The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism

Some Reflections of an Afrocentric Anthropologist¹

Transforming Anthropology²
The Journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists
Fiftieth Anniversary Issue — Vol 28, No 2, 2020

Originally appeared in
Transforming Anthropology 2.2 (1991)

The editorial board of Transforming Anthropology, the Journal of the Association of Black Anthropologists, selected this article, which I have edited slightly, from an earlier issue to feature, along with commentaries by Dr. Jemima Pierre³ and Dr. Krystal Strong⁴, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the association of which I was among the founders. I was stunned that after three decades my article remains so staggeringly relevant. 

I participated in a seminar for college professors on the theme “Ending Ethnocentrism” because of my assumption that working to put an end to ethnocentrism was an obligation for scholars of color. This ethnocentrism that needs to be ended refers specifically to the Eurocentrism of people of European and Euro-American origin that has arrogantly taken as its privilege the right to define and judge the majority of the people of the world—who are people of color—according to Eurocentric norms and criteria, and to conclude that most of the world’s people are inferior to the minority that they themselves constitute.

As the other people in the seminar—almost all Euro-Americans, hence the carriers of the cultural tradition we were talking about eliminating, and by their presence presumably people of good will—spoke of the necessity of putting an end to ethnocentrism, I increasingly felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with the nature of their discourse. When I, one of the few African Americans present, spoke up, most of my colleagues were surprised that what I said contrasted starkly with what they, from their liberal stance, had been affirming.

“I am ethnocentric and I have absolutely no intention of ridding myself of my ethnocentrism—because I like it,” I said in that gathering that was supposedly intent upon eradicating something like what I chose to affirm.

The issue is that what I chose to affirm was only something like the ethnocentrism that they, and I, agreed needed to be eradicated. But it was not the same thing. As an African American, what I was saying in affirming my ethnocentrism, my Afrocentrism, was simply that I acknowledged my beingness as an African American, and that I expected others to do so also. I take anyone’s failure to do so as an attempt to deny my person, my heritage, my culture. 

I do not want people to tell me that when they see me they see just a person and not a representative of an ethnic group. First, I don’t believe they are telling the truth, whether they wish to delude themselves into thinking they are or not. And second, I do not want my fellow citizens to tell me I am just like them, because I am not. I am very aware of that fact and assume that they are too, although they undoubtedly are not as aware as I am of the extent of the differences. Nor do they know enough about my culture to know of what these differences consist.

Whereas I share in generalized U.S. culture, the version of it that is most intimately mine, in a society in which people of African and European ancestry have had radically different historical and present experiences, is specifically African American. I, like many college educated African Americans, can code switch between the two cultural orientations as the situation requires. For someone who is a product only of the other culture, and not of mine, to tell me I am just like him or her, shows a lack of awareness that my cultural code switching only shares with them one facet of my larger behavioral repertoire. It also denies my very real cultural specificity. It denies who I am, and denies me the right to define who I am.

In the seminar, I was simply saying that I identify with my own people, meaning people of African descent, and with our culture, which seems like a pretty natural and healthy state of affairs. I also find these people and this culture sufficiently fascinating to make them and it the center of my research career as a professional anthropologist. 

I do not define narrowly the spectrum of my ethnocentrism, of the people I include in my concept of “my people.” On the contrary, I see my self-definition as one of concentric circles. The inner circle is composed of African Americans by which I mean all people of African descent in the Americas, with African Americans in the United States, logically, as the nucleus. 

This definition of African Americans is admittedly uncommon in the United States, where most people of African descent have been inculcated with an impoverishing preoccupation with national boundaries. Many of us identify exclusively with the limited and limiting boundaries of the United States, rather than also with members of the more expansive group of people of African descent in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean.

In the closest circle in my definition there are those African Americans who are my family. And then there are those who constitute my social community, from most intimate to the broadest. That community includes not only people of African descent in the United States, because my cultural identity does not end at the nation’s boundaries. It is expansive enough to include those other people of African descent to the north and south of the country whose passport I carry in my travels elsewhere. I have many obvious and less obvious cultural characteristics in common with other people of African origin throughout the Americas, often more than with my Euro-American compatriots.

The next circle is peoples of Africa, because my status in the country in which I live, and in the world in which people categorize and judge me by what they see, is based exclusively on my African ancestry, irrespective of any other admixtures from elsewhere. Whereas the latter might make me more or less acceptable in some circles, or might make me more or less aesthetically pleasing to some, these are nuances. The striking feature about me and other people of African ancestry in the world’s definition of us all is just that—the visible evidence of our African ancestry, not the extent to which evidence of that African ancestry may have been modified by other genetic presences.

This definition is irrespective of national official or social definitions of “race”—such as the differences between Brazil and the United States. These are good polar examples in the Americas because of the historic Brazilian denial of the significance of race, as evidenced by their non-binary classification, in direct contrast to what has been the simple black and white world of the United States. In Brazil—let us not delude ourselves into taking myths for reality—although people are classified into a range of phenotypes from black to white, black tends to correspond to poor and oppressed, and rich to white and privileged.

