Ethnocentrism – The Idea Behind RACISM

Picture Courtesy: noupscale

This article was written by Anindita Dutta, a student of WBNUJS.


Ethnocentrism is defined as the “tendency to be unaware of the biases due to one’s own makeup and the culture of one’s own group and to judge and interact with outsiders on the basis of those biases”.[1] The term ‘Ethnocentrism’ was first used by Sociologist William Sumner to explain that one often considers one’s own ethnicity or culture as the centre, as a result of which the other cultures are reduced to a more inferior role.[2] Attempts have been made since then to define the term in numerous ways. One such definition includes the different facets of ethnocentrism- The primary being a “strong sense of ethnic group self- centeredness”; including others like preference– of beliefs and individuals of one’s own group; exploitation– of the members of other ethnic groups; the drive to preserve the purity of one’s own group and superiority.[3] Ethnocentrism includes in-group favouritism and out-group hostility.[4] The exploitation of the members of other ethnic and cultural groups stems from the belief of high morality of one’s culture, and that one’s ethnic affiliations are universal. Ethnocentrism is also instilled in the belief that the out-groups are required to conform and adapt to the societal construct of the in-groups. It has been suggested by most authors that ethnocentrism is biological and a certain amount of the feeling of ethnocentrism is always present. Notions of ‘survival of the fittest’ provide the basis for the creation of social and ethnic groups, and the belief of dominance of one’s own group.[5] The existence of ethnocentrism, according to some, is necessary to fuel cooperation.[6] Contrary works suggest that it leads to bias and prejudice, predomination over and suppression of other groups, often culminating in struggles and conflicts.[7]

Examples of extreme ethnocentrism include the Holocaust in Germany, Slavery in the United States, and Apartheid in South Africa. All these instances of ethnocentrism have one element in common- racism.

The Basic Concept of Racism

Preferring one’s ethnicity and race is an inherent tendency of whole of mankind; it is human nature. Identifying every race with certain attributes and categorizing them in a hierarchy is woven tight in us. The concept of race is born out of variations in the physical features of human beings on the basis of skin colour. However, biology stops playing a role when ‘racism’ becomes a way of acquiring power and inflicting discrimination into the society. The use of the term ‘biology’ to justify the hostility the superior races put the so-called black, inferior races through is, in itself, problematic.

Gobineau, in Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, proposed that the white race was represented the “highest level of human development”. Early theories highlighted the lack of capability and morality of ‘black races’ and influenced Europeans to ‘racialize’ countries with Non- European populations. J.H. Clarke in one of his works regards white nationalism as the motive behind European slavery, colonialism and racism.[8] Certain phrases like- ‘The White Man’s Burden’ explaining that it was the duty of the European Whites to drive the dark- coloured non- Europeans towards civilization[9] and ‘white skin privilege’ indicating a shared interest of the whites to preserve white supremacy[10]– became popular.

The Europeans showed manifestations of ethnocentrism, also referred to as ‘Eurocentrism’, towards other countries and created a racial hierarchy- a classification of human beings into categories, each category attributed with certain cultural, ethnic and behavioural characteristics- at the top of which rested the whites.

The African Slave Trade

Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.

-Eric Williams

The slave trade began around the 1400s when captives from Africa were brought to the Americas and were forced to work as slaves in order to fulfill the huge labour demand in plantations. Slavery, in the 17th and the 18th centuries, existed as a means to support capitalism and make extensive profits. But, economic calculations (the fact that black African slaves became cheaper) and multiracial uprising led to race and racism becoming the basis for slavery. Slave laws, passed in the 17th century in North America, limited the growing power and freedom of the African slaves, clearly distinguishing the way the African slaves and their white counterparts were treated. Slavery began to be identified with the Blacks, and with it grew the idea of “natural inferiority of Blacks”.[11]

The Final Solution

An example of European racism can be seen in Hitler’s policies of Nazism and Germanization. The racial theories existent in Europe gave way to the Holocaust and The Final Solution. The Holocaust in Nazi Germany was an endeavour of forced removal of the entire Jewish population from Europe. Jews by the 1850s, like the ‘blacks’, had slipped to the bottom of the hierarchy of races and were regarded as racially inferior.[12] Jews in Germany had long become incapable of working professionally, but by the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, they lost their Reich citizenship, they were deprived of their basic rights and were prohibited from marrying individuals of German blood. The Final Solution referred to “total annihilation” and “physical destruction of the Jews”.[13] The German Jews were stripped off of all their rights and were locked in concentration camps and extermination chambers where they died after being tortured.

