I really like history. I have weird obsessions with certain eras, but I also just generally love historical fiction and have enjoyed nearly all of the history classes I’ve taken in university. I am, you might say, a history buff. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, I know nothing about history.
Growing up white in Canada, my education focused on the history of my own country, which makes sense (although according to that education, Canadian history started in 1534 and was the story of white people from that point on). But we learned about other countries too: I have a smattering of American history, and I’m a big fan of European history. But that’s it. The rest of the world, entire continents, were only mentioned in passing, if at all. To me, a student who was passionate and eager to learn everything I could about history, I was told that the Western* world was all I could get.
Last year I took a history class that was supposed to be a broad survey course – no time period or geographical area specified. I was particularly excited because my professor made it clear from the very first class that he would be taking a global approach to history, and that the importance of that approach was the most significant thing he could teach us.
I wasn’t very impressed with the actual results. My prof occasionally would point out how “globally” he was teaching us – usually when we started talking about parts of the world that were not Europe – but it was almost invariably when we started learning about how those other parts of the world were conquered and colonized by white people. In a way, he did succeed in getting me to look at history more globally, but ironically it was because every time he started talking about it, I started thinking about how what he was teaching wasn’t very global at all.
At the same time, I was taking another history class that focused entirely on very specific aspects of African history. The professor in that class talked about colonialism as well, but in a completely different way. Whereas in my world history class, non-Western societies were mentioned occasionally to illustrate how they fit into the Western world, my African history class occasionally mentioned Western societies to illustrate how they impacted certain parts of the rest of the world. The history of imperialism means that there’s no good way to avoid discussing Western cultures altogether, but it seemed that the best way to get out of a Eurocentric mindset was to avoid the “global” mindset.
Eurocentrism has become so ingrained in the way we learn history that we can convince ourselves that a Westernized historical narrative is actually a global one. But when we look at the world through that lens, we are not only being academically lazy, but we are erasing, belittling, and damaging the myriad of societies and peoples and viewpoints that are currently left out of our history books. Without hearing those voices, we really can’t say we know anything about history. The only thing to do, then, is to start really listening to them.
*a problematic and imprecise term that I could write whole essays on but I’m using here for the sake of convenience