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Eurocentrism: it affects you, too

Hien Luu | Monday, September 12, 2011

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all that he could see.” In fourteen hundred and ninety-four, Columbus oppressed Natives all the more. In fourteen hundred and ninety-five, Columbus brutally enslaved these “stupid,” “cruel” and “warlike” peoples as another chapter of his blood-thirsty quest, not for exploration and trade, but for conquest and exploitation. In short, Columbus was a savage — a savage whose holiday we celebrate and whom we hold as the embodiment of bravery, heroism and discovery.

This is just one result of eurocentrism, a mentality that most, if not all, Americans buy into. “This doesn’t directly affect my life; I am therefore not invested,” you might be thinking. Don’t stop reading just yet. This, too, is part of your story. In fact, it pervades your entire story. Ethnocentrism, in general, is the belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group. Eurocentrism, more specifically, is the belief in the superiority of Europe and its overseas extensions, often manifested in the tendency to interpret histories and cultures of non-European societies from a European or Western perspective.

How harmful could this actually be? After all, isn’t our way the best way? Higher education arguably allows for more diversity in thinking, yet how much does this excuse eurocentrism if the damage has already been done in early education, where students are fed history books with incomplete narrative? The most insidious aspect of its nature is actually the way in which we all subconsciously absorb the eurocentric mentality over time, to the point where it seems unnatural to think otherwise.

Christopher Columbus is a case of “heroification,” as author James W. Loewen calls it, where both trivial and important details are omitted in order to paint a picture perfect character — a “hero.” The flaws and outrageous transgressions of such “heroes” are excused at best and completely excluded at worst. Here, we see editing at its finest. Did your teachers tell you, also, that Woodrow Wilson was a racist and compulsive interventionist? We did not learn facts such as these. We learned only what comfortably fit our mold of American exceptionalism.

Not only are details left out in the accounts that make up our history, we also present only insular, one-sided accounts that do not incorporate the stories of other parties. When these other non-European perspectives are accounted for, they are portrayed as incompetent, backward, wicked or “developing” — in effect, still catching up to us. All of civility and modernity, therefore, must have started with the Europeans. As Loewen puts it, “Feel-good history for affluent white males inevitably amounts to feel-bad history for everyone else.”

What are the consequences of this? Eurocentrism, first of all, fuels the “us versus them” mentality. In undermining or even ignoring the contributions of the rest of the world, “we” send the message that “they” are not quite as human, not quite as legitimate or capable. Even if there is no overt admittance, there is still an inescapable, subconscious frame of mind that non-European societies have values contrary to American ideals of freedom and individualism, that they practice less legitimate faiths, lack the capacity to be innovative and forward-thinking and have to be ‘saved’ by us.

We then see development of these societies as a Western undertaking and where such development according to Western standards of success and happiness is a definite step in the right direction. As a consequence, widespread integration — systematically imposed or unwittingly instilled — of Western standards and values results in the belief that such must be universal standards and values.

The sad part is, even non-European societies hold it to be so. The field of plastic surgery is enjoying a boom as people of all ages in Asian societies seek eyelid surgery to widen the eyes, nose reshaping to elevate the nose and facial contouring to slenderize a typically rounder face. Why? They will point out to you the archetypes of beauty — models found in Western media. And in this increasingly competitive world, appearance is the biggest factor in the equation of success. This is one of the most observable instances of the pervasive presence of Western ideals as the universal but is not even close to being the limit of the consequences of eurocentrism.

Such beliefs and actions may not be purposeful and non-European societies are not blatantly admitting inferiority, yet, there is a message to be read and of which to take heed. Eurocentrism has resulted in both explicit and subliminal racial self-hatred, where non-Western practices, beliefs and cultures may either just not be enough or undesired.

When an incomplete story is presented — where we read only of the brilliant successes and discoveries of the Western world and, at the other end of the spectrum, of the plights of the “suffering” or the ills of the “bad guys” — it is all too easy for non-Western societies to be demonized and de-legitimized. Similarly, and especially for students, it is difficult to be motivated, inspired or empowered when one is among the “other.”

For a country that enjoys equating itself with a “melting pot,” we are not performing very well in the “melting” department. Regardless of how diverse the population is, there is nothing to speak of if there is no integration and embracing of diverse peoples and their cultures.

Eurocentrism is accomplishing the very opposite. Instead of encouraging unity, we are encouraging uniformity through establishing the eurocentric way as the way. “Unity without uniformity,” as professor George Lipsitz of UC Santa Barbara puts it, is a unity “forged tactically by appreciating differences yet recognizing similarities.”

Comprehensive exposure, a wholly inclusive education — one that accounts for the good and the bad, the successes and the flaws and the perspectives of all those involved — is what we need. We can begin to be rid of a Western complacency that stands in the way of self-reflection and critique and at the same time empower those who feel inadequate and alienated by eurocentric approaches to life.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Asiatic Gaze, Edithstein Cho, Jee Seun Choi, Hien Luu and Michael Swietek can be reached at echo1@nd.edu