In both countries, irrespective of the social meanings of the subtleties of phenotype, the real issue is how to define and treat the issue of African ancestry. In both societies ruled by a power elite of European origin, this is a fundamental structural issue. In both countries there is an unmistakable link between African origin and systematic and systemic deprivation of access to the benefits of the society. The problem in both is institutional racism. It is overt and avowed in the United States, hence an issue that can be addressed and redressed.

It is more subtle, and has been adamantly denied in Brazil, except by members of black consciousness movements—and hence harder to identify, attack, and correct on the variety of levels necessary. It is important to interject a 2021 reflection here. Since the 1991 article, and especially during the Lula presidency 2003-2011, the consciousness and social participation of Afro-Brazilians has evolved enormously thanks to the activities of the Black Movement.

. . . Which takes us back to my seminar. Almost no one there was willing to even engage my argument, although I stated clearly that it was based on my notion that ethnocentrism need not be tantamount to racism, and that racism is the real problem. On the contrary, I said, my overt and conscious ethnocentric appreciation of my own people provides the basis for my appreciation of other people. Because I am interested in my own both more restricted and broadest culture and its myriad manifestations, I am also interested in the cultures of others. It is because I appreciate and am interested in my African American culture in the United States, that I can appreciate the other cultures of African origin in the hemisphere for both our similarities and our differences. And it is because I appreciate my own larger culture, and the sense of both identity and identification it gives me, that I can appreciate, say, Japanese or Swedish culture for their differences from my own, maybe even integrating elements of both, and of others, into my life.

My white colleagues were, I think, honestly unable to comprehend the fundamental distinction I was making between ethnocentrism and racism. Because for them, the two concepts are coterminous, are inevitably and inextricably linked in their own personal and culturally determined experiences and worldviews. For me, however, as I was using them and as I live them, the first term, ethnocentrism, in no way inexorably implies the second, racism. For my colleagues, however, to appreciate their own culture means to be Eurocentric. And a major manifestation of Eurocentrism has been a long and consistent history of oppressing others in ways ranging from genocide to the subtleties, or lack of subtleties such as flagrant violence, of institutional racism.

So for these people to admit to appreciating and affirming their own ethnic culture, given the oppressive nature of Eurocentrism, by definition involved being racist. Because they did not want to see themselves as implicated in the racism that is part of the definition of their form of ethnocentrism, they denied the validity of the concept of ethnocentrism for everyone, including for me—in a striking manifestation of Eurocentric arrogance. 

Because their form of ethnocentrism was in their minds negative—or at least they were saying it was—they were unable to see mine in any other light, in spite of the fundamental and glaring differences between the two. The issue was not a problem of ethnocentrism. Members of all human groups are naturally, and usually innocently, ethnocentric in the sense of seeing the world from the perspective of their own ethnic group. The real issue is the problem of Eurocentric racism.

I am Afrocentric. It would be ridiculous for me, a person of African descent who is defined by and who defines myself by that heritage, and who gratefully and ecstatically participates in many manifestations of that cultural orientation, to imagine that I could or should be anything other than Afrocentric. I have to look at the world through some eyes, from some perspective. The one that is most inherently mine is certainly the most logical one for me to claim—as well as being inescapable. I view the world from the perspective not only of who I am, but also of who the world sees me as being.

The same is equally true of my white colleagues who denied the truth of this fundamental reality. But they, unlike me, were unable to acknowledge appreciating their own cultural orientation without simultaneously admitting its role in exploiting and oppressing people of color in the United States and around the world. That is a part of the Eurocentric worldview of which they are inescapably, and apparently uncritically, a part, and of which they are beneficiaries, both materially and psychologically. There is a logical dilemma and contradiction in their talking about working to end something from which they so clearly benefit.

Their ethnocentric position is, by the definition resulting from an accumulation of historical and contemporary acts, racist. Mine, on the country, is anti-racist. I understand that human groups, although basically the same, are culturally different in a variety of ways. That is what I like about them, and what inspires me to try to enrich my life by learning about others with whom I share the planet.

I would like to think that one day my colleagues, and others like them, might be able to progress beyond their narrow monocultural horizons to realize that understanding and appreciating oneself and one’s culture is the first step to understanding and appreciating those of others. Their refusal to even consider the potential validity of my perspective does not bode well for my hopes that many of them might so enrich themselves. They just may find it preferable to continue receiving the benefits of their Eurocentricity.

Maybe my colleagues, in their heart of hearts, really agree with (but certainly would not admit to doing so) the wonderfully satirical bumper sticker that says “Join the army. Travel to distant places. Meet fascinating and exotic peoples. And kill them.” This clever reworking of a slogan encouraging Americans to join the army reflects the extreme version of my colleagues’ worldview, an outer limit of a manifestation of their Eurocentrism. Given this radical difference in their perspective and mine, I can understand why most of them were unable to understand my affirmation of my ethnocentrism, of my non-racist, my profoundly anti-racist, Afrocentric ethnocentrism.