White Australia Policy

White Australia Policy, initiated in 1901, prohibited certain classes of people from immigrating to Australia. It was believed that an influx of these people would be “dangerous to the well-being of Australian people”.[14] It is regarded as an “Anti-Asian immigration policy”[15] which was brought into the legal system through the Immigration Restriction Act. It was an attempt to “limit non-British migration to Australia”.[16] A risk of degradation of Australian lifestyle and white-racism are thought to be the key reasons behind the policy by some.[17] It was an attempt to maintain the purity of the white race in Australia and is observed as an innate and unavoidable consequence of Anglo-Australian Racism.[18] Others justify this “policy of exclusion” by giving it the name of “restrictive legislation”; that it was never meant to promote white superiority and establish Australia as an “outpost of the White Races”.[19]  The policy, they say, applied to “all coloured races” and was not aimed at any particular race. It didn’t discriminate on the basis of race and the purpose was not to create a “non-coloured or white Australia”.[20] Some regard it as a means to protect the culture and ethnicity of the people of Australia from other civilizations and modes of life.[21]

Existence of Ethnocentrism in the Contemporary World

Instances of ethnocentrism in the contemporary times can be seen in the speeches and statements of US President Donald Trump, who has left no stones unturned to voice his opinions against Mexican immigrants and Muslims in America. He believes in the “Us versus Them” binary; the only identity that ‘they’ (out-groups) have is that they are not ‘us’ (in-groups). Strong support for Trump can be found in people who claim themselves to be ‘true-Americans’ and are in no threat of discrimination or displacement. Trump has repeatedly put the blame of downfall in American economy or culture on individuals not of true American descent. He demands that a wall be built between the States and Mexico and considers Muslims as threat to America, thereby disregarding American citizens who have always lived in the US but believe in Islam. The fact that he regards the ‘out-groups’ as wrong rather than different reflects his ethnocentric and racist ideologies. This brings us back to William Sumner’s opinion on ethnocentrism; he said that ethnocentrism is a ‘universal predisposition’, which suggests that it exists in all cultures and always shapes society and polity.[22]


The basic idea behind Ethnocentrism is that individuals are insiders to one culture and outsiders to the others. This brings the feeling that one’s own culture is conventional, the others being irregular and thus, not as high in moral and social standards.[23] Ethnocentrism includes preference of one’s own culture and plays an important role in consumer choice and voting [24] and gives rise to nationalism. Its other component is hostility towards other cultures, which engenders notions of colonialism and racism. Certain theories suggest that dominant groups are bound to develop negative feelings towards out-groups as they are seen as a threat.[25]

Thus, it may be concluded that ethnocentrism is an idea “deeply rooted in human consciousness” and is present in every culture since time immemorial. It is implied that both cooperation and distinction are necessary for human existence, and that struggle and conflict are natural consequences of ethnocentrism[26].


[1] Losco, Joseph. 1988. “Review: The Sociobiology of Ethnocentrism: Evolutionary Dimensions of Xenophobia, Discrimination, Racism and Nationalism by Vernon Reynolds, Vincent Falger, Ian Vine.” Politics and the Life Sciences 7(1):114-116.

[2] Hooghe, Marc. 2008. “Ethnocentrism.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.Philadelphia: MacMillan Reference. Retrieved October 28, 2016


[3] Bizumic, Boris and John Duckitt. 2012. “What Is and Is Not Ethnocentrism? A Conceptual Analysis and Political Implications.” Political Psychology 33(6):887-909.

[4] Hammond, Ross A. and Robert Axelrod. 2006. “The Evolution of Ethnocentrism.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 50(6):926-936; Determinants of ethnocentric attitudes in the United States available at (Last accessed on 9th September, 2017).

[5] Vora, Erika. 1981. “Evolution of Race: A Synthesis of Social and Biological Concepts.” Journal of Black Studies 12(2):182-192.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Supra, note 2.

[8] Christian, Mark. 2002. “An African-Centered Perspective on White Supremacy.” Journal of Black Studies 33(2): 179-198.

[9] Supra, note 7.

[10] Smith, Sharon. 2006. “Race, class, and whiteness theory.” International Socialist Review Issue 46 Retrieved November 4, 2016


[11] Selfa, Lance. 2002. “Slavery and the origins of racism.” International Socialist Review Issue 26 Retrieved November 4, 2016


[12] Hall, Raymond L. 1981. “Review- Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism by George L. Mosse.” Contemporary Sociology 10(5):681-682.

[13] Grossmann, Kurt R. 1955. “Final Solution.” The Antioch Review 15(1):55-72.

[14] Sydney. 1925. “White Australia Policy.” Foreign Affairs 4(1):97-111.

[15] “White Australia Policy.” Retrieved October 28, 2016


[16] “Australia policy begins 1901: White Australia policy enshrined in law.” Retrieved November 4, 2016 (

[17] Supra, note 15.

[18] Jordan, Matthew. 2005. “Rewriting Australia’s Racist Past: How Historians (Mis)Interpret the ‘White Australia’ Policy.” History Compass 3(1).

[19] Sydney. 1925. “White Australia Policy.” Foreign Affairs 4(1):97-111.

[20] Elkin, A.P. 1945. “Re-Thinking the White Australia Policy.” The Australian Quarterly 17(3):6-34.

[21] Jordan, Matthew. 2005. “Rewriting Australia’s Racist Past: How Historians (Mis)Interpret the ‘White Australia’ Policy.” History Compass 3(1).

[22] Kinder, Donal R. and Cindy D. Kam. 2010. Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion. Chicago and London. The University of Chicago Press.

[23] Schopmeyer, Kim D. and Bradley J. Fisher. 1993. “Insiders and Outsiders: Exploring Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativity in Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology 21(2):148-153.

[24] Supra, note 4.

[25] Supra, note 2.

[26] Rüsen, J. 2004. “How to Overcome Ethnocentrism: Approaches to a Culture of Recognition by History in the Twenty-First Century.” History and Theory 43(4):118–129.

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