In the discourse of the United States today, everything is supposed to be about race. That particular American view infects any American discussion of the West. Overt racists like Lothrop Stoddard associated Western civilization with racial whiteness. Today, the American left often seems to agree with Stoddard, viewing “the West” as code for racial whiteness – as when Natalie Wynn says “the association between whiteness and the West is always lurking beneath the surface”. But the Greek, Semitic and Latin historical roots that make the West go back much earlier than the 17th-century concept of the “white race”; Westerners thought of themselves as “Christendom” long before they thought of themselves as “white”. Anti-black and anti-native racism are the US’s original sin, but we mislead ourselves in a deeply parochial way if we think of the whole world in those American terms.
Rather, it seems to me that the important thing is to reclaim the West from that recent (and harmful) concept of whiteness. “Whiteness” never was constitutive of the West as a historical complex, and the last thing we should do is treat it that way now. For as it turns out, the history of the West is in key respects not even European.
To see why, let’s take a look at the history of the West. Philosophy forms a key part of that history, and this is a philosophy blog, so the history of Western philosophy is as good a case study as any other.
Let’s start at the beginning – the very very beginning. Who was the first Western philosopher, ever? Aristotle, and most philosophers after him, have effectively answered this question with Thales, the sixth-century (BCE) Greek-speaking thinker who first looked for the ultimate principle (archē) of reality, and identified it with water. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that Thales was the first Western philosopher.
So, where did Thales live? Where was he from? If you answered “Greece”, you are wrong, if by “Greece” you mean the European landmass which now belongs to a country by that name. Thales was born and raised, and founded his school, in Miletus – a Greek-speaking town located in Ionia, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. And not in Thrace, that tiny part of northwestern Turkey which is physically part of Europe. No, Miletus and Ionia were in Anatolia, the Turkish landmass that was the first place ever to be called Asia, and gave its name to the rest of that vast continent. That is to say: the first Western philosopher was an Asian. So was his student Anaximander – from whom we have the earliest surviving lines of Western philosophy. And so was Heraclitus of Ephesus, author of that famous early line that one can never step into the same river twice. Western philosophy begins in the continent of Asia.
Note further that yavana – the Indian term for the Greek-speakers who came over in Alexander’s conquests, which I used to use to describe Westernized Buddhism – itself comes from “Ionian”. When ancient Indians thought about Greek-speaking Westerners, the word they used referred to a part of the continent of Asia. And while the term “Asian” has shifted its referent enough that one could perhaps argue “Asian” shouldn’t refer to Ionians anymore, that doesn’t change the fact that Ionians were and are not European. (And not American either, of course, which will become relevant next time.)
Nor is the early Asian referent of Western philosophy an isolated fluke of history. For the first two thousand years of Western philosophy, its centre was not Europe but the Mediterranean Sea, which borders three continents. We saw in a previous post how Africans have played a major role in the history of Western philosophy – including Augustine, arguably one of the most important thinkers in the entire history of Western tradition. This isn’t even to mention the fact that Judaism, Christianity and Islam – without which Western philosophy would look nothing like it currently does – all have their own origins in West Asia, “the Middle East”. The one possible exception, the one possibly non-Asian founder of these three traditions, is Moses – for, if the biblical story were right, he would have come from Africa.
Most of the story of the West is the story of the three continents that touch the Mediterranean. The people of those three continents regularly mixed with each other. And if we are going to apply the modern concept of “race” to the people who created the West, the most important thing to recognize is that very mixing. To the Greek and Roman worlds, with their thriving Asian and African centres, people with pale skin and blonde hair were savage barbarians, but the swarthy citizens of Miletus were not. “Whiteness” could only be invented centuries after the cultural centres of the West had moved into the northern corners of Europe – which is millennia into the West’s established history. That invention of whiteness comes alongside colonialism – and colonialism, for its part, begins the process of moving the West out of Europe into the Americas and Oceania.
All this history matters because it creates the culture of the West that we now have today. Especially, it shows that that Western culture has been multiracial and multi-continental long before the concept of race existed.
In the present day, the multiracial nature of the West has been obvious in my personal experience. When I travel to India, my dress and mannerisms mark me clearly as a Westerner. This point came out most vividly when, as a long-haired youth, I checked into a cheap hotel in Andhra Pradesh and the clerk told me: “When foreigners stay here there’s more paperwork, so don’t put down your name, put an Indian name.” It did not even occur to her that I might have an Indian name. But an even more striking thing was my own reaction. In my previous couple weeks’ travelling around India, the locals’ reactions to me had made me feel so obviously a Westerner that it didn’t even occur to me that my own name was appropriate. So, in response to the clerk’s request, I put down an Indian friend’s name – without it even occurring to me that I had a perfectly good Indian name of my own! All this, even though in the West my skin tone marks me as visibly non-white. I’m not white, but I am a Westerner; of that, there is no doubt. (This is one of the countless reasons it irritates me when navel-gazing Americans or Australians insist on referring to modernist Buddhism as “White” – even in the face of modernist Buddhists who obviously aren’t.)
So too are African-Americans. A black American friend of mine worked for the Peace Corps in a Mali village in his youth. He told me that the locals said to him in no uncertain terms: “You’re not African. We don’t know what you are, but you’re not African.” And it should not be a surprise to hear that said about someone who had spent the majority of his life in the United States. When Asians decry “Westernization”, they are often concerned about the influence of the very African-American art forms of rock’n’roll and hip-hop. Philosophically, Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois and the late bell hooks are all very much of the West.
We people with non-European ancestral origins are part and parcel of the West – and we always have been, since before “whiteness” existed. And so: no, the association between whiteness and the West is not “always lurking between the surface”; wherever it does so lurk, it shouldn’t. The West has always been bigger than the harmful colonial concept of race. And it’s also always been bigger than Europe.