Let’s Unpack That: Examples of Ethnocentrism in Travel

by Sojourner
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Are you ready to learn about examples of ethnocentrism? Let’s Unpack That is a series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities, issues, and travel privileges to understand how they impact our travel experiences. Each post focuses on a topic or social issue to dig deeper and reflect on our travel privilege(s). We cover everything from accessibility privilege to the white savior complex. Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscious travelers.

Comparable to the emphasis on privileges, “Let’s Unpack That” will also focus on -isms in travel. To begin, this time we will be breaking down the phrase “ethnocentrism.” By definition, ethnocentrism are perceptions or assumptions that you make when evaluating another culture with your own and determining that your culture’s way of life is correct or the “right way” to live.

This one is all too common. It’s time to unpack some ethnocentrism examples that y’all!

Background on the origins of ethnocentrism

Where does ethnocentrism come from?

Ethnocentrism has origins in social science and anthropology, the study of people and humanity through time. It is a learned behavior that comes from having a cultural and ethnic superiority complex. A person takes pride in their culture to extremes and thinks it is better than others. Very rarely will you hear someone say “that was very ethnocentric of you?” It is normally displayed through language and actions. It also has common real-world applications that we see in travel and beyond. 

Negative effects of ethnocentrism

Ultimately, ethnocentrism is a comparison game. However, it can lead to discrimination and stereotypes that cause real-life harm and trauma. Ethnocentrism has been linked to racism due to its dehumanization of other social identities and cultures. Thus, human rights issues and movements are rooted in ethnocentric beliefs. Non-travel, but real-life consequences and examples of ethnocentrism, include The Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Trail of Tears. The media, such as movies and TV shows, that display non-white Western cultures as archaic or barbaric are also ethnocentrism examples. 

Positive effects of ethnocentrism can lead to cultural relativism 

There are ways to combat ethnocentric behavior. One way is through cultural relativism. This means looking at someone’s culture through its own standards and not comparing it to your own. It’s about embracing our differences and similarities without one being superior to another. Prioritizing intercultural practices and collaboration is a popular way to combat ethnocentrism. Organizations that were designed to do this are the United Nations and the Fulbright Program (I’m an alum of the latter). Have they succeeded? Depends on who you ask. 

Examples of ethnocentrism while traveling

Ethnocentrism is common in the travel space

Ethnocentrism is a common occurrence in people who travel as they make sense of their new surroundings. Sometimes they are mindless comparisons when you first encounter a new culture. You are trying to figure out how to move, what to do, and what to say. Therefore you compare it to what you know in your own culture. Some travelers can adapt and be open to learning new practices, rejecting ethnocentric thoughts and behaviors. Yet, we have surely heard stories of people who don’t. 

Ethnocentrism examples in travel

Many nationalities, more from the Global North (U.S., Europe, Australia, etc.), get labeled the worst travelers due to our ethnocentric behavior. While not everyone exhibits it, enough do for it to be problematic. Unfortunately, I have seen it myself. Here are a few examples of ethnocentrism in travel:

1. Saying that other countries you visit are “backward” or “barbaric” for not eating and living in the same way you. 

2. Demanding that people in other countries speak to you in your language as you travel to their country. Additionally, most demand this without knowing the destination’s language. This happens most often with English speakers. 

3. Being a traveler from the Global North (U.S., Australia, Europe, etc.) and constantly complaining about the conditions and amenities of a country in the Global South (Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, etc.) not being “like home.”

4. Trying to “correct” the behavior of people in another country, in their country, because it’s not what you deem respectable

5. Volunteering abroad in an attempt to “save” a country because you think your cultural practices and ways of doing things are better (i.e a savior complex). 

A personal example of ethnocentrism: Morocco 

During my study abroad experience in Granada, Spain, I spent a week in Morocco. It was part of our Morocco Exchange Program and this was my first time in any part of Africa. Something we were warned about before departing was using a “squatty potty” instead of a non-Western toilet. I was told to call it a squatty potty, which is in a bathroom in an enclosed space. You have to squat in the ground and do your business. 

