Sociology 211

November 17, 2004


Prejudice, discrimination, racism


C.  Detailed analysis of concepts


This section of the notes examines issues related to prejudice, discrimination, and racism in more detail, with examples of each and some theories or explanations of the concepts. 


Where possible, definitions from the glossary of Fleras and Kunz are used, since these are easily accessible.


1.  Ethnocentrism.  Isajiw defines this as a form of prejudice, “an attitude by which members of a group tend to consider their group to be in all or some ways better or superior to other groups” (p. 112).  As noted before, this may not be all that different than the status honour of Weber, where this is used to define a group and the boundaries of the group.  Those accorded honour are members and others who are not accorded such honour are not members.  This may have little negative consequence if limited in terms of what is included, if strength of belief is not so great and not used to judge others negatively, and if there is acceptance and understanding of other groups.  In fact, some ethnocentrism may be a source of ethnic identity or racial pride – these may be important for connecting group members with the ethnic group and society, and for individual identity.


Fleras and Kunz define ethnocentrism as “the tendency to automatically and routinely interpret reality from one’s owns perspective as normal or superior and to assume that others would do so as well if given half a chance, while dismissing other perspectives as inferior or irrelevant” (p. 190).    Related to this is Eurocentrism as “a belief or position that asserts the moral or evolutionary superiority of Anglo-European values as the standard by which others are measured and evaluated and found to be deficient” (p. 190).  Those of non-European ancestry have often been critical of Eurocentrism, where ideas, standards, theories, and even social structures that have emerged from Europe are regarded as superior to those from other countries and peoples.  The social sciences, most of which came from European origins, have been subject to this charge – e.g. the founders of sociology are often considered to be Comte, Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, all European males, and the practice of sociology in the twentieth century has primarily been carried out by males of European origin. 


Ethnocentrism is a form of prejudice that can have negative consequences for others if acted upon and used to judge others.  If acted upon and connected with power, ethnocentrism can be similar or equivalent to racism, in that others can be denied access to opportunities by the decision-maker.


Ethnocentrism can be associated with any group.  Many folk or primary ethnic groups have names for themselves which mean “the people.”  In the Inuit culture, the perfect human being is the “Innu”  and many other such groups have language that distinguishes those of other groups.  A short passage from Wayson Choy’s latest novel illustrates this.


Wayson Choy is a Canadian novelist of Chinese ancestry, whose latest novel is All That Matters, published earlier this year.  This novel is the story a Kiam-Kim, a boy who immigrated to Canada with his father in the late 1920s, supported by his Third Uncle, who presumably had to pay the head tax for Kiam-Kim and his father or falsify documents to bypass Canadian immigration authorities.  The novel is set in Vancouver, in the area referred to as Chinatown, in the 1930s and 1940s.  It is a story of experiences Kiam-Kim, as a second generation immigrant has, attempting to maintain loyalty to his family and community, find his way in school and life, and relate to those of other backgrounds.  It tells about the immigrant strategies of Kiam-Kim, his family, and other members of the Chinese community.  Kiam-Kim and his friends have to manage dealing with others of Irish, Italian, and Japanese background – some of these encounters are positive and some are negative. 


One extract is the following – demonstrating the view of Chinese as best for members of the Chinese-Canadian group.

Third Uncle expected a boy child, but like Father he did not mind the first being a girl.  Uncle wiped the wire-rimmed glasses and told me that Baby Jook-Liang and I must remember how to refer to each other in Chinese, because we were Chinese.  Little Sister soon was called Liang-Liang, which meant “Beautiful Bell.”  In English, however, everything would be simpler if we matched all our gai-gee, our false documents.  That was why Liang-Liang would call her own mother Gai-mou: we would fool the demon immigration spies, who would otherwise deport us back to China.

“Remember that in this country of white demons we are undesirables-Chinks,” Third Uncle siad, “but we are, in fact, a superior people.”

Father quoted a Chinese poet and spoke of the Middle Kingdom being “a country as old as sorrow.”

That made me think that no one ever laughed in Old China.  I was glad to be in Canada.

“Kiam-Kim, never forget, ney hai Tohng-Yahn,” Father said.  “Never forget, you are Chinese.” 

The way Father stared proudly at Third Uncle, who was showing me large picture books with ancient Chinese temples, and the way they both turned to study each page, telling me tales of monks who could snap steel rods and smash stone boulders with their bare hands, made me sit up straight in my chair.  Even Stepmother looked up at me from her breast-feeding, as if it would be impossible, if not madness, to be other than tong-yung.

“Baby be Chinese, too,” she said.  Tohn-Yahn is best.”  (pp. 53-54).

While the Chinese-Canadians in Choy’s novel use this as a way of asserting their own identity, where such views become used to judge others as inferior, ethnocentrism can be a cause of division, suspicion, and conflict.  In a worst case scenario, it is associated with racism and possible genocide.


