It’s an awkward question. And yet, an inevitable one.
Anyone who has taken history class knows how the story goes. The Greeks spawned civilization as we know it, a bunch of European thinkers evolved their philosophy into science, religion, more nuanced philosophy, England spawned the Industrial Revolution, and the U.S. became the apex of technological advancement. And there were some footnotes on Arabs, Chinese, and Indians, but we don’t have time in the curriculum to devote much attention to their accomplishments, and their stories were told relative to European perspective. No offense to my former professors; in fact, one of them I greatly respect and he did devote student presentation time to any invention we wanted to talk about, so I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other cultural achievements not covered by the curriculum. Albeit a lot of them came from China, but I guess I’m also ethnocentric that way.
There are of course more specialized courses, but unless history is a major part of your university degree, the story of white people is the overarching narrative most people here will be exposed to. And when it’s implied white people are responsible for most of the major accomplishments of humanity, well, that doesn’t really encourage one to investigate other nations, does it? And yet our number system is referred to as Hindu-Arabic for a reason, so that for example should pique curiosity. Even the very romanticism of antiquity and exoticism is a good motivation for wanting to understand how other cultures came to be and what they contributed to the greater picture of humanity.
Wikipedia is a good tool for expanding that inquisitive itch and I learned a lot going on wiki walks into that huge reservoir of knowledge. But even then, I have my biases. I’m a socialist, so I focus a lot on modern Latin American history, particularly in regards to the revolutionary chapters. But part of the appeal is hearing people tell their own stories in their own words and you come to understand a point of view complementary to your own. Despite their problems, the achievements of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and others have influenced my political views greatly, particularly writings from that area.
I do think dead white male history is a major aspect in white privilege. It goes beyond taking pride in one’s culture and blankets others to the point where I am wondering: where am I in this story? And that’s why I ask the title question. It’s not as noticeable when you’re a part of the group, but those outside the group are more aware of attitudes otherwise taken for granted. And this legend is so entrenched in the public consciousness that changing it will be difficult. But perhaps it’s time to add new chapters to the curriculum. There may only be a limited amount of time to tell the human story throughout the ages, but a more diverse set of characters should provide a gateway to a more inclusive and multicultural understanding of the world. And through understanding, we consider solutions that we have not before and that work to everyone’s benefit.
P.S. The inspiration for this blog post? David Gilmour, who thinks women and Chinese authors are beyond his understanding. There’s a reason I consider arts fields to be full of wankers (not that science fields are much better), and he’s one of them. Hint: if you realize you have a prejudice, maybe you should consider trying to change your attitude.
P.P.S. The whole transcript of the interview is here. Make of it what you will.