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Diversity, Ethnocentrism, and Racism

Updated on March 17, 2015
TessSchlesinger profile image

Growing up in a political family, Tessa joined her first political party at 14. Her interest in progressive politics & economics continues.

The Prime Directive – Starfleet Academy

The prime directive of Gene Roddenberry’s epic tales of space exploration is that there is no interference in the cultures of others. I also recall a tale (be it Stargate or Star Trek or some other series) in which there is a nation of people that learns collectively. One child learns everything there is about a topic, and then his or her brain is emptied into the minds of all the other people while the child loses its life. This issue is resolved by the interference of the ‘superior race’ in which the nation learns that it is wrong to take the life of a child for the sake of the collective. Of course, the prime directive is broken…

Cultural Customs

In Tanzania, there are many different tribes in the country. In one tribe, when the children of the village reach the age of about thirteen, all the children of that age group leave the village and go set up their own village. So each generation has its own village. When there are, eventually, only older people left in the village, the people eventually die off, and the huts in the village fall into a state of disrepair, Mother Nature takes over, and within twenty or thirty years, it is as if there was no village in that place at all.

In another tribe in that country, if one man is rich and he does not ensure that the others in the tribe are living well, scorn is heaped upon him. His status derives from the wealth of the people around him – not his own personal weath.

In India, amongst many of the Hindu and the castes, arranged marriages of very young children is quite common. When young women want to marry someone out of their own caste or out of their own race or out of their own class or marry someone not selected by their parents, the obligation is on the father to murder the young women or the couple.

In the Shia branch of Islam, Muslims are instructed to kill all who will not follow the prophet and, regardless of whether it is Sunni or Shia, both believe that the punishment for theft is cutting off the hands.

In South Africa, muti (medicine) is used to heal many conditions – including raping a baby (virgin) to heal HIV or AIDS and eating the testicles of a man in order to restore vigour to an older man.

Crime or Culture?

What many in one nation perceive as a crime, in another nation, this is simply the traditions of their nation. So when people of one nation move to another nation (whether through illegal or legal immigration), they take their culture with them. This is particularly so in the UK and the USA. All people residing in the Commonwealth (those nations which were once part of the British Empire), are permitted to spend some time in the United Kingdom and many immigrate to there. Ironically, people from Commonwealth nations are not freely permitted to live and work in each other’s countries. The United States has become the country of choice for economic migrants fleeing third world countries (India, South America, Africa). Few from develop countries (Europe, Australia, New Zealand, etc) find their way there. In other words, both the UK and the States face the kind of cultural customs from immigrants that are not consistent with Western values.


Often what is seen as the result of a darker hue of skin is more likely to be the rejection of a particular cultural norm. For instance, one of the basic values of most tribal nations is that the village owns everything – not the individual. This stems from long traditions of the young men in the village going hunting collectively and whatever game they shot was shared by everybody in the village.

So when people with strong tribal traditions come into a country which has a benefits system, they do not see anything wrong in partaking of this. It is simply a continuation of their own traditions. And when they are resented for taking what they rightfully consider their own, over a period of time, resentment builds up on both sides. In addition, many people from tribal backgrounds become economic migrants because western capitalism has infringed on their own way of life and made it redundant.

Racism - I have a dream

Ku Klux Klan on parade in Virginia in 1922

Three Ku Klux Klan members standing beside automobile driven by Klan members at a Ku Klux Klan parade through counties in Northern Virginia bordering on the District of Columbia
Three Ku Klux Klan members standing beside automobile driven by Klan members at a Ku Klux Klan parade through counties in Northern Virginia bordering on the District of Columbia | Source

Ethnocentrism – the culture of superiority

Some believe that their own culture is superior to others. So a culture which practices female circumcision might to see as inferior to one that permits women to enjoy her own sexuality. Or a culture which encourages women to submit to men might be seen as superior to one in which women do not serve men. It depends on the country as to which is the acceptable norm.

