Africa is a European invention. When the Romans finally defeated Carthage, they turned the place into a province and called it Africa. Originally this referred only to a small part of Tunisia and Algeria, but it later became the name of the entire continent. The same happened to Asia, another province of the Roman Empire, in what is now called the Near East. The names of the two other continents demonstrate even more obviously their European origins: America was named after an Italian traveler . . . and the term Australia comes from the fact that European voyagers who had some vague idea about the existence of this continent but knew nothing about it, called it "The Unknown Southland," Terra australis incognita.
If you go to Google today, you'll see the image above of mountain-climbers in the logo. If you scroll over this image, you'll be told that today is the "Anniversary of the First Ascent of Mount Everest." By using this name for the mountain and by celebrating its first ascent by Europeans, Google is promoting an outmoded, Eurocentric and colonialist view of the world.
This Eurocentric perspective, which pervades "Western" societies and much of the rest of the world, promotes an unthinking conception of Europe as the figurative and even literal center of the world. One of the ways it does this is by applying white Western names to non-Western sites, names that become largely unquestioned standards, obliterating local non-white perspectives and histories.
The mountain we think of as "Mount Everest" straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet, and the people of both of those places have their own names for it--Chomolungma for the Tibetans and Sagarmatha for the Nepalis. But the world knows it as Mount Everest because in the 1860s, it was given that name by Andrew Waugh, a British surveyor who helped with the imperial conquest of India, in honor of his predecessor, George Everest.
I noted a couple of days ago that Asian Americans usually don't like to be asked where they're from. Today I'll add that those with descendants from East Asia also don't like to be called "Orientals." "Orientals are rugs, not people," as an activist bumper sticker used to say. Fortunately, this particular tendency that some white people still enact doesn't seem to merit a blog post of its own, because the term is dying out.
The problem with the word "Oriental" is similar to the problem with the mountain name, "Mount Everest." Both are blithely Eurocentric, implying that it's the European perspective that matters, and that Europe is the center of the earth, and that European "civilization" is the pinnacle of human achievement. "The East" and "The Far East" are also problematic--east of what? Why, of Europe, of course. The word "Oriental" derives from a root meaning of "east," and "rising," as in the sun (people also "oriented" themselves with the position of the sun). The sun rises in the East, and the places and people over there were east of those in Europe, so they became the Orient and Orientals.
Google's celebration today of the ascent of "Mount Everest" promotes a similarly Eurocentric mindset, because it implies that the most important thing about that mountain is its ascent by European explorers. Never mind, Google implies, along with the rest of the West, whatever the mountain might mean to people on either side of it.
Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari is a Tibetan who works with the Dali Lama, and like other Tibetans, he's called for changing the mountain's name. According to World View Magazine, which published his recent plea in this regard, Gyaltsen Gyari was born "in Eastern Tibet and recognized at the age of three as a reincarnate lama, [and] he is also known as Gyari Rinpoche."
Gyaltsent Gyari writes,
It is my view that the concept of renaming places is very much a part of a colonial and imperialistic legacy, which must come to an end. Besides the fact that Chomolungma is the tallest mountain in the world, it is also a very holy place to the Tibetan people, and I believe that places with historical and religious significance should be referred to by their original names. . . .*
Calling a holy mountain by its original name has significance to me and to the Tibetan people, particularly at a time when the very survival of the Tibetan culture, language and identity is at stake. By ensuring that our sacred places are named in our own language, we reaffirm our connection to our land and acknowledge that the great Himalaya, which I came to know so intimately during my journey into exile, has a greater and deeper meaning to Tibetans, beyond its dizzying grandeur.
For Americans, there is a familiar precedent for reclaiming original geographic names. In Alaska, the largest mountain was dubbed Mount McKinley in 1896, after the man who was about to become president. Many locals, however, knew it as Denali, or "the great one," as the Athabasca Indians called it. In 1980, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain back to Denali, which the state government of Alaska now recognizes as its official name. This example should remind us that when we think of the mountain in Nepal and Tibet as Mount Everest, we should at least keep in mind that there are other, less imposed names for it.
Aside from using the name Mount Everest and celebrating a Westerner's conquest of the mountain by climbing it, Google also promotes a Eurocentric world-view in another way. If you go to their search site's Images section and type in "world map," hundreds of maps appear. Among these, it's difficult to find one that isn't literally Eurocentric, with Europe right at the center of things--the center of everything.
Perhaps there's little Google can do with such map searches to avoid promoting a Eurocentric, colonialist view of the world. However, Google should avoid promotions like today's image on its front page, including what the mouse scroll-over says from a particularly "Western" view about a particularly "Eastern" mountain. I sent a message asking that they do so, and you can send a request or demand here and/or here.
* I wonder, though, how the Nepalese would respond to a widespread adoption of the Tibetan name for a mountain that's in both countries.
[Hat-tip to Katie at KitKat's Critique]