Ethnocentrism and Its Dangers: What You Need to Know

Updated: May 2, 2019

Every human is a citizen of the world, yet most people feel more of a connection to their country, state, or city. Cultures vary by society, so humans end up feeling extremely connected to their own culture, and tend to form groups around those similarities, and can occasionally see other groups as opposition. What could be a possible cause of this?


"By itself it is [ethnocentrism] a harmless lack of education and awareness, but in collaboration with that applied ignorance, ethnocentrism can be extremely dangerous to every citizen of the world."

Definition of Ethnocentrism: "Ethnocentrism is defined as a conscious or unconscious bias favoring one's own cultural norms over others. Ethnocentrism causes judgments/opinions (negative & positive) which are not based on fact but on personal experiences and/or perceptions. Ethnocentrism also causes "blind spots", the inability to see one's own (intentional or unintentional) ignorance." -Taken from my developmental psychology professor, Bailey Drechsler!

Ethnocentrism is not racism, but racism is ethnocentric.

Here are different ways one might be consciously & negatively ethnocentric:

  • Believing other cultures, races, languages are below or "lesser than" your own

  • Purposefully ignoring information about other cultures

  • Taking negative stereotypes and applying them in the world, such as being disrespectful or discriminatory towards someone from a different culture or of the culture as a whole

  • Extrinsic racism

Here are different ways one might be unconsciously & negatively ethnocentric:

  • Acquiring information from just one's culture usually doesn't represent the entire population as a whole, therefore many times studies conducted in Western cultures don't accurately represent populations because of the ethnocentric bias confounding the study (not taking into account a sample from one culture doesn't represent all people from every culture)

  • Assuming a leader that originates from a culture different than your own is not as strong as a leader that comes from your own culture

  • Intrinsic racism

Being positively ethnocentric isn't a huge concern when considering the impacts ethnocentrism can have. For example, someone might assume all Asian people are extremely smart, because they've seen Asian peers do well in their classes in America, however this is still ethnocentrism (although not a negative stereotype, still a stereotype) because that person is making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and perceptions of Asian culture. Although some positive judgments and opinions can surface from ethnocentrism, these judgments and opinions are not completely accurate because of the narrowed perspective.

Personal Example

Recently, in my mental health crisis work, I encountered a little bit of racism while I was attempting to help someone, and I was completely thrown off. Now this form of ethnocentrism is racism, because this woman was implying that because she was white, I wasn't helping her as much as I could have.

This may seem strange (and it totally was), because you don't hear this accusation made a lot from Caucasian people, many times people of color claim discrimination because there has been a long history of oppression against people of color, especially in America, and there are implicit forms of discrimination many people don't even recognize just because it's ingrained in the society. I'm going to replace some details in the example I'm about to give to protect any confidentiality (although the information if shared wouldn't reveal anything personal), but this is what she had said when I asked a standard demographic question, after I had already spoken with her about self-care, and provided her with resources for an aggressive family member:

My question: "What race or ethnicity do you identify with?"

Her response: "What does that matter (which in a sense is true), if I was Mexican would you have actually helped me? If I die are you aware it's on your hands? Or better yet, if I was Muslim would I have received special treatment and gotten more services?"

I was completely thrown back because, first of all, I am very polite and thought we had a good rapport, because our conversation (although a deep, heavy topic) was friendly and inviting. However, I explained she didn't have to answer that question, it was only for our monthly and annual reports, which help us receive funding. She told me she was white and we ended the call.

I'm still a little confused by this overall interaction, but it's clear this woman has certain assumptions about her culture, and maybe certain assumptions (and ignorance) about other cultures. Now her question in itself wasn't racist, let me be clear. Her racism stems from the ignorance of the systems of oppression in this country, and how race has been dealt with in recent history. To assume certain minorities, people of color, or people from other cultures in this country have special privileges, while it's been clear they have had the opposite throughout American history, is ignorant. She took great offense to my original question, which is a little concerning in itself because of her condescending response about members of different cultures.

Race/ethnicity should not matter when you're seeking help, and if it does there are laws that protect you! However, if psychologists have demographic data on people seeking mental health support for a crisis, then this could help researchers in the future with better treatment, or possibly find areas of improvement in health care. This is why the question is asked at the end, so no personal information could possibly be used to discriminate against someone seeking help. If you disagree with me about this, feel free to let me know why in the comments below, or contact me here and we can talk!

How Can I Avoid an Ethnocentric Bias?

The first step in avoiding an ethnocentric bias is to be aware of what ethnocentrism is, so good job on completing step one! This allows you to be able to recognize ethnocentrism in yourself, in others, and in society, and when you are aware of ethnocentrism, you are able to control your biases better!

Implicit attitudes and beliefs can be hard to change, and they don't change overnight. Many people are unconsciously ethnocentric (actually most people), but aren't being obviously prejudice. Other people follow the saying, "ignorance is bliss" and continue living as though their culture was the entire world.

These biases aren't special to any country or culture, all cultures are more familiar with their own than with others, so it's easy to have "blind spots" when considering cultures different than your own. Noticing your biases, stereotypes, prejudices, and beliefs when it comes to other cultures is crucial to reducing ethnocentrism in yourself, and ultimately your society.

Begin by paying attention to how you react to new cultures, how you think about people different than yourself, and how often you put your own culture above others.

After this, realize ignorance is not bliss! Well, in some cases it certainly can be, but the world will not grow or heal if everyone is content knowing nothing except what relates to them. Ignorance is dangerous, and it can consciously or unconsciously hurt the people around you, and negatively impact the societies we live in.


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