Ethnocentrism is a major reason for divisions amongst members of different ethnicities, races, and religious groups in society. Ethnocentrism is the belief of superiority is one's personal ethnic group, but it can also develop from racial or religious differences.
Ethnocentric individuals believe that they are better than other individuals for reasons based solely on their heritage. Clearly, this practice is related to problems of both racism and prejudice.
While many people may recognize the problems, they may not realize that ethnocentrism occurs everywhere and everyday at both the local and political levels.
To solidify the definition of ethnocentrism, looking at the present day politics of the United States is helpful. With instances occuring since its conception, the United States has often thought of itself as more powerful, more economically sound, and just generally "better" than other nations. This has been shown by the country's tendency to dabble in situations occuring in other nations, such as the country's current involvement with affairs in the Middle East.
Although the idea of every citizen in the United States belonging to one ethnicity is certainly debatable, since the country has citizens who originally came from all over the world, the feeling of national pride can stand in for a pure ethnicity in this case.
Imperialism, the practice of taking over other lands, was heavily practiced by Europe starting in the sixteenth century. As most individuals know, the colonies in the United States were one of the regions that the Europeans tried to control from overseas. They also overtook lands in Africa. They believed both Africa and the Americas to be primitive societies based on hunting and farming, and felt that they needed to take over these nations in order to bring them up to speed with modern technologies.
Traces of this sense of European ethnocentrism are still evident today. For example, in schools in Europe, world studies courses tend to focus almost solely on the history of the United States and Europe, and largerly ignore other parts of the world.
One of the most prominent examples of ethnocentrism was the Sinocentric system developed out of the idea of the "Mandate of Heaven" proliferated by the Chinese philosopher Confucias. The "Mandate of Heaven" meant that the Chinese felt that they had received divine power which entitled them to exert heavy rule over the citizens, and that they had power over the rest of the world. In fact, the Emperor was referred to as the "Son of Heaven" exemplifying the intense control he had over the people.
While this system of government formally ended in the nineteenth century, some scholars believe that the Chinese ethnocentrism lives on.
One of the most well known and the most horrible examples of ethnocentrism to ever occur was during Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler decided that he hated Jews, as well as some other groups of people, and had many innocent people slaughtered in concentration camps. They did not deserve the torture that they received, and this was clearly an extreme case of ethnocentrism. While prejudice certainly leads to problems, very rarely in history has ethnocentrism led to the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people.
Ethnocentrism is not often presented as such a serious problem in movies, and is more often seen as a sort of entertaining device. The father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding constantly states that he can trace any word back to Greek origins. Furthermore, the entire movie is centered around the thrills and issues of planning a Greek wedding. Ultimately though, the movie has a happy ending, subtly suggesting that the positives outweigh the negatives.
Another example of ethnocentrism that is covered with humor occurs in the comedy American Wedding. Upon learning that her grandson is not marrying a Jewish girl, Jim's grandmother becomes inconsolable. Furthermore, Michelle's father makes the mistake of toasting to his soon-to-be in laws with hopes that they will sit many happy shivas together. He is painted as a fool for his statement, and the movie subtly indicates a Jewish ethnocentrism.
In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character Janie Starks is a very light skinned black woman. For this, the other black woman in her town are often are full of contempt for her. She seems to straddle the line between black and white at various points in the novel. This novel indicates that ethnocentrism is an extremely broad topic because even within one's own ethnicity or race, divisions will be found. The writing illustrates important components of ethnocentrism in history as well, because before the victory of the Civil Rights era, blacks would often try to "pass" for whites, and those who succeeded were often scorned by other blacks.
The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare portrays an intense disagreement between the Jew, Shylock, and the Christian, Antonio. Antonio constantly scorns Shylock for being a Jew, which ultimately culiminates in one of the most famous speeches of all time where Shylock asks:
"If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?/If you posion us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
The "us" that Shylock is referring to are Jews.
As seen by Shylock's speech, ethnocentrism is a powerful force that weakens human relations. Shylock's point is that despite the cultural differences, we are all still human. There is no intrinsic difference between a Jew and a Christian, a black and a white, a Chinese citizen and a German citizen, and so forth. Although Shylock is painted as the villian of The Merchant of Venice, perhaps we can all take a lesson from him in order to avoid unfair prejudices that result from ethnocentrism.