I Wanna Be Literated #206

I Wanna Be Literated #206

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

“Is the Turk a White Man?”
Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity
by Murat Ergin

It’s important to note that the title “Is the Turk a White Man?” is a reference to an article the New York Times published in 1909 and isn’t actually the question addressed in this book. That’s why it’s in quotation marks. Ergin simply uses it as a reference for the genesis of when Turkish identity was being explored in Western culture. The book is actually a pretty in-depth analysis of how Turkey decided to redefined itself in order to survive the crisis of the Ottoman collapse. At the surface, it’s unclear in what context “Is the Turk a White Man?” was written. Is it an academic thesis that was adapted into a book? Is it a book meant for popular consumption? The end product is definitely a mix of both.

Let me make it clear that being a Turk I enjoyed this book very much, but there are also some pretty annoying things in it, for lack of a better word. For one thing, Ergin is constantly telling the reader what he’s about to tell them instead of actually telling them. Another is how Ergin dwells on classification and definitions at the beginning of each chapter, which are wordy and confusing and seemingly unnecessary when he gets into the meat of the book. It really prevented this from being a truly great book.

But like I said, I did enjoy the book because when you get past all that, “Is the Turk a White Man?” has a great analysis of Turkish identity. Having visited Turkey a few times and read up on the culture, Ergin’s analysis makes total sense. The Turks, focused on survival, decided to do what every new CEO of a company does, and that’s to blame the previous CEO for everything. That’s what happened when Ataturk came to power. It’s important to note that Turkey has never been completely conquered by an outside power, so it has never been a colony. But at the same time, desperate and proud, the government had to somehow boost morale after such a massive collapse of power and did so by trying to sell the idea that the Turks were the somehow responsible for all of modern civilization around the world. They were the originators of culture, greatness, nobility, and language. It was pretty Orwellian, since Turkey was desperate to be accepted by the west and in order to do so had to both adapt all of its modernity while at the same time claiming that if it weren’t for them it wouldn’t have existed in the first place. And since the West was mostly white, the Turks believed they themselves were white. Or at least they had to pretend to be in order to try and fit in with the new powers. Anyone arguing differently would be ostracized. The picture that emerges is both complex and very easy to recognize if anyone has gone through high school. Turkey was simply trying to fit in with the cool kids. It completely misunderstood how modernization should work and focused on copying instead of making anything new.

This is a book that should interest anyone who cares to learn more about modern Turkish culture. It can feel like it drags a bit, but when it focuses it’s a highly entertaining and informative read.

Get it from Haymarket.

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