So one has Israelis who believe themselves superior to Palestinians, Muslims who believe themselves superior to Christians, Christians who believe themselves superior to everybody else, white men who see themselves superior to black men, university graduates who see themselves as superior to non-graduates, rich people who see themselves as superior to poor people, and clever people who see themselves as superior to less-than-clever people.

Different cultural values.

Key Ring for Peace, Tolerance, and Understanding


Someone not too bright thought that correlation was cause. S/he deduced that creativity was the result of diversity, and that myth has spread and become entrenched. It isn’t. Creativity is the result of free time and discretionary income. When people are rested and they have money and time, they become creative. Just because at the time that many people did have free time and free money and there was, coincidentally, a lot of immigrants arriving, doesn’t mean that the immigrants were the cause of the creativity.

Diversity is the means by which cultures which clash as a result of different norms are introduced to each other.

While the USA claims to have the greatest diversity in the world, I’m not sure that the method utilized is a fair reflection. If one only has one man from one country, and if the man arrived half a century ago, it can hardly be said to be indicative of any great diversity. I would say that the UK has the greatest diversity in the world. Stand on any street corner in London for an hour and you will hear a dozen different languages spoken. In addition, the constant influx from both the European Union and the Commonwealth makes for the most diverse nation in the world.

Do you accept that it's okay for another culture to act in a way you perceive to be violent?

Do you accept that it's okay for another culture to act in a way you perceive to be violent?

See results

The Issue of Poverty

At the time of Codesa in South Africa (setting up the new constitution at the fall of apartheid), I met a lawyer who had studied at Oxford and who had won numerous firsts and scholarships for his outstanding contribution. I was shocked to my core when he said that he always thought that the poor people of the UK were racist until he came to South Africa and started teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand. He told me that he couldn’t believe how stupid black people were.

Of course, at that time, the studies weren’t in that poverty saps brainpower and the way of thinking, but that aside, the people who face the most consequences of cultural conflict are those who are poor. Thus the poor are often perceived as racist, when in reality, they are struggling with a clash of cultures.

When Diversity works, it's awesome! :)

Sangomas (shamans) and their Muti (magical medication)

Muti (or medication with magical properties) can come from humans, animals, trees, or plants. The properties of the 'muti' are said to pass to the person who eats them. There is, therefore, a high price on certain sources, including human beings...
Muti (or medication with magical properties) can come from humans, animals, trees, or plants. The properties of the 'muti' are said to pass to the person who eats them. There is, therefore, a high price on certain sources, including human beings... | Source

The Big Question about Diversity

It is a liberal tenet that all people everywhere should live lives of equality and peace. No one man should be perceived as superior to another man, and all of mankind must live together peacefully. In addition, as with Gene Roddenberry’s prime directive, one is not to interfere in the cultural or religious beliefs of another – not even when they are in direct opposition to one’s own.

Clearly, diversity training doesn't work. To quote, "A of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had "no positive effects in the average workplace ... Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same."

Bearing in mind that some cultures have belief systems that harm others, I have to ask the question. How is it possible for diversity to work?

© 2015 Tessa Schlesinger


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    • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

      Tessa Schlesinger 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Oops, sorry, Ron, didn't realize that not only were you religious, but you were a pastor. I went to look at your profile when you said that we disagreed, and I didn't know what we disagreed about.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Ok, Tess, we'll agree to disagree. Thanks for an interesting discussion.

    • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

      Tessa Schlesinger 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      I can understand where you are coming from, but I left America only four months ago, traveled quite a bit in it, lived in both Texas and California in various places, did business in New York, Boston, Massuchetts, Colorado, South Carolina, etc. By business I mean that I went there physically, called on people, and stayed in hotels and met people.

      Have you ever read about American Financial Imperialism?

      I understand that it is difficult for you to comprehend what I am saying. Americans don't get it until they go and live in Europe or the East. It is only then that they can get a real perspective of their culture.

      Here's another one. It goes to the issue of friendship in America. While immigrants won't tell you this, they speak about it, that Americans have little conception of what friendship is. Lots of things are very different in the culture.

      In this article written by an American professor who went to South Africa, he tells of the dawning realization that people in the rest of the world did not need the constant reassurance that Americans do...

