The Effects of Ethnocentrism on Storytelling

Modified: 8th Feb 2020
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 Ethnocentrism is one of the most prominent themes in The Truth About Stories and in a great deal of our world history. Ethnocentrism played a large role in the systematic oppression of Native Americans and the colonization of North America. The displacement, enslavement, and killing of so many people cannot be done, or even conceived, without some sort of justification for it. The simple fact that Native American culture was different from that of the Europeans seemed like a good enough reason to begin and continue the violence.  However, ethnocentrism is not a characteristic that was exclusive to colonists. We all form both conscious and unconscious analyses about the people around us, and we tend to you our own biased preconceptions of that is “right” as the baseline for these analyses. It is necessary to recognize these biased judgments that we make and the harm they cause. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Ethnocentrism can strengthen the power of a storyteller and fuel the stereotypes that are birthed from those stories.

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 Ethnocentrism can be defined as the evaluation of another culture according to preconceptions and standards that are set by our own culture. According to Ken Barger, a Professor of anthropology at Indiana University, ethnocentrism involves the process of making assumptions about others. These assumptions can be negative or positive judgments, but in both cases, the assumption is often false (Barger, 2018). Barger uses Anglos observations of Cree Indians in his examples of false negative and false positive judgements. If Anglos were to see Cree Indians gathered around a campfire not doing obvious work and deem them “lazy”, that would be an example of false negative judgment. People in the West generally value “busyness” and working long hours. If we think of an element of our culture (being industrious) as a criterion to measure other cultures against, then it would make sense to consider cultures lazy if they don’t match our work ethics. The example that Barger uses to reflect false positive judgments about another culture is the fact that we often think of Native Americans as “free of the stress of modern society” (Barger, 2018). However, this view eliminates the oppression and inequality that Native Americans face in our society. Thomas King describes a time during the 1960s when “hippies” flocked to Indian reserves and reservations, “sure that Native people possessed the secret to life. Or at least something that middle-class North America didn’t have ” (King, 2005, p. 113). In reality, that “something” was poverty. Middle-class North Americans had romanticized the idea of living simply from afar, but when they got a closer look they realized that it wasn’t so desirable.

 I think a significant exemplification of ethnocentrism in North American history is the implementation of boarding schools that were opened for the purpose of forcing Native Americans to assimilate into American (which in this context is synonymous with White) culture. Roughly 150 of these schools were opened by the U.S. government in the late nineteenth century. The schools forbid Native American children from using their own languages and practicing their own religions. They were given white names, clothes, and haircuts (Little, 2017).  Anything that was a part of their Indian identity was inferior to whites, and so it must be left behind. It seems to be a reccurring theme in history: that the future is white, and everyone else is part of the red, black, brown, or otherwise dark past. 

 Perhaps the genesis of this ethnocentric attitude arose from Genesis itself. King argues that the creation story that is generally accepted by the West sets a dangerous and telling precedent for a culture that lacks compassion and understanding. He argues that “contained within creation stories are relationships that help define the nature of the universe and how cultures understand the world in which they exist” (King, 2005, p. 10). In the Native creation story he tells, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, the world was created with cooperation. Working together was vital; humans, animals, and nature were unified. The Judeo-Christian creation story is much different, with an omnipotent, authoritative god. Within the Christian earth, there are strict rules and harsh punishments for not following orders. There are rigid laws and order, leaving little room for anything else. With the lack of forgiveness and second-chances in Genesis, combined with all of the power being in the hands on one uncooperative god, King wonders, “What if the creation story in Genesis had featured a flawed deity who was understanding and sympathetic rather than autocratic and ridged?…What kind of world might we have created with that kind of story?” (King, 2005, p. 27-28). If white men had allowed or had been introduced to a kinder God, like those in Native creation stories, perhaps the legal and societal operations here in North America could have also been kinder. Instead, we sneer at the collaboration and balance found in Native Stories and find comfort in the dictatorial hierarchy of Christianity. We are satisfied with our culture’s grip on individualism, so we are comfortable thinking of the collectivism often found in Native literature as immature, primitive, and/or underdeveloped.

