Afraid of Being a Minority?

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Below is a response to a Facebook chat created in response to the above meme. I thought it was too long to stay on just a chat. Apologies for its length and for its impromptu nature. 

 

 

Marj and Kate, you are onto something with the theme of conquest. Indeed, the conquest of the world in the name of European modernity has shaped our current existence. By 1910, with the exceptions of Japan and Thailand (Siam), there was no single nation, country or region populated by humans that was not directly or indirectly controlled by European/U.S.’s interests (perhaps, the Amazon region). 

 

Japan was not occupied but until the end of the 2WW, but Matthew C. Perry’s ships in 1852-4 “opened” the isolated country to “modernization” and the ensnares of (un)”free” trade.  After the shocked of the U.S. military superiority Japan swung back and forth from blind imitation of Europeans to outright rejection of foreigners. This “modernization” or better yet, hybridization process culminated with Japan as a German partner and the most effective conquering machine yet–the perfect European pupil in Asia (a former disciple gone rogue). We can say, however, that by partnering rather than resisting, Japan, considered by many Whites as the “noble savage” of Asia, exercised power during the 19th & 20th centuries (the time when Europe/US completed its global conquest) more often than its Asian counterparts. And even after the 1945 U.S. occupation, in part due to the allies’ veneration for its military successes, Japan retained most of its sovereignty.

 

Thailand’s story is neither as remarkable nor as tragic as Japan’s, but they both share the claim of escaping European/US control until the 2WW. Few people know that Thailand’s rulers were relatively successful at playing European/US interests against each other to protect its sovereignty. But in the second part of the 20th Century, after a Japanese occupation and being used by the U.S. as a military platform for the Vietnam War (the Cold War had an irresistible effect in polarizing the world) it fell to the crowing US hegemony. It is unfortunate, but today Thailand has not been as successful in retaining economic, cultural and even less, political sovereignty as it did more than a century ago (and even then, it was a restrained sovereignty). 

 

So, yes, the world has been conquered by White’s interests, and wherever you go, Whites are naturally at the top of the social hierarchy. Even the way I am presenting this piece of history is based on a White logic; it empowers and put Whites at the center of the narrative. But things are changing, it seems, unfortunately not necessarily for good. Today, China and Japan, among some others, are successfully defying what it means to be White and powerful. Being White, as students of racism have long known, is a highly unstable and uncertain category (In Spanish America wealthy people could “buy” Whiteness). But to a large extent, these new definitions of racial hierarchy, though not solely concerned with skin pigmentation, follows the European cultural and material model instead of challenging it. 

 

You may find it strange, but I think that such a process is also happening in the U.S. too. 

 

And to refer to Marj’s concern about the motivation behind the European conquest of the world: it is very tempting to simplify such a complex series of events. The traditional explanation, which follows a trade/Christian logic of history, is that the Islam cut Western European Christians off from the Eurasian trade to which they have been dependent since prior to the Roman Empire. So, Westerners naturally wanted to reconnect with the Asian trade and to evangelize the world in the process (the “discovery” of America was a collateral result). The legacy of the Christian “Crusades” against the Islam is certainly palpable throughout the 500 years of global expiation (Hidalgos in the Americas saw themselves as knights fighting to protect Christianity). A variation to that explanation is that European appalling lack of gold in the face of the “Orient’s” self-sufficiency (the then “all-powerful” Chinese preferred to trade in gold or silver) propelled adventurers to gradually “discover”-conquer the Americas and the African Atlantic coast. The supposedly overpopulation of Europe (dis-landed and disempowered people searching for better odds) is a supplement to these ideas (but in fact, China’s population was growing faster and they did not catapulted). 

 

It is not difficult to see, moreover, that the Western Christian tradition was more distant from nature than most others, and this may help explain the Christian indifference to balance in nature. As a contrast, anthropologists have shown how Meso-American cultures were (are) profoundly concerned with natural equilibriums (I am careful to specify “Western Christianity” because there has been other Christian traditions around the world, often older, that do not share the same cultural markers, but have been . 

 

But a more nuanced and critical explanation of the motives behind the modern conquest of the World considers the European intra-wars, new perspectives on the Islam-Christian conflicts, the conquering nature of great monotheistic religions, the human migrating nature, and the impact legal and intellectual movements had on effecting the submission of the “Other.” Just the fact that there is a gap of more than a century between the (Catholic) Iberian conquests and the (Protestant) North European segregationist and isolationist settlements in North America and the smaller Antilles shows that the process was not simple at all.

 

It is true that by 1492, Europe had not yet recovered from the 1350s bubonic plagues, that it lacked the richness they eventually found in the Americas; that much of its wild-life had been extinct; and that in comparison to the Asian and even African wealth it was not the preeminent place that it would later try to claim. But Europe was not an environmental chaos, or a barren land when the conquest began. In fact, as a stark contrast with foreign conquests, many rulers tried to protect its natural resources. Moreover, Europeans did not see themselves as a unified or even a racial group. For a Spanish noble, an Aztec elite warrior would differ from a Cossack officer in that the latter would likely be a Christian Orthodox and the former without religion (and thus difficult to categorize), but they would both be “Others” to him.  The fact that skin color was an obvious difference played little or no part in making them different. The concept of race, as a bodily and naturally determined differentiation, developed in the process of conquest and closely linked to slavery, but not a motivation for conquest either. 

 

So, even though the Europeans exploited people and resources around the world (the current huge extinction can be traced back to the first European conquests of the America), the idea of them leaving Europe after depleting its resources does not nicely fit the historical record. The so-called “industrial revolution” (I prefer “industrialization”), which began in the 18th century, is more to blame for the current human-made chaos in nature. This is also a European initiative linked to World-conquest, of course, but for that we should perhaps need another entry. 

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About Dennis R. Hidalgo
I am a historian of the Atlantic World. I am passionate about people, those alive in the present and those who left little trace of their past.

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