      In Europe, diversity works when people have a common ethical stance. It is mostly atheist. When people begin to bring in middle ages religion and make their demands that the State respect primitive rites and belief systems, the people who are most affected by them (generally the poor) begin to rebel. Thus the rise of the far right.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Tess, you seem to see America as the "melting pot" in which everyone kind of blends together and strips themselves of all their cultural distinctives. That was once our stated ideal. But we haven't seen ourselves that way for decades, because we recognized that it just isn’t so. We now speak not of being a melting pot but more of a stew, or even a salad, because we recognize that not only have our inherited cultures not been completely stripped away, we don’t even want them to be.

      The America you saw in your time here appears to have been a very small slice of our overall reality. Yes, some here focus on material "success," but that's far from universal. I have known some people for whom that seemed to be their highest value, but I'd have to say I can't think of anyone among those with whom I associate today who's in that category. And just try to tell the people who live around Amish Country, just a few miles from me here in Pennsylvania, that we've all blended together into some common money-grasping culture. In fact, Pennsylvania might be a good place to start. If you spend some time living among the Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania Dutch inhabitants of Lancaster County, and then travel a few miles east to immerse yourself in the life of inner city Philadelphia, I don't think your impression of a pervasive, monotone, and uniformly materialistic American culture would survive.

      I live near Harrisburg, which, although it’s the capital of Pennsylvania, is a small city. Yet we have many different communities which maintain many of their cultural distinctives. I think of the churches to be found in the city: Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Anglo, African, and African American. In each of those communities there is a blend of traditions from the culture of origin, along with the necessary adaptations to a common cultural language that allows us to live together as a unified community.

      The examples you point to from South Africa, from bead sellers and Zulu dancers to millionaires in shopping centers are interesting. I’ve experienced the American equivalents of such scenes in our own shopping centers and elsewhere more times that I can remember, and hardly thought about them being remarkable in any way. And yes, I’ve met Native Americans!

      Finally, I think that current events are exposing European multiculturalism as being much more limited and fragile than might have been supposed a few years ago. The rise of right wing political movements dedicated to closing Europe’s borders to immigrants from the Middle East and Africa testifies to that.

      I won’t claim that the U. S. is the most diversified country in the world – I don’t personally know that to be a fact. But that we are a significantly multicultural society, even in the terms you have defined, is undeniable to those of us who have had opportunity to experience some of the many diverse communities with which we are blessed.

    • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

      Tessa Schlesinger 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Ron,

      I'm back! To continue.

      When I think of a multicultural nation, I think of a nation where there are many different ways of life. In the USA, I found that everybody pursued money, happiness, success, etc. The entire nation is based on individualism so there is no sense of serving the greater community if one can profit more by looking after oneself.

      In addition, everybody owns a car the moment they can. In other countries where public transport is highly developed, there is a choice of lifestyle. That does happen in Boston and New York, but a lot of people simply prefer to have a car.

      The culture in America is to work hard to be successful, to earn lots of money, to buy as expensive a house as one can afford, to make a name for oneself, to buy as expensive a car as one can, and to have as much fun as possible. That is the culture, and it doesn't seem to matter from what previous culture one came, this is what I saw all around me.

      I also noted that the people who immigrated to the USA were mostly interested in living that sort of lifestyle.

      Opera isn't really a great pull. Celebrities are. The way people dress is not particularly elegant. Compared to Italy or France where people dress elegantly, you will understand what I mean.

      When I am in South Africa, right next to a millionaire shopping mall, there might be a guy selling his beadware that his wife made. There might also be Zulu dancers dancing their tribal dancers on the pavement. In America, if you want to see anything like this, you have to travel to the Reservations. In South Africa, all people of all cultures/nations share the same resources.

      I am not sure it's possible for uneducated people and people who haven't been exposed to a lot of travel and who are pretty smart can learn to live together. That's why I wrote the article. My mind is still mulling over it... :)

      America claims to be the most diverse country in the world because it has so many people from different nations who immigrated there at one time or another. I just found all the people depressingly the same. I never once met a Native American in my eleven years there. They just didn't seem to be there. If they were, then they absorbed the American culture. They dressed in the way that Americans did. They didn't wear clothes that were 'tribal.' They do in South Africa.

