We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We’re all born into a culture and grow up absorbing its values and behaviors. Consequently, we develop a view of the world that considers our own culture to be the norm. That viewpoint is called ethnocentrism. Think of it as a lens that we get as children and over time, forget it’s there. What we see is our reality, colored by that lens.
Whether we realize it or not, we judge everything by our own norms, that cultural world view we developed as we grew up. Mostly, we don’t realize it.
We may be self-aware in some respects, but our cultural world view is so much a part of us that we don’t even notice it. Many times it means that we don’t get past it. This inability to step out of our own frame of reference is one of the key reasons groups remain polarized. Or worse: people die.
Ethnocentrism is part of Paula Deen’s problem. It’s why she’s confused about the backlash to her comments about an antebellum wedding with ersatz slaves. I believe Paula Deen simply can not step out of her own world view to understand how that wedding might appear to African-Americans whose heritage as slaves is painful and still raw.
It’s also a key reason many non-Black Americans find it hard to understand some of the considerations in the Trayvon Martin case. That’s what President Obama was saying last month, really.
Some years ago I had reason to talk intimately with several African-American men and what I heard opened my eyes in a big way. Each one had numerous stories of being stopped at night on the street or by traffic police for no reason. “Driving while black” and, in Trayvan’s case, “Walking while black” can be life-threatening. That is just a fact. But: many white Americans cannot accept this.
No one’s stopped them or me or any white person I know for no real reason. And we judge the world by our own experience.
I’m talking about ethnocentrism.
We have internalized and even institutionalized certain thoughts and behaviors to a degree that we find it difficult –if not impossible– to get out of our own way and see another view. Or even to consider in more than an intellectual way that the world may look differently to people raised in other cultures.
For example, we may feel that people ought to bootstrap themselves up into a better life. We’re going to India and from everything I’ve read, we’ll see extreme poverty in the slums of India. Children raised in makeshift shanties living along streams of bodily waste are going to have trouble finding that bootstrap. Those who strongly believe in working to find one’s own better life might have a really big problem matching their belief that people should take responsibility for their lives with the reality of Indian slums.
The theory of cognitive dissonance says that the discomfort we feel when we hold two contradicting viewpoints leads us to alter one of them to bring them both in line—to make them consonant. Sometimes that makes for awkward beliefs, kind of like bending your body in strange ways to make it fit your idea of a yoga pose that might not be quite right.
I saw this very clearly when more than a few people commented that the police didn’t tell George Zimmerman to stop following Trayvon Martin, the police dispatcher suggested it. I was flabbergasted. Yes, of course, strictly speaking, the police dispatcher is not a sworn officer. But the police dispatcher represents the police until a sworn officer is on site and is trained to give instruction on behalf of law enforcement. And it wasn’t a suggestion. It was an instruction. Did it really matter that the instruction wasn’t given by a sworn peace officer, but instead, by their representative?
This is precisely one of those situations where, to bring dissonance into consonance, a situation had to be viewed in a convoluted way. My intention is to point out that we aren’t even aware of some of the ways we have to twist our brains to bring our beliefs in line with dissonant thoughts. And the root of many of these dissonant thoughts is our ethnocentrism.
I’m ethnocentric. I was raised a particular way in a particular culture. That was my world view. I chose to have different experiences after I left my parents’ home, and those experiences shaped yet another world view. Still, I am able to hear and see things that challenge my view of the world. Someone close to me once called me “always the good student” and I think that’s pretty true. I’m hungry to learn. But:
If I wish to understand the world better, it’s incumbent upon me to remove my cultural lens. What might the world look like from the shoes of another cultural experience?
How do we access this or remove our cultural lens?
Through dialogue. That’s the only way. Real dialogue. Not argument. Not debate. Dialogue in which we seek to understand more than we seek to be understood. And yet, disappointingly, there have been very few “teachable moments” in the discussions about Deen, or Zimmerman or Trayvon I’ve seen on social media this summer.
A few weeks ago one of my former students from Florida began a Facebook chat with me. He is African American and so naturally, the news of the day came up, which led to his describing a few experiences he’s had in his young life. After, my husband and I talked a long while. His experience as a white male and mine as a white woman are miles apart from my student’s experience.
This conversation and others my husband and I have had in recent weeks have been invaluable in broadening my/our perspective. We still look for those teachable moments, those discussions that help us grow in understanding.
Me? Well, I’m still going to believe in bootstrapping. But I’m going to keep my eye out for situations where that strap isn’t that accessible, especially in India or among our own disadvantaged. I’m going to feel compassion for our own children and those raised in Indian slums. It’s going to make me uncomfortable, I guarantee it. But it’ll be my heart, not my brain that spins.
Recent current events relating to race have been another learning opportunity and a reminder of what my friends of different races have experienced. I’m still going to believe that the world can be a dangerous place. But, thanks to discussions I’ve been part of, I’m going to be more attuned to how much more dangerous it is when you’re not white. I am going to consciously step out of my own way to better understand the world view of other cultures.
This, I believe, is how we bridge the gaps that separate us and how we come together as people who must share a planet. It’s the only way.