Ethnocentrism?

As with every foreign adventure I’ve been on, I am learning so much, but more than anything I’m learning about how little I really know. One of the concepts Geoff talked about in our first day of class was the iceberg concept. This is the concept that there is a tiny tip that pokes out of the water and that we can see, but most of the iceberg is hidden below the surface. When applied to intercultural communications, the tip of the iceberg contains the behaviors, practices, and social norms exhibited in a culture. The part below the surface of the water contains the values and belief systems, within a culture, that the behaviors, practices, and social norms come from. I’ve been to 13 different countries and yet I can’t say I really know much more than just the tip of the iceberg about most of the cultures of the countries I’ve visited. Only now have I truly begun to ponder on a deeper level what lies beneath the surface of the water, the values and belief systems of a certain culture, and speculate as to how or why these beliefs came into being. And as an outsider I can truly only theorize as to what the answer is to these questions. I am humbled by my own lack of understanding.

Three years ago during my gap year one of my instructors, Adelaide, told us a story. It was about a man from a culture similar to my own, who traveled to a place completely foreign to him and began to study to become a shaman. During the beginning of his journey to become a shaman, he was told to borrow money from the women of the village. Many years passed and he became immersed in the culture and eventually reached the status of a shaman. At this point he came to repay the women of the village. We he did this, the women became extremely angry. They beat him and threw him out of the village. This was because in their culture, paying someone back meant that you were no longer indented to them. It meant you were cutting off ties with them.

I found it interesting that such a seemingly fundamental part of this culture had not yet clicked with a man who had studied within the culture for several years. Since hearing this story, and going on this trip to Ghana, I have realized that I have been ignorant to think that I could ever fully understand another culture that I was not brought up in. I don’t even fully understand my own culture! Does a fish know it is wet? Can a fish ever fully know what it feels like to be dry?

The arrogance that I along with many other Americans have had that leads us to believe that we can not only understand other cultures but that we can and should change other cultures is called ethnocentrism. This ethnocentrism leads to colonialism. It leads to “aid workers” who do more harm than good. It leads to missionary work intended to convert people. It leads to the spreading of democracy.

As a person who is determined to dedicate my life toward fighting for social justice, I am deeply conflicted by these realizations. I have gone on many mission trips. I have attempted to help many people who could’ve probably done a better job helping themselves given the resources. I support organizations meant to end sex trafficking, FGM, and genocide. I still believe in these causes despite the fact that it kinda feels like I’m “butting in” too much. If I don’t understand another culture then how can I ever expect to change it? And what gives me the right to?
For now the only thing that I know to do is to continue educating myself, to continue searching for bits of wisdom that humble me, to continue reminding myself that I don’t have all the answers, that I am not the answer. Hopefully this will lead me on a path toward working for the common good.

By Becky Nash

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6 thoughts on “Ethnocentrism?

  1. Amen and beautifully stated. I think you have articulated the struggle, too, in pursuing a universal view of right and wrong across cultures. I believe there are some universals, but we struggle to know what they are if we respect human differences. And one other thing: those mission trips were as much or more to change you (and me) as they were to help others.

  2. The concept of ethnocentrism is so important and so much easier to understand during a study abroad experience. It always hits home how much Americans don’t know about other cultures and parts of the world…bravo LMC students for diving in and learning!

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