Ethnocentrism and Our Hispanic Heritage, a Reflection

Ethnocentrism BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of blog.sandiego.org

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where people from different parts of the world argue about why their respective countries are better than others? If so, welcome! You have witnessed ethnocentrism.

In the field of anthropology, the term ethnocentrism is used to describe thinking that stresses the idea that one country or ethnic group makes it “better.” Thus, it means applying our cultural or ethnic perspective as a frame of reference for judging other cultures.

In our common discourse, this judgment tends to be pejorative, as it is culturally biased. This is why ethnocentrism is sometimes associated with racism, stereotyping, discrimination, or xenophobia.

This occurs in all households and circumstances, even in Latin America. For example, have you ever thought that in Asian countries eating with chopsticks is the most common thing to do and not something that is done only in sushi restaurants?

One of the most obvious examples of ethnocentrism is found in colonialism, where “the social system in which the political conquests by one society of another leads to cultural dominance with enforced social change.”

However, in a continent as broad as Latin America, to speak of culture is just as vast and often allows for misrepresentations. Understanding that culture is a system of ideas, values, and behaviors, particularly one that reflects the social systems to which we belong, we can perfectly well say that there are many types of culture in Latin America.

Hence, it is not strange to see a Venezuelan and a Colombian arguing over the true origin of the arepa, or a Chilean and a Peruvian arguing over the best pisco recipe.

But the issue becomes even more complicated when we are Latinos living in the United States, and having this reflection during Hispanic Heritage Month is more than timely.

In one way or another, Hispanics in the United States live at the intersection of ethnocentric perspectives. On the one hand, the persistence of white discourse as predominant — exacerbated during periods such as the Trump Era — and the ethnocentrism inherent in Hispanic culture. After all, nobody cooks better than us, and our music is the fundamental pillar of the country’s music, isn’t it?

With a deeper into the worlds we occupy, our own families and cultures, it’s easy to see that we all have it in us to behave in ethnocentric ways, whether advertently or inadvertently. 

Sure, we might not be sitting around a table insulting other groups or looking down at them, but plenty of us have stereotypes that divide us in the back of our heads. It can be as simple as how it determines who we spend our time with, who we feel comfortable reaching out to for medical care, sitting next to on the bus and at church, or even where we eat. 

If you are Latino, an ethnocentric interpretation of American culture may state that “Americans lack family values and cohesion.” You may judge American culture this way because families are expected to show mutual obligation and close attachment based on your own culture.

In the case of marginalized people living in the United States, this sort of biased thinking is understandable. After all, this sort of grouping and leaning on people like us comes from a sense of safety-seeking. 

Still, as comfortable as these states and harmless-seeming this may be, it’s essential to be aware of how ethnocentrism can limit options. 

Pursuing diverse interactions and mindsets can only benefit us as people in a diverse world. We can encourage ourselves to participate in another perspective on other cultures that is far different from and so much more positive than ethnocentrism: cultural relativism. This approach, established in the anthropological research of Franz Boas in the early decades of the 20th century, posits the idea that a person’s beliefs and practices must be understood in terms of their own culture.

“Civilization is not something absolute, but…is relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes,” Boas said in 1887.

In our particular case, a more relativistic perspective of our U.S. experience might be to consider that American families are more based on the individual, particularly because of the weight given in their culture to individualism and self-reliance.

While it is true that this Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate what makes us unique and the value of our community, it is not a wasted effort to consider a new relativistic perspective to help us better understand ourselves as fellow citizens.

By choosing to avoid judging others based on our standards, the practice of cultural relativism encourages us to humbly appreciate the values and traditions of others while proudly sharing our own.