Evelyn Kallen, a professor emeritus from York University in Toronto, and a long-time advocate of human rights, provides a useful way of sorting through ethnocentrism and prejudice (notes from Kallen, 1982, pp. 27-28).   She states:

Ethnocentrism can be expressed, at least theoretically, in a laissez-faire mode of ethnic relations, whereby members of different ethnic collectivities, committed to different, but not highly incompatible values, can co-exist symbiotically or even co-operatively, because they are willing to tolerate each others differences and to accord one another mutual respect.  Ethnocentrism turns into prejudice when it leads to intolerance of ethnocultural differences and to the stigmatization of one human population by another.  (pp. 27-28).

She also notes that there can be “enlightened ethnocentrism,” respecting the rights of other groups while “seeking the self-interest of the in-group,” and “pernicious ethnocentrism” which “seeks the self-interest of the in-group at the expense of the rights and interests of outsiders.”  Kallen considers the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) to be an example of enlightened ethnocentrism, whereby the CJC combats anti-semitism and also works for improving human rights legislation in Canada.  In the recent court case of the hate propaganda against the Gypsy/Roma, the CJC applied for and obtained intervenor status.  One of the arguments for this was that the only two groups singled out by Nazi Germany for genocide were Jews and Gypsies/Roma, so they had some similar historical experiences, helping to draw them together.


These different approaches to ethnocentrism raise a number of issues – what are legitimate and illegitimate forms of pride in and identification with one’s own group, how members of other groups are to be considered and treated, and how to prevent ethnocentrism from becoming pernicious and racist or xenophic.


2.  Xenophobia.  This is a term that may not be used so much today, although there are several examples of its recent use.  It does not seem to be used by either Isajiw or Fleras and Kunz, and I could find little reference to it in other texts.  Xenophobia refers to fear, suspicion, or hatred of foreigners. 



xeno = guest, stranger, foreigner (Greek)

      xenophile = love of foreigners or something foreign

      xenophobia = fear of foreigners or foreign things           


In the early twentieth century, there was fear of and hatred toward immigrants of Eastern European origin, there was the “yellow peril,” and in recent years, there is suspicion and concern about immigrants from countries different than the traditional countries of origin, and concern about different cultures and customs of these immigrants.  Some of this may be no more than a certain fear of the unknown, but it can turn into racism, in expressions such as the “yellow peril,” used to build up anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese sentiment in the early twentieth century.  Some of the anti-Asian reactions during the last twenty years in Canada have been similar to this.


Xenophobia may be associated with situations where one ethnic group is by far the largest in a country, and there is concern about immigrants or individuals entering from other countries.  The African National Congress identifies this as a major problem in South Africa – the acts of xenophobia by Souht Africans against Africans from other countries such as Zimbabwe or Zambia.  Conferences against racism have included xenophobia as one of the issues to be addressed.  The Durban, South Africa conference in 2001 was termed “The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.”  A 2002 conference in Budapest, Hungary titled “Understanding Xenophobia in Eastern Europe.”  In bother these regions, the issue appears to be increased immigration flows across national borders, with some of the nationals undertaking actions that could be termed xenophobic or racist. 


3.  Stereotype.  This is related to the issue of classification and categorization discusssed earlier.  Isajiw initially discusses this in connection with jobs – role stereotypes – where individuals of a particular ethnic or racial group are considered to have a certain role or occupation suitable for them.  The stereotype of the Chinese laundry, the Greek restaurant, the Mexican immigrant worker, and the Columbian drug dealer are examples.  On pages 144-146, Isajiw discusses stereotypes in greater detail.  Here he defines stereotypes as “the cognitive components of prejudice – image-labels that we assign to a group of people that show what we believe the group is like and how we think persons in that group will behave.” (p. 144).   These are the images of members of ethnic groups that we have in our heads, by which we presume that we can identify the characteristics of individual members of the group. 


Fleras and Kunz state that these codify reality “in a simple and often simplistic manner for making generalizations about groups of people on the basis of limited information.” (p. 194).  In their glossary, Fleras and Kunz do not really define stereotypes so much as comment on them.  They define stereotypes as “the process of codifying reality for the purposes of conveying information about the world ‘out there’” (p. 149).  But this definition does not convey the notion of over-simplification that assigns alleged group characteristics to all members of the group, so is not as useful as Isajiw’s definition. 


Stereotyping is assigning characteristics to individuals on the basis of what we imagine to be the characteristics of a group – and that image is often incorrect and likely incomplete.  There are several reasons for this. 


·        Diversity.  Stereotyping is a process of ignoring diversity in a group.  As Isajiw notes “there is a tendency to perceive one’s own groups (the in-group) as including more individual differences than the groups with which we do not identify (the out-group).”  (p. 144).  There is great diversity among humans and there is diversity within each group – there is likely to be a similar cross-section of personality types with behaviours and different likes and dislikes in each group, so the stereotype improperly narrows the diversity that exists. 


