Back to Basics: Eurocentric

Written by A'Ishah Waheed

Image by Sylvia Hong

16.12.16

when the ‘European’ or ‘Western’ experience is made central,

its perspective the norm,

its culture seen as superior,

its morality as exceptional,

and its violence made invisible.

Eurocentrism is a ‘systematic politics of historical forgetting – a wilful amnesia’ and a process of ‘othering’ that maintains systems of oppression.

In the UK, the state curriculum does not include European colonialism. We are encouraged to limit our understanding to nationalistic glorification. This convenient lack of knowledge makes it easier for today’s most pressing issues to be stripped of context. International conflicts are described as ‘domestic’ and ‘sectarian’, the resistance of Indigenous peoples as insignificant, and the refugee crisis as Europe’s or the West’s burden.

Without understanding empire, its echoes and changing manifestations, people of colour can struggle to find the language to explain how it affects our most intimate experiences – our understandings of our own bodies, gender, sexuality, desire, spirituality, the construction of families, communities and our sense of belonging.

When secondary school students learn about soldiers of the First World War, there is usually no mention of the millions of soldiers from across the world who formed the British army. Even though we learn about the Suffragettes in blockbuster movies, people like Sophia Duleep Singh remain unknown. When we hear about the history of people of colour in the UK, it still starts with the Windrush of 1948. Eurocentrism is forever present in the construction of nationalism, defining who belongs and who doesn’t.

We switch on the news and listen to politicians talk about the liberal democracies and cultures that make Western nations so great and superior. We cannot get away from the depiction of Islam as inherently lacking in culture, its oppression of women, and its homophobia. Yet we are less exposed to interesting snippets of history like how the very first book on algebra was written by the ninth-century Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi. Or how the oldest university in the world was founded by a Muslim woman: Fatima al-Fihri. Or how there is a long history of same-sex relations throughout Islam and that modern-day homophobia is more closely related to the history of empire than to some inherent nature of Islam.

Often the language available to us forces us to reproduce Eurocentrism. We refer to parts of the world in relation to the position of Europe (‘Middle East’ or ‘South Asia’); we ‘other’ through categorisation (‘World Music’); we selectively use words that reinforce the norm (‘ethnic’), and we play into the construction of dualism (‘secular’ and ‘religious’). We strengthen narratives (‘progressive’ and ‘backwards’) which continue to construct an understanding of the world at different stages on a conveyor belt of history, all heading in a universal direction of ‘progress’ on a path defined by colonisers.

‘Decolonising’ – Knowledge is Power

The term ‘Eurocentrism’ came into increasing use during decolonisation movements. This work continues through to the present when we continue to deconstruct colonialism, empire, and its manifestations today.

Knowledge is power, and people of colour have a strong legacy of passing down their own knowledges and histories. Centring our experiences, telling our stories, reclaiming words or refusing to conform to white beauty standards are all forms of resistance to Eurocentrism.

“I am deliberate and afraid of nothing” – Audre Lorde.

 

Related links

The Propaganda of ‘British Values’ is a Distortion of History – Akala

Why is my Curriculum White? – Mariya Hussain

‘Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought’ – Benjamin Zephaniah

The Hijab is More European than the Tie – KilljoyFM

Islamophobia – Poetry Slam Inc

Remember this When You Talk About Standing Rock – Kelly Hayes

 

Back to Basics is a Skin Deep project aiming to redefine and reevaluate words or expressions that we hear regularly in our daily lives and in the media, that are often decontextualized and poorly defined. We want to give different, and hopefully clearer, perspectives on what these terms mean, to provide you over time with a little handbook of quick and shareable definitions for when you need them most.