Ethnocentrism & Essentialization
What is our bias? Based on Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Edward Said’s Orientalism.
Ethnocentrism is the term anthropologists use to describe the opinion that one’s own way of life is natural. It means that one may see his/her own culture as the only correct way of living. Some would simply call it cultural ignorance. Western ethnocentrism can be described as the domination and rationalization of capitalist white supremacism around the world as the propagation of western superiority. Our prejudices place western culture as the “best” and only “right” way of life. These prejudices, created during a time of colonial power structures, have played a big role in the formation of our society, and in turn, the way we see the rest of the world. Because of it, we have built our system of laws and institutions in the context of a colonial hierarchy.
To maintain social hierarchies created in a colonial context, rigid essentialization is necessary. The existence of the “superiority” of western society is solely dependent on the maintenance of this social order. This essentialization portrays other, non-western cultures as “inferior” and “wrong”. They influence westerners to view other cultures as inherently “opposite” of their own. Post-colonial societies like the United States reflect this hierarchy, which places their values and culture as the ultimate blueprint while essentializing others in detrimental ways. This keeps the colonial social order in place to this day. Essentialism refers to the idea that a group of people can be wholly defined by a certain set of innate and universal characteristics, often stereotyped.
Modern essentialization in postcolonial societies is part of a legacy of hierarchies and representations established during colonialism. The use of basic groupings is a way to deny the complexity and value of other cultures. Westerners often want to help or change non-westerners based on these representations, which may have no basis in actual fact at all. This essentialism becomes hegemonic to the point where both westerners and non-westerners accept it as the truth and internalize these stereotypes. These representations lead to material realities in the daily life of those outside the western world, like their perception of themselves and their own cultures. Essentialism is a major barrier in cross-cultural communication because westerners begin to take it as fact and operate with this false information as to their basis for relations with non-western cultures. Our perceptions of other cultures are often skewed by the lens of western ethnocentrism. A western global citizen has an implicit, unconscious bias towards non-western cultures because it has been inundated in our culture through popular media and public officials. It is important, then, to understand these influences so we can try to view other cultures as equals, not as inferior. To avoid essentialization and ethnocentrism, we can study, explore, ask about, and experience other cultures while keeping in mind our first impressions may not be the truth. As a citizen of the United States, it is relevant to consider our colonial past and how it has shaped our perceptions of other countries and cultures. This way we can identify what parts of our worldview have been skewed by cultural misinformation. The first step to overcoming bias and becoming culturally aware is being able to see what prejudices cloud our judgment of others.