 King mentions that as a teenager he knew that “white was more than just a color” (King, 2005, p, 2). King employs a strong example of white people using their influence to weave a hateful story of Indians. He describes the Puritans desire to acquire as much North American Soil as possible, to establish and isolate their community. Of course, they viewed the Native Americans as threats to their vision. King explains that the Puritans “set about creating the stories that were needed to carry the day” (King, 2005, p.75). The Indians, who were once seen as strange and exotic, were now graceless, savage, and dirty (King, 2005). Just like that, the story of the American Indian can be revised and mangled without the consent or the input of its victims. Adichie tells a similar story about John Locke and this account of his voyage to West Africa in 1591. He referred to Africans as beasts without houses or heads. As Adichie explains, “it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West. A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness” (Adichie, 2009). Perhaps John Locke made up this story of Africans to scare his fellow Europeans, to convince them (and later, the world) that Africans were not human or a lesser version of humans, and therefore enslaving them would be justified. Regardless of his reason, it serves as another example of a storyteller taking advantage of their power and privilege in society, using it to write a story that its subjects are defenseless against and powerless to dispute.

Ethnocentrism also has the ability to destabilize the identities of the story’s subjects by narrowly defining the concept of authenticity, a theme that can be found in both The Truth About Stories and The Danger of a Single Story. Adichie expresses her annoyance when people refer to Africa as one conglomerated country. While this assumption is born from ignorance, Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes author Annie Murphy Paul explains that “…we tend to see members of our own group as individuals, we view those in out-groups as an undifferentiated–stereotyped–mass” (Paul, 1998). Adichie did not identify as African until she came to the United States and realized that everyone deemed her as such. But when she began to embrace her African identity and express it through her writing, she was shamed by her professor, as her work was not “authentically African”. Her professor thought her African characters were too much like him: educated and middle-class. The single story that Adichie’s professor had of Africa was starvation. Instead of confronting his ignorance he tried to blame her by criticizing her authenticity as an African. This is another result of ethnocentrism: you think that because your culture is the “right” one, that must mean that your culture is always right. However, it’s possible that Adichie’s professor wasn’t trying to be racist or prejudiced by insinuating that her story was not African enough. His interpretation of her story could have been influenced by his unconscious mind attributing what it has absorbed about Africa from his culture (commercials for charities to feed and sponsor African children for example) to Adichie and her characters as Africans. He likely knew that he was making a judgment, but he might not have been sure of what that judgment was based on (Paul, 1998).

 King’s describes the life and career of Edward Sheriff Curtis, the most famous photographer of American Indians. Curtis was determined to capture images of Indians before they vanished, as it was a common belief that they were “poised on the brink of extinction” (King, 2005, p. 33). This stereotype is untrue, but Curtis and authors during the American Romantic Period were not interested in the factual Indian. Curtis was especially fascinated with the concept of what King calls the “literary Indian” (King, 2005, p. 34). The imaginary, dying Indian who deserved nobility for disappearing at the peak of human progress.  Curtis wanted to capture these Indians so much that he carried boxes of “Indian” materials such as wigs and backdrops with him, just in case the Indians he found weren’t quite Indian enough. This infatuation with the ideal Indian contributed to the erasure of real American Indian identities, because the Indian that people wanted to see was not real; Indians were not supposed to exist, but the Indian is what everyone was looking for. This is how Edward Sheriff Curtis’ images of Indians “have form and power while something that is alive and kicking – Indians – are invisible” (King, 2005, p. 53).

Figure 1 Three Horses. (Curtis, 1905)

 King explains that it’s easy to separate ourselves from the past and from the actions of our ancestors. We say that we have progressed as a species and we’ve become smarter and more compassionate (King, 2005). I think that’s true to an extent. While we can passively read through history books and listen to stories from the past and feel horrified by it, it’s much more difficult to actively confront the prejudice that is within all of us. Annie Murphy Paul argues that “we can’t claim that we’ve eradicated prejudice just because its outright expression has waned” (Paul, 1998). We begin to form biases with our very first stories, and we can’t always control where they come from and how much we absorb. Fortunately, we know that we can weaken old pathways in the brain, and strengthen new ones, thus rewiring our brains and our thinking/judgment processes (Sentis, 2012). I think one of the things we can start to undo some of our unconscious biases is expose ourselves to people who are different than us whenever possible. Increasing your social capital by networking can open new worlds of stories. Adichie reminds us that “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (Adichie, 2019). The consequences of a single story are very similar to the consequences of ethnocentrism.



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