Wednesday 26 August 2015


TW: Discussions of Racism 

Defining ethnocentrism 

Recognizing and addressing ethnocentrism is one of the most important parts of anthropological practice. Being ethnocentric involves evaluating another culture solely through the lens of your own cultural values and standards, and is underpinned by a belief that your culture is inherently superior, natural, important,  or exclusively normal. Ethnocentrism is often tied in with notions of class, taste, morality, religion, and race. Ethnocentrism is visible where cultural differences are labelled as 'unnatural', 'abnormal', 'weird', or 'illogical'.

Ethnocentrism and 'broken' English

Stan Walker - a Māori recording artist and TV personality from Tauranga Moana, Tuhoe, and Ngati Tūwharetoa - was a judge on the X Factor NZ in 2013 and 2015. Throughout the show he used a mix of Te Reo Māori and a style of English that carries traits that signal Māori identity. Despite his success in the music industry the media and some members of the general public used his speech as a way to undermine his credibility. The word 'yous' in particular, brought the fire from mainstream NZ.

Comments from an online article discussing Stan's English (obvs not a scientific study of NZ'ers views, but still a somewhat useful indicator of how the situation was presented on social media) 

In response, Walker said "Yous get Māori right, I'll talk proper English". Here he is highlighting the irony that people criticism his use of English, when our national language Te Reo Māori is so often mispronounced - even on national television shows and news networks - and receives little to no criticism from mainstream society. 

More recently, Stan won a New Zealand Video Music Award. After he delivered his acceptance speech the show cut to the hosts, infamous "funny guys" Jono and Ben, who congratulated the most prominent Māori artist in the world by saying "Oh Stan you speak good England". 

'Broken English', speaking like a 'FOB', or speaking like a "Hori" (a slur that is used to refer to Māori), are labels given to people who speak a different style of English from the perceived 'normal' or 'proper' way of speaking it. These labels come out of an ethnocentric understanding of the evolution of language because they judge certain dialects as worthy/pure, and other dialects as not worthy/polluting the language. These evaluations come from perceived ethnic or class superiority: where "can't", "don't", "o'clock", "lemme", "wanna", and "dunno" are acceptable but "yous" is not - because it has come from Māori. Furthermore, these labels are often used to describe someone as uneducated, tacky, ignorant, unintelligent, or even to diminish their personal or moral worth, and often work in tandem with other stereotypes that perpetuate and legitimize inequality.

The labels used to contextualize Stan Walker's speech employ stereotypes that have been used since colonization to paint Māori as lazy, unintelligent, and uneducated and thus "blame Māori for experiencing negative outcomes" in employment, health, criminal justice...(the list goes on) drawing attention away from structural and social determinants of well-being and economic status, and therefore away from Pākehā privilege (see Kupu Taea for more on how the media reports on Māori). Sometimes this is done in less obvious ways. For example, it is sometimes implied that the style's of English which carry traits that signal Māori identity are more 'casual' or 'friendly'. This is sometimes used to argue that Māori are less suited for employment.

In her thesis, Hollie discusses the role of mixing of languages in dialogue in expressing indigenous agency. Ngaha states that “expressions of identity do not rely solely on the use of Indigenous language” (83). Ngaha also demonstrates that “Māori youth have different priorities, in terms of identity, to those of their parents and grandparents and may express themselves as Māori in ways that do not always include use of te reo” (16). Hollie argues that this mixing can offer individuals the opportunity to assert a Māori identity even when they are not fluent in Te Reo Māori acting as as a way for those who, because of structural forces or personal choice speak English, to express Māori- and iwi-tanga. 

Interestingly though, when appropriated by a mainstream group, slang words created by minorities, become acceptable and (see Hipster racism).

These issues are reflected in the U.S, where the belief that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is inherently inferior to "American English". In Jamila Lyiscott's '3 ways to speak English' she sums it up pretty well. She says at 1:12 

"I have decided to treat all three of my languages as equal. Because, I'm articulate. But who controls articulation? The English language is a multifaceted oration subject to indefinite transformation. Now you may think that it is ignorant to speak broken English, but I'm here to tell you that even articulate Americans sound foolish to the British".

Listen to her spoken word here, seriously if its the only thing you watch today let it be this. 

Anthropological methods like ethnography underline the importance of listening and learning how different languages, symbols, and practices communicate meaning, and therefore how different forms of knowledge are expressed and embodied. It is frustrating for me to see people dismiss peoples knowledge because they do not fit into particular understandings of how knowledge should be expressed. If you cannot understand someone because they have not used the same grammar/dialect as you, then I would propose that you may need to listen a little harder. 



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