Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one's own. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity. Ethnocentrism is generally considered a human universal.
My first experience with ethnocentrism came at an early age. In the late fifties, my uncle who had been living in Spain, met and married my aunt and brought her back to the farm in Mississippi. An exotic bird, with wild, waist-length black hair, she was wearing a red silk flower behind one ear, colorful layers of ruffled petticoats, and shiny little shoes with chunky high heels that clicked on the tile when she walked. She was unlike anyone I had ever met before in the conservative South, and I was fascinated!
She was a lively little lady who spoke animatedly about….well, I didn’t really know what she was talking about, because she didn’t speak a word of English. But we attempted to communicate with each other by talking loudly, as if shouting made the words more comprehensible. We played charades, pointing and holding up things, laughing and repeating over and over what they were called in our respective languages. She taught me how to play the castanets and flamenco dance, and how to count to ten in Spanish. And she showed me how to apply rouge, and curl my eyelashes by pressing them between my thumb and the dull blade of a pocket-knife.
I’m not sure what, if anything, she actually learned from me. However, I believe she was just happy to hang out with someone who wasn’t trying to make her “fit in.” Her language, behavior, customs and religion were very foreign to the people in the rural community where she spent the rest of her life. Needless to say, she was viewed suspiciously and shunned by many of them….because she was different.
But after meeting my new aunt, I realized for the first time, that the whole world wasn’t necessarily like my world…..it was very different. And I needed to know more. I wanted to familiarize myself with other cultures. I read voraciously about people and places, far and wide. I sought out ethnic restaurants and tried unfamiliar but tasty dishes. I traveled extensively, talked to lots of people….and listened. I visited their cities and roamed their country-sides, marveled at their architecture and wept at the beauty of their art, dined on their distinctive cuisines, danced to their music, and experienced, embraced, and celebrated their diversity. I continue to travel whenever I can, and never tire of discovering new people, places, and things.
I don’t always understand what makes them tick, but I dive into getting to know them and exploring their world, with an adventurous spirit and a curious, open mind. And why not?! I mean, how interesting would life be if everybody in the world was just like me?