Ethnocentrism and Family Values

March 20, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Alexandra Wallace’s video – the epiphanus interruptus* complaint about Asians at UCLA using their cell phones in the library – went viral, most of the reactions were accusations of racism. I'm not sure where the line between racism and ethnocentrism lies, but I was struck more by the underlying ethnocentric assumptions about family, assumptions that are widely shared here and by people who would never be accused of racism.

We Americans all agree that we value family. When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family. If I asked students what things they themselves value, I’m sure many of them would say family. So, I suspect, would Ms. Wallace.

But here’s how she begins her rant, after a brief disclaimer:
It used to really bug me but it doesn't bother me anymore the fact that all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me – their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they've brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. It's seriously, without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That's what they do.
(The transcript does not quite do justice to Ms. Wallace’s presentation. The video was taken down, but in 2018 a copy became available.)

These Asian families, in Ms. Wallace’s view, include too many peripheral members (grandparents, cousins). And family members spend too much time together and do entirely too much for one another.

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

The too-much-family motif runs through her objections about cell phones as well She obviously doesn’t know what the callers are saying or who they’re talking to, but she suspects that it’s family back in Asia:
I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.**
Many international students in the US have noted this same contradiction between Americans’ proclaimed value on family in the abstract and what to the international students seems like a fairly thin and compartmentalized connection to family in the real world. As Rebekah Nathan says in My Freshman Year,
Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than one international student remarked about the dearth of family photos on student doors,*** as if family didn’t exist at school. . . .Peter [a student from Germany] told me . . . “No one here says, “come on and meet my family.”
Do, do Americans value family? Yes, but. . . . The ‘but’ is a competing value that pervades American culture, including the family – Independence.**** As Ms. Wallace says in the conclusion to her complaint about Asian families, “They don't teach their kids to fend for themselves.”



I'll be in like deep into my studying . . . getting it all down, like typing away furiously, blah blah, blah, and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany... Over here from somewhere, “Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.”
** Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”

I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds,

I'm sure he's very good at this chess thing,
but that isn't really the issue.
Mantegna loses it.
My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you
acknowledge that, then maybe we'll have something
to talk about. Chess is what it’s called.
Not the “chess thing.”
*** If you watch the Wallace video, look at the board of photos behind her and try to find parents.

**** See my earlier post on the family-vs,-independence conflict as it appears on American television, especially in sitcoms that have pretensions of seriousness.


Jacob L. Stump said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacob L. Stump said...

Great post! say:

"The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family."

I'm not sure that Asians have somehow got a hold of real family values and Americans have not. Why make the appearance/reality distinction?

Perhaps it is more analytically useful in terms of explanation to say that these are two varying interpretations of what "family" means and how "family" is practiced in the "American" and "Japanese" contexts. Explaining how this interpretive different means in practice should be the social scientific aim--it seems to me.

brandsinger said...

Jay -
The premise here is odd:
"When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family."

Something is screwy here. The "American" value that appears "most frequently" is "family"? Never heard that before. Must be how you phrase the question. Over the years the question "what are the most distinctively American value" elicits "democracy" / "freedom" along with "opportunity" and perhaps variations on "individualism" - including independence, self-reliance, selfishness and ambition. I could also see materialism, community, racism...

but not family... because "family" is not a distinctly American value / quality / trait. Not in any poll, dialogue, conversation I know of.

Jay Livingston said...

@Jacob L. Stump. Thanks. You’re right of course. The question is not who “really” values family. To put it that way is ethnocentrism, not social science. The social science questions would ask how different groups define “family” and the expectations on various family members.

@brandsinger. “Something is screwy here.” What’s screwy is my methodology – shoddy, really, not screwy – but then, my purposes are different from the objectives of real surveys on values. In class, I say, “Write down three American values.” I don’t say “distinctively American.” If students ask me to be more specific, I say, “Things that Americans value.” Screwy or not, Family gets a lot of votes.

I can’t find any real surveys that ask the question this way. If you know of any, please post a link. (I tried Googling “survey ‘distinctively American value’” and other strings, but got nothing usable.) The more typical strategy is to give people a list of values and ask how important each is to them (personally, not to their country generally). These surveys, as you say, find strong agreement among Americans on Freedom, Equality, and Democracy. Also Success/Achievement, Independence, Patriotism, Self-Fulfillment, and others. I don’t know of surveys where Family is one of the choices, but if it is on the list, I’d be surprised to see Americans not rating it as important.