Monday, 13 June 2005
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines "ethnocentric" as "characterized by or based on the attitude that one's own group is superior." It's easy to spot others with this malady. From extreme cases of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, Sudan, and Bosnia to racial slurs and stereotyping by acquaintances and co-workers, it's clear that ethnocentrism is difficult to uproot, perhaps because, when we're honest, we know we're often quietly guilty of some of the same sentiments others say out loud.
Ethnocentrism is a product of fear as much as anything else-fear of losing privilege, of being displaced, of losing one's sense of identity, or even of extinction. Some of those fears should be evaluated in light of Jesus' call for us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39) and Paul's declaration that distinctions of culture, gender, and status in society are to be irrelevant in the Kingdom of God (Gal 3:28). Others have a certain validity. Our cultural identity and our sense of having value in the world are worth preserving. The challenge is upholding those without devaluing the contributions of others.
I propose that we take the offending word "ethnocentric" and perform minor surgery so that it becomes "ethnocentered." While the two sound similar enough to cause confusion, their meanings are virtually opposite. The former leads to exclusion of others and often glorifies ignorance while the latter calls for the exploration of other cultures-not for purposes of finding fault, but rather of finding value.
Ethnocentered people look at their cultures of origin honestly. They don't gloss over historic injustices like slavery or dangerous tendencies toward narcissism. Neither do they become so critical that they miss the contributions made by both national heroes and anonymous citizens which are then absorbed by the culture for the benefit of all. Instead, they affirm all that should be affirmed and work and pray for less worthy things to be changed.
This attitude not only brings about a more mature and responsible populace, but it provides a solid platform for learning about other cultures and building friendships with those who have been shaped by different histories and traditions. Over time, this interaction will lead to change. Some changes will be relatively minor, like the addition of new foods to a list of favorites. Others will be more substantial, like shifts in politics, new insights in faith, and an inability to watch international news stories with indifference. None of the above need change one's love and esteem for the culture that is home. It may, however, provide insights for helping it to do a better job of living up to its ideals.