·        Limited knowledge.  Part of the reason for stereotyping is that we may have only very limited knowledge of another group.  This can lead to accepting the views of others who stereotype the group, or we may do this ourselves, on the basis of some very limited, partial, and often incorrect information.


·        Familiarity with particular characteristics.  We may notice a particular characteristic associated with a member of another group and, from this, presume that all members of that group have the same characteristic or we may make that the defining characteristic of the group.  For example, most of my familiarity with individuals of East Indian ancestry is from meeting students, professors, physicians, computer technicians, and shopkeepers from the Indian subcontinent.   From this I find it difficult to think of farmers or workers being East Indian.  Yet in their region of origin, that is what the majority are likely to be.  In doing this, I have stereotyped East Indians as professionals – presumably a positive stereotype in terms of the North American status hierarchy, but a stereotype nonetheless.


·        Selectivity of observation.  Individuals often like to confirm their own views, thinking them correct.  Once a stereotype emerges in someone’s mind, there may be a tendency to notice it in others.  For example, if I have a stereotype of an ethnic group as being dishonest, whenever I notice some suspicious action on the part of a member of that group, I notice it.  I may not notice only the other actions that do not confirm the suspicion, but tend to notice the actions or behaviour that confirms my stereotype.  As Isajiw notes “perception is selective; people often see what they want to see.  It is often possible to find some people in a group to whom a stereotype seems to apply.” (p. 145).  This selectivity in observation is one reason for conducting experiments and using systematic methods to study social action and social behaviour – the so-called scientific method. 


Isajiw notes how stereotypes are more negative, the lower the group is on the socioeconomic scale.  He cites several examples on p. 145 – middle of left column.


Members of minority groups can also have stereotypes about the majority group.  Just as a member of a majority group may make incorrect judgements and deductions from limited information, so the members of a minority group can do the same.  In general, the possibility that a member of a minority can act on the basis of the incorrect stereotype is less than for a member of a dominant group.  That is, given their limited power and position in society, a member of the minority group does not have the power to discriminate in the same way as members of a majority group.  At the same time, members of minorities can use language and have various forms of resistance.  The alleged laziness of African-American slaves in the U.S. South may have been a deliberate act of resistance on the part of the slaves.  Similarly, members of minorities sometimes allege racism any time a minority member appears to be mistreated.  It is sometimes difficult to sort out what are racist actions of authorities from legitimate actions – the police are often targets for this, sometimes justified, sometimes not.


Types of stereotypes – Isajiw, pp. 145-147.


Valuable and superior – positive images that dominant groups have of themselves. 

this is one aspect of ethnocentrism that can be important for maintaining group solidarity and identity (status honour).  But it can become pernicious ethnocentrism when it is used to justify a group’s alleged superiority and downgrade others.


Inferior objects – stereotypes about groups that are minority or subordinate groups.  These are often very negative images such as that members of a group are lazy, greedy, or dirty.  Isajiw also notes that positive statements about members of such groups can also be condescending – a real estate agent who showed us a house occupied by a family that was aboriginal said that she was impressed by how clean the house was. 


Useful objects – positive images of groups that may not be regarded as equal to one’s own group.  For example, a statement that Jewish or East Indian merchants are trustworthy and reliable may disguise an underlying suspicion that they are not trustworthy or reliable.


Irritating objects – In English Canada, we may regard the Quebecois as irritating when some in this group insist on privileges for Quebec.  This may be irritating to us in a way that similar demands are made by Alberta politicians.  Isajiw also comments on the objections to multiculturalism from some who apparently consider it a policy that diverts attention away from their requests.  (p. 146, top right).


Dangerous objects.  Some people fear members of other ethnic groups.  This may be expressed by concern about letting children go to downtown Regina, or the fear that some people have when approached by young African-American males.  Fear of the middle-man has been expressed against Jews in Europe or East Indians in East Africa. 


Exotic objects.  The horse and buggy of the Amish, the head-dress of North American Indians, or the supposed sexuality of those with different skin colour are examples.  While each of these has their place, an obsession with these can indicate stereotyping. 


Isajiw notes how these can often be unconscious, since these images are learned and passed among people in ordinary conversation.  Ethnic jokes are one form of these (p. 147). 


Media stereotypes – Fleras and Kunz, pp. 149-150. 


Measuring stereotypes.  See “Evolving stereotypes amongst the Canadian Population: An Intergenerational Examination,” available from the Association for Canadian Studies web site at 



Choy, Wayson.  2004.  All That Matters, Doubleday Canada.

Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliott.  1999.  Unequal Relations: An Introduction to Race, Ethnic and Aboriginal Dynamics in Canada, third edition.  Scarborough, Ontario, Rentice Hall Allyn Bacon Canada.

Helly, Denise. 2004.  “Are Muslims Discriminated Against in Canada Since September 2001?” Canadian Ethnic Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2004.  FC104 C36.

Kellen, Evelyn. 1982.  Ethnicity and Human Rights in Canada, Toronto, Gage Publishing Limited.



Last edited November 22, 2004