      The reason why some people 'think' that Obama was born in Kenya and doesn't love America is - well, they don't think it. They are, however, desperate to believe it so that they can stop a 'black' man who is a 'democrat' from being a president. He is everything that they hate because they feel failures at some level.

    • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

      Tessa Schlesinger 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Ron, you have made some very good points, and I will get back to you later today on that (I am on my way to work). I think you are 100% correct in your summation that a leading cause is ethnocentrism. I've framed this question in another way over here. Posted it this morning.

      Will come back to you later today. :)

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      The idea that Europeans are not ethnocentric, in the sense with we've been using the term, wouldn't occur to most Americans. We've been on the receiving end of such attitudes throughout our history, and they remain quite evident to us today. I think a culture's ethnocentrism is difficult to see from within the culture because it's the ambient environment: fish don't notice that they are wet.

      To say that the U. S. is not multicultural likewise runs counter to our history and present experience. Whether another country might be "more" multicultural is not the issue. Learning how people of diverse cultural backgrounds can live in harmony together is a critical issue that has literally shaped our history and remains at the center of our attention today. Why, for example, are there a substantial number of people in this country who think its President was born in Kenya and doesn't love America? That animus for some is racial, but IMO, for most in that camp it's cultural. Rudy Giuliani was literally saying of Barack Obama, "Culturally, he's not one of us." Why is it that a series of unarmed young black men can be gunned down by citizens (the Trayvon Martin case is just one example) or police, and many in the society automatically assume it must have been their own fault? IMO ethnocentrism is at the center of the social and political upheaval in our country today.

    • TessSchlesinger profile imageAUTHOR

      Tessa Schlesinger 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      You bring up some good points. Let me respond point by point.

      With regard to your statement that it's innate for cultures to believe that they are superior to other cultures, experience of having lived in many countries has shown me that is not true. Nobody in any of the European countries think that their country/culture is superior to others.

      In South Africa, during the Apartheid years, the Afrikanners strongly believed that South Africa was chosen by God, that they were a superior nation, that Africans had the mark of Cain and therefore were ordained to be servants all their lives. It had nothing to do with being an innate belief. It was a cultural belief passed down from parents to childrne. I had English schooling and never once was it suggested or never once did I hear that South Africa was in any way superior to any other nation.

      Next, your point that because a culture is superior, it has the right to judge others according to its own culture. Yes, that is a belief system that must be eradicated This pretty much goes the whole gamut from rich people thinking they are superior to poor people, intelligent people thinking they are superior to unintelligent people, and educated/talented people thinking that they are superior to uneducated people. Ironically, the more educated and intelligent one is, the less likely one is to believe this.

      Third point. In no way did I find the USA to be multi-cultural at all. In the middle of London, standing there for an hour, I will hear 12 different languages at least two or three times each. In South Africa, there are ll or 12 official languages. Mexico City is more multi-cultural than the USA. One day I would love to have a look at how the USA arrives at its conclusions that it is the most diverse in the world. I suspect that they take the fact that one Ukrainian arrived 80 years ago and therefore 'Urainians' as a contribution of how many nations have immigrated to the USA.

      I would say that Europe, the UK, Australia, South Africa are far more multi-cultural, but they don't count people who have been there for more than one generation. The USA does.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Ethnocentrism, in the sense of believing one's own culture is superior to others, is inbred in the human race. Just think, any society where a large proportion of the people considered their own culture to be inferior would probably be in deep trouble. So, diversity training that aims at eradicating that idea is a losing proposition. IMO, the goal should be to help people avoid taking the next step, which is believing that because my culture is superior, everybody else should be judged on how well they conform to my cultural norms. I think that's the source of much of the racial and ethnic contention that's bedeviling the world today. In a multicultural society like the U. S. there has to be a shared core of cultural norms to which we all pledge allegiance, while leaving space for each group to also maintain their own distinctive cultural expressions. It's slow going, but I think there is movement in the right direction.


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