I came across this tidbit in an article I was reading online tonight:
Explorer Captain James Cook, who gave this plant the botanical name of “intoxicating pepper”, first discovered kava kava. Kava has been used for over 3,000 years for its medicinal effects as a sedative, muscle relaxant, diuretic, and as a remedy for nervousness and insomnia.
My first thought was a sarcastic “Wow, Captain Cook predates Jesus!” because, obviously, if it’s been in use for 3,000 years and he was the first to discover it, he must have lived 3,000 years ago.
Of course, this isn’t what the writer means. The writer means “Of the Anglo sect of humanity from whose perspective I write and you are forced to read, Captain James Cook was the first to encounter this ancient herb.” Kava had no existence before it was found by whites: after being found by them, its prior existence became a simple “history”, suitable for books and encyclopedias. No more alive in today’s world than the Spanish Inquisition.
After my initial sarcasm, however, I was sobered by the realization that I’d grown up hearing similarly idiotic statements and I’m not sure at what age I stopped accepting them without thinking. “Christopher Columbus discovered America! And a bunch of people living on it! Who, um, somehow had no idea it was there until he pointed it out to them!” And for a nice added dash of Anglo privilege, let’s not forget the man’s real name was Don Cristoval Colon – but if that’s what we’d learned in the first grade, we’d have immediately recognized he wasn’t of Anglo descent and perhaps gotten the dangerous idea that people other than English speakers could contribute to society (or whatever it was he did). As an added bonus, we gloss over the fact that he thought he was on the other side of the world and the natives he met were therefore Indians. Instead of getting a good laugh for that one, we just didn’t make the distinction for about 200 years – and when we did suddenly realize how unfair that was of us, we didn’t bother to consult the people we’d been calling Indians. We just came up with the name “Native Americans” and patted ourselves on the backs for being so PC. “American Indians” saw it a bit differently, however:
At an international conference of Indians from the Americas held in Geneva, Switzerland at the United Nations in 1977 we unanimously decided we would go under the term American Indian. We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians and we will gain our freedom as American Indians and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose. –Russell Means
Freedom, sure – but you’ll also need history privileges if you want to make it stick.