Westernization is a complex notion that we are introduced to either as part of our curriculum (if you happen to follow a social study), or in the media. Whether you are familiar with the term or not, Westernization impacts people, organizations and countries from all around the world. In this blog post, I want to first have a look at what Westernization entails; secondly, dive into how the language we use mirrors processes of Westernization when we speak about people, cultures, and simply use language; and finally try to create understanding of the big-picture-issues surrounding processes of Westernization. While all of these may also be a result of a subconscious bias, this post aims to encourage its audience to pay attention to some of the language and conditioning within our daily practice, in order to dismantle harmful biases.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not an extensive review of Westernization as there are many more aspects, perspectives and history behind it.
What is Westernization?
By definition, the concept of Westernization refers to the adoption of the practices, and cultures of Western Europe, by societies and countries in other parts of the world, whether through compulsion or influence.
How did this come to be? Well, it only makes sense that the countries and nations that have been dominant throughout history by having colonized many lands and diminished plenty of cultures, become the prevalent culture of referral. Westernization can, to a large extent, be attributed to colonialism, imperialism, fascism and other vicious systems of oppression and annihilation. All of this, is consequently also amplified through the lens of globalization, and the digitalization and expansion of communication.
This can strongly be evidenced by looking at prevalent languages, for instance, the English language. While it is very useful to have a language that connects people across the world, English would not be so in-demand if the British were not such a colonizing “power”. Let’s not forget that this is the nation referred to their global destruction and theft of other cultures and lands as the Empire on which the sun never sets. Similarly, the Spanish language is the main language for most countries in Latin America, as is the French language - across many countries on the African continent, again namely due to colonization.
The Westernization of people, language, and culture.
If you’ve followed us, SCDAI, you know that our prime focus is on higher education. Many of us behind the scenes of the organization, as well as our audience, are students in an international and multicultural environment. From day one of stepping into classrooms of such rich cultural variety, we are challenged not only with familiarizing ourselves with our demanding curriculum but also with constantly acclimatizing to the new people and cultures around us. Therefore, learning about each other's cuisines, history, art, language, literature, and ways of expression becomes a must. However, since we've been conditioned to view the world through a westernized perspective, we seamlessly lose out on the richness of each other's cultures, all while instinctively standardizing one another’s identities to the Western norm.
Let’s look at several examples. While doing research for my thesis, I was roaming through some universities’ websites to look at the type of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives they have in place. On one of the websites I stumbled across a page titled Celebrating Differences which included many descriptions of diverse cultural holidays that the university embraces and celebrates. One of the mentioned holidays is referred to as the Jewish Easter, a.k.a Passover (Pesach).
This made me think about the many ways in which Westernization and in this case, the normativity of Christianity, subconsciously has us create mental shortcuts when speaking on cultures and their respective holidays. Passover has nothing to do with Easter, except for the fact that it is celebrated in a similar time span throughout the year. And if you’re not familiar with the two holidays - Easter is about commemorating the resurrection of Jesus, while Passover refers to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Even though other similarities can be found in the two holidays’ etymologies, as well as in the two religions overall, it is important to be able to separate the holidays from one another. In referring to Passover as the Jewish Easter, we strip away the holiday’s cultural significance and its purpose, while dressing it up in familiar elements, essentially making it something that it is not at all. In this way, the audience learns nothing about the holiday, the Jewish culture, religion, people and history.
Other examples of the Westernization of peoples and cultures can be observed in the way we even speak about our own cultures. We might find ourselves in a situation where we don’t know how to describe a certain significant person of our nation or culture, and resort to using references such as he is the Picasso of Bulgaria, for example. And while these mental shortcuts provide easy ways to translate culturally significant elements to a new audience, we continuously perpetuate Western cultures and norms, while erasing the uniqueness of our own cultures. There’s no shame in this, we’ve all been there, trying to make new friends cross-culturally, and these become most commonly the moments when we become victims of our own biases. And yes, we can have biases against our own cultures, too.
I too, as a Bulgarian myself, spent many of our history classes learning about the benefits Western countries reaped from colonialist times. In fact, big chunks of our history books focus on the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Western Europe. We were conditioned to believe that if we hadn’t been subjugated by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, we could also have had brilliant artists, poets and scientists of the same rank as the ones to the West; we could also have had the same ‘progress’. Yet, the problem with this idea of progress is that these periods of great prosperity and cultural awakening were a direct result of the resources that were taken from the colonized lands.
Why does using accurate and dignifying language matter?
While history is set in stone, we can still make a conscious shift in our internal biases, for example, through the way we use language. The power that language holds is very evident in the different connotations words such as “slaves” versus “enslaved people” hold. Nicole Hannah-Jones, a prominent journalist based in the US, gave this strong example of how making this small, yet significant change is extremely important in the way language can accurately and ethically depict such a power dynamic in her opening essay to the 1619 Project. By making this shift, where the first term is a heavily dehumanizing word, the second variation of it manages to retain the human identity and dignity of a person who was in bondage, and instead focus on describing the circumstances which were inflicted onto them, namely by colonizers.
Westernization can also be witnessed as part of many of our languages. I will give an example once again with my own country - Bulgaria. As mentioned, we were under Ottoman rule for 500 years until 1878. Nowadays the Bulgarian language still uses many Turkish words and customs due to the attempted and somewhat successful cultural, religious and linguistic repression by the Ottoman Empire. However, upon obtaining freedom, Bulgaria quickly became under Western influence, and French vocabulary infiltrated the language in aims to replace Turkish words. Conversely, during Bulgaria’s years within the Soviet Union, Russian became the language most people learned as a second language in school. As you probably are catching on, the dominant nation or country also exerts its influence culturally. While cultural exchange is not a negative trait, in fact, quite the opposite, and we should all be open to learning new languages, art and cuisines; the learning process should be done willingly, consciously and ethically, and not as a result of (neo)colonialism or economic and geopolitical gain.
Other examples include how countries typically opt for a “cultural assimilation” model, in which minority and underrepresented foreigners, expats, refugees, and immigrants are forced to resemble society’s majority group or assume their values, behaviors, and beliefs either fully or partially. And as we can see often times when assimilation does not happen (as it shouldn’t have to), populist narratives and politicians use such minority groups as scapegoats. This can be observed with the the way Muslim people are treated across Europe and the US, for example.
Connecting the dots
Understanding that processes of Westernization have a deep root in White and Western supremacy and superiority is the key to understanding the problem and dismantling such biases. As aforementioned, history cannot be changed, however we can change the way we use our language to pay respect to non-Western cultures, events, people and thought, in creating a fuller and more colorful collective imaginary.