One of the first steps to communicating sensitively and productively about cultural identity is to be able to name and recognize one’s identity and the relative privilege that it affords. Similarly important, is a recognition that one’s cultural standpoint is not everyone’s standpoint. Our views of the world, what we consider right and wrong, normal or weird, are largely influenced by our cultural position or standpoint: the intersections of all aspects of our identity. One common mistake that people from all cultures are guilty of is ethnocentrism'—placing one’s own culture and the corresponding beliefs, values, and behaviors in the center. When we do this we view our position as normal and right, and evaluate all other cultural systems against our own. If you want to learn more about ethnocentrism, view this slide show.
Ethnocentrism shows up in small and large ways: the WWII Nazi’s elevation of the Aryan race and the corresponding killing of Jews, Gypsies, gays and lesbians, and other non-Aryan groups is one of the most horrific ethnocentric acts in history. However, ethnocentrism shows up in small and seemingly unconscious ways as well. In American culture, if you decided to serve dog meat as an appetizers at your cocktail party you would probably disgust your guests and the police might even arrest you because the consumption of dog meat is not culturally acceptable. However, in China “it is neither rare nor unusual” to consume dog meat (Wingfield-Hayes). In the Czech Republic, the traditional Christmas dinner is carp and potato salad. Imagine how your U.S. family might react if you told them you were serving carp and potato salad for Christmas. In the Czech Republic, it is a beautiful tradition, but in America, it might not receive a warm welcome. Our cultural background influences every aspect of our lives from the food we consume to classroom curriculum.
Ethnocentrism may show up in Literature classes, for example, as cultural bias dictates which “great works” students are going to read and study. More often than not, these works represent the given culture (i.e., reading French authors in France and Korean authors in Korea). This ethnocentric bias has received some challenge in United States’ schools, as teachers make efforts to create a multicultural classroom by incorporating books, short stories, and traditions from non-dominant groups. In the field of geography there has been an ongoing debate about the use of a Mercater map versus a Peter’s Projection map. The arguments reveal cultural biases toward the Northern, industrialized nations. To see this bias, follow this link.
Case In Point
- view communication as a racialized process—meaning that our communication is structured by larger societal and racial dynamics. Second, understanding Whiteness sharpens our awareness of how racial categorization is used to reinforce old hierarchies in which some races are more superior than others. This helps us recognize how Whiteness can be used to signify dominance, privilege, and advantage in the United States. And, third, through studying and recognizing the effects of Whiteness, each person plays a role in race relations. White people can no longer sit on the sidelines and claim “it’s a black problem” when discussing interracial conflict. (82-83)
Case In Point
Since his first kneel, Colin Kaepernick has faced backlash from the NFL, fans, “patriots,” and even Donald Trump. He has been told that he will never play in the NFL again and fans have taken to burning his jersey. However, taking a knee has also become a large protest for the unfair treatment of African Americans by police. A peaceful nonverbal communication that says more than most can comprehend.
Another claim or label that may be used to discount such difficult discussions is Political Correctness, or “PC” as it has been dubbed in the popular press. Opponents of multiculturalism and diversity studies try and dismiss such topics as “that’s just PC.” Luckily, some of the heated debate about PC have quieted in recent years but the history lingers. In short, political correctness refers to “the elimination of speech that often works to exclude, oppress, demean, or harass certain groups” (Orbe and Harris 58, Remar). The debate largely focused around competing interpretations of the First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to equal access to education. No matter what your position on this issue, we want to simply recognize two facts. One, that much of the PC debate and fury was largely misrepresented and hyped in the mainstream media by the use of extreme examples and a slippery-slope argument. Rush Limbaugh, for example, became famous for claiming that an awareness and sensitivity of language choice would lead to the “thought Police” or “PC police.” Two, that words and labels have great power to create perceptions, realities and identities. Toward that aim, we will discuss the power of language in greater detail in the following section.