superiority, causing harm at interpersonal and systemic scales. Ideas of the superior race, for example, have led to the imprisonment, exile, displacement, and death of millions of innocent people, from the Holocaust to the slave trade.
The teacher in the viral video exemplifies a similar micro action. He wasn’t just reflecting on ethnocentric thinking but using it to justify his belief that white people are superior to Black people. He then chose to wield his power and privilege against his Black students to make those statements, bringing discomfort into the classroom. That’s not ethnocentrism. That’s racism. (He also literally agreed that he was being racist when asked by a student, so this point is a bit irrelevant for this specific case).
One way to dismantle ethnocentric thinking is consciously checking your bias. Take time to understand another culture without comparing it to your own. Instead of approaching something unfamiliar with criticism or judgment, hold it from a space of empathy and curiosity. Understand that, for those who identify with that culture, their lifestyle is just as commonplace to them as yours is to you. That doesn’t mean that we have to discard what is familiar to us in the process. It also doesn’t mean we have to embrace cultural practices that are sexist, misogynistic, or homophobic.
The teacher in the video seemed to imply that ethnocentrism can’t be changed. And yes, we’re wired to compare others to our own lived experiences. But there’s a huge difference between acknowledging and encouraging others to do better and using it to justify racism. We hope that, in this newsletter, we’ve done the former and encourage you to do the same.
• Ethnocentrism is neither good nor bad but is commonplace in human behavior.
• Ethnocentric views can reinforce negative views of another culture, religion, race, or ethnicity creating a sense of superiority.
• Cultural relativism is one way to counter biased ethnocentrism.