Though my host family for the week in Rabat had a toilet I used at home, the Rif Mountains did not. Given its secluded, and stunning, location in nature, there wasn’t a lot of running water and electricity. While I knew a squatty potty was a possibility, I was still a little shocked. It was that or pee on myself so of course, I used it. Obviously, it was fine. And while this was not a drastic example of ethnocentrism, I did have to check myself.

Connecting examples of ethnocentrism with cultural ignorance, culture shock, and fear

Is ethnocentrism just cultural ignorance?

To an extent, yes and no. You may hear people refer to ethnocentrism is cultural ignorance. For example, cultural ignorance can mean not knowing how to eat with chopsticks, since you eat with forks, knives, and spoons. That lack of cultural awareness and of different cultural practices may cause you to compare how you “normally” eat. But, remember that “normal” is relative. The way we eat is not the standard for everyone and we should not treat it as such. 

Is ethnocentrism culture shock?

In study abroad or intercultural exchange language, instances of ethnocentrism are often referred to as culture shock. Culture shock can be a minor form of ethnocentrism. You are attempting to make sense of what is going on, so you compare. However, there are deeper consequences due to ethnocentrism. And always remember that just because something is difficult or different for you doesn’t always mean it’s wrong. 

Is ethnocentrism fear?

At the root of ethnocentrism is the fear of the unknown. This fear, coupled with the cultural superiority complex of ethnocentrism, can lead to dangerous consequences. Some of these consequences have been genocide, war, and conflict. Colonialism and neocolonialism are two examples that come to mind. They are also still prevalent issues in the travel space. Yet, our minor instances of studying abroad and the culture shock we experience while traveling are not the root cause of colonization. They are responses to the socialized ethnocentrism of our own beliefs, cultures, and identities. 

Therefore, when culture shock happens, fear happens. And due to that fear of different cultures and traditions, colonization occurs. Ethnocentrism is rarely, explicitly stated as the reasoning behind why someone thinks the way they do. However, it shows up in other social identities such as ethnicity, race, religion, etc. It is also the underlying issue with privileges such as language privilege. Throughout history, ethnocentrism has played a role in colonialism from the Global North onto the Global South. We have to acknowledge and rectify what it means when those instinctive reactions to compare lead to generational trauma and generational harm. 

3 ways to address our ethnocentrism

Assess your language

Be mindful of how you refer to other people’s cultures. Do not describe or call people and cultures barbaric, savages, or even weird. Something that is weird to you is someone’s everyday cultural practice. Additionally, refrain from saying their cultural practices or traditions are backward. Just because they are not in the way you see fit does not mean they are not “normal.”

Internal reflection

Think before you speak. If it sounds rude or ethnocentric, do not say it. Comparing what you know with what is new to you is a common thought. Sit with it. We should not believe that our way is the only way. Do not assume that someone’s culture wants to be like you. Other people’s way of living can model a different, and perhaps better, way of life. 

Actively listening

This one is necessary regardless if we are talking about ethnocentrism or not. Sometimes we all need to stop talking to respond and actually hear what people are saying. Actively listening would help us make fewer assumptions. We would refrain from making judgments on things and people we know nothing about. Often, much conflict comes out of miscommunication or lack of cultural understanding. Be observant and be in the moment. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take time to decompress. Think about what is going on without always having to compare. 

EXPLOREWORK

This is like homework, but better!

You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know, learn more! Check out the following resources to learn about examples of ethnocentrism in travel. 

– FunSimpleLIFE: This is a YouTube video that shows more examples of ethnocentrism. It is a visual presentation that is 7-minutes. It gets straight to the point and offers global examples of ethnocentrism. I think it’s a great resource to further understand the effects of ethnocentric behavior worldwide.

– Maya Traditions Foundation: This an article titled “The Ugly Side of Tourism and How You Can Make the Difference.” It outlines the negative effects of both globalization and ethnocentrism. The piece discusses the increased accessibility of travel for people in the Global North and its effects on destinations. Read it to learn more about how examples of ethnocentrism are linked to ethical and responsible travel. 

Want more? Click to check out the video version of this topic below and tune in every Tuesday on IGTV for a new episode (that normally comes before the blog post) for further unpacking of our travel privileges and issues in travel!

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