What is needed is to progress from a position in which ethnocentrism, the awareness of ethnic and cultural differences and the conscious appreciation of one’s own ethnic characteristics, is also, in fact, racist. This is a twofold and complementary process. First of all, the basic fact needs to be acknowledged that no culture is inherently superior to any other. There are some groups that have acquired the military force and economic control to impose their culture on others, and by this fact have claimed a position allowing them to define what “real” culture is supposed to be.

They have determined, for example, the languages and dialects thereof, and the family structures that are considered normal and “normative.” And they have defined aesthetic standards ranging from preferred human types, to appropriate clothing styles for different occasions, to what forms of music and art are considered “classical.” The fact of their imposition of such definitions does not in any way imply that these “standard,” even allegedly “universal” values are of any inherent superiority. And they are by no means universal.

It only means that they represent the values of the ethnic culture that acquired a monopoly of control ultimately manifest in the threat and reality of destruction both culturally and physically. That members of this group acknowledge this fact on some level, although generally not openly, is evident in their frequent, although often unacknowledged, both co-optation and efforts at appropriation of elements of dominated cultures. While acting as oppressors, they also seek to imitate elements of the cultures of their victims. Were they to really believe that their own culture was superior, to try to absorb elements of allegedly inferior cultures would be not only unnecessary, and a logical contradiction, but even unthinkable.

Members of ethnic groups that do not have this cultural edge based on non-cultural factors, and who have been victims of this Eurocentric bias, have been taught to evaluate their own cultures negatively, and consequently have often sought to take on in their place the culture of the more powerful groups. These culturally dominated people need to learn to appreciate both the value and the values of their own cultures, while also realistically acknowledging their membership in larger culture systems. And they need to understand the necessity of affirming their own ethnic cultures, both for their own healthy sense of self, which can only be rooted in their own specific heritage, and to further contribute to the world cultural mosaic. What one has to share with others is, ideally, the best of one’s own culture. The world of humans is rich precisely because of the interesting variety of ways of being and doing that constitutes it.

To be ethnocentric in the positive sense is to affirm the importance of this variety for everyone, and to affirm the value of one’s own culture for both oneself and for the enrichment of others with whom one shares it. To be a racist is the contrary of both these life affirming positions. It is to want to reduce human life to its most monotonous, lowest common denominator form of a single culture of those who can impose themselves—by force rather than by either values or creativity. 

To equate my ethnocentrism, my Afrocentrism, with the Eurocentrism of my colleagues therefore obscures the fundamental issue. Whereas their ethnocentrism has promoted oppression, mine is based on asserting the rights of human groups to be and appreciate themselves. Therefore, rather than wishing to put and end to ethnocentrism, I affirm the value of positive ethnocentrism as an antidote to racism, and to the dullness, the literal colorlessness, that those who have the nerve to deny the possibility and validity of my Afrocentricity, have striven to impose.

An Afrocentric awareness of the best of our culture is what African Americans have to continue to contribute to world civilization. That many elements of our culture have been appreciated around the world is clear evidence of the value of our contributions to humanity. We need to keep this reality in mind and realize that it is in the interest of the international human order for African Americans to remain healthily and creatively Afrocentric.



³ Jemima Pierre, African Diaspora Studies and the Lost Promise of Afrocentrism, Transforming Anthropology, 10.1111/traa.12190, 28, 2, (126-129), (2020). Wiley Online Library

⁴ Krystal Strong, Love for My People: Some Reflections on Sheila Walker and Life‐Affirming Anthropology, Transforming Anthropology, 10.1111/traa.12197, 28, 2, (125-126), (2020). Wiley Online Library

About the Author

Sheila S. Walker

Dr. Sheila S. Walker Ph.D, cultural anthropologist and filmmaker, is Executive Director of Afrodiaspora Inc., a non-profit organization that is developing documentaries and educational materials about the global African Diaspora. She has done fieldwork lectured consulted and participated in cultural events in much of Africa and the African Diaspora. Her most recent works are the documentary films Familiar Faces/Unexpected Places: A Global African Diaspora, Slave Routes: A Global Vision for the UNESCO Slave Route Project and an edited book Conocimiento desde adentro: Los afrosudamericanos hablan de sus pueblos y su historia (Afro-South Americans Speak of their People and their Histories) featuring articles by Afrodescendants from all of the Spanish-speaking countries of South America. She also edited the volume African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas and produced the documentary Scattered Africa: Faces and Voices of the African Diaspora. Dr. Walker was Director of the Center for African and African American Studies the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and she was the William and Camille Cosby Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Professor of Anthropology and Director of the African Diaspora and the World Program at Spelman College. Learn More