The word “westerner”

Going back to the frequent use of the word “westerners” and “western” in American Buddhist circles, I have to always wonder what exactly the word means. I’ve already discussed some of it here. But today, I wanted to just look at the history of this word and the senses in which it’s been used in the past.

Sense A: Post World War II, as the Cold War was getting started, a new definition of “the West” was taking shape – it represented a military alliance – and this west was a concept shaped by the US. It stood in opposition to the Eastern Block of nations led by the Communist USSR. This distinction was not by skin color but more along politics and culture – Western Europe, USA and allies like CAN, AUS and NZL. It was a perfectly acceptable term in polite society.

Sense B: But prior to that, in the 19th century and upto the World Wars, as European colonial regimes observed cultures, usually of their colonies and studied them, colonial scholarship produced a clear “us” and “them”, the westerners and the “orientals” (no longer an acceptable term in polite American discourse).

Much of this scholarship also sought to establish the superiority of the west in racial terms, introduced words like “caucasian”, established that “logic” and “linear thinking” and “science/technology” as originated in the West, while it conceded/asserted that some kind of “spiritual” endeavors was the realm of the East. Often the studies were alongside religious studies by Christian missionaries/priests whose intention it was to learn enough about the religions of the east like Hinduism and Buddhism so as to be able to compare them unfavorably to Christianity.

The meaning that is in vogue these days among American Buddhists seems closer to sense B (minus any claims about racial differences or even a mention of race) as evidenced by the fact that Polish, Yugoslav, Russian, Romanian Buddhists are western Buddhists under the prevalent nomenclature. So we clearly don’t mean former NATO countries, but white/European countries.

Some will argue that this is not the case at all – the term means a person of European cultural heritage – and not race. So, they would argue that Black people in the US, for example whose cultural life may have been shaped by their American experience solely (which in turn is shaped at least in large part by a European heritage) and not by African culture would be westerners and therefore it’s fine as nomenclature. In effect, that this is a geographical term – all people in “the West” are westerners. But is that an honest line of argument?

Here are a few questions for pondering:

  • Do you think of Mexicans of largely indigenous blood, but maybe Spanish-descended culture, when you use the word ‘westerner’? What about non-white people of South America?
  • What about the Americans who have immigrated from Africa in the last few decades? They are definitely not eastern. Do they fall under your use of the word ‘western’, though?
  • And of course, Asian Americans – westerners or easterners? Clearly, there was Buddhism in the West from the 19th century onwards, long before “Western Buddhism” of the westerners came into existence in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I can’t think of a clearer demonstration of the fact that in Buddhist discourse, Asian Americans are not considered westerners.

Just know that the sense in which Buddhist circles use the word is as the opposite of a word that is no longer okay to even say.

As I mentioned in this post, go to any Asian American Buddhist community and tell me if the teacher uses words like “we westerners” in their teaching. If they don’t, one has to wonder why they don’t consider themselves included in by the word. Is it enough to just insist that all Americans would feel included if we say “in our western culture/upbringing/way of thinking”? So why is it a term that enjoys such popularity in certain other Buddhist circles?