Sunday, February 26, 2006


In my lectures in anthropology I talk about the curse of ethnocentrism. To be ethoncentristic is to have an attitude that one’s own culture is superior to others. It was a word developed around the Victorian age of colonialism, whereas cultures were classified as civilized or primitive by the criterion of how people lived, Europe being the highest standard of civilization.

Ethnocentrism manifest’s itself in subtle ways by making snide and unkind remarks about other people, e.g. they are stupid, lazy or dirty. A friend in Kenya use to say, when frustrated with the way things worked (or didn’t), “TIK” (This Is Kenya). In India one American family says, when they are stressed out, “We’re having an Indian culture day today.” One guy I know tells storeowners if they want his business they should meet his expectations as an American! It was in 1958 that the book The Ugly American was published…it’s a book about ethnocentrism and this pejorative term is still used today when American arrogance is displayed.

Ethnocentrism is not just a Western characteristic; it’s true of all cultures. "Skin tax" is common in developing countries where there are always two prices for every commodity, one for locals and one for foreigners. A popular book presently in India entitled One Night At A Call Center, is full of wisecracks about ignorant Americans. The kids working at the call center have come up with an IQ formula they call the 10 = 35 (the mentality of a 10 year old Indian equals the IQ of a 35 year old American). There is even a pastor of a church my wife attends for a women’s Bible study class who chides the Indian women by asking them, “Why do you want to be around these white skinned people?” Ethnocentrism is an insidious disease that affects all people in every culture.

Certainly people should be proud of their cultural heritage. I get weary listening to Americans apologize for their country; our policies, wealth, inequalities, etc. If something goes wrong in the world we can always blame the United States. Though my culture (and your culture), indeed have flaws, there is nothing inherently wrong with being proud of who you are and where you are from. We cross the line into ethnocentrism, however, when we begin to act out a spirit of superiority and voice that attitude with rude remarks about others.

I was reminded of this issue this past week. I purchased some airline tickets that were issued in the states. A friend said his father-in-law would bring the tickets for me when they come for a visit next month. I got a message from him Friday saying, “Sorry but they have lost the tickets.” I now have to go through the process of time and money in getting the tickets reissued. Hey, I understand, mistakes happen, we are all fallible. But I wondered, if someone in India had made this blunder, would we say it was just a mistake, or would we talk about the irresponsibility of the people in this culture? To err is human, unless you are of a different ethnicity and then you’re just an idiot.

I must admit I’m fighting ethnocentrism right now. As I think of the hours I’m going to have to put into correcting the goof-up of someone else, I know I should be charitable and say, “It could happen to anyone, everyone makes mistakes.” But in my black heart what I’m feeling is “the incompetent don’t live in Kenya or India, but in Texas.”

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