[A fellow student] said that whites have made the most accomplishments in the world, a statement which makes me angry because he continues to insist that other races or cultures are unpleasant or inferior. What can I say to him to argue that this is not true?
The assumption that person is making is a fairly common one. White Westerners have been at the forefront of so much technological and socio-cultural achievements in the modern world, so it follows that there must be something superior about white people. Right?
The question of whether one racial group is more or less intelligent than another is not one I'm going to get into here. While it is a relevant question to this discussion, I don't think it's necessary.
There are two other points that I find more pertinent:
(1) What is now, has not always been.
To look at the 20th Century in isolation, one might conclude that there is something superior about white people; the most powerful countries (the USSR, the USA, Germany, England, etc) were all basically white. Even looking at the preceding few centuries, before the rise of the US as the world's pre-eminent superpower, Europe dominated the world stage in terms of inventions and accomplishments.
But if look back in time a little further, the theme of European superiority is revealed for what it is: a phase. If we studied the world prior to the 15th century (the start of the colonial era) and wondered which country would eventually achieve the most linguistic and cultural dominance over the world, England would be one of the last nations you would pick. That small island off the coast of Europe had, in the scheme of things, very little going for it.
Instead, you would look at China, the Mongol Empire, and the Arabs, and think it was only a matter of time before one of them enveloped the whole world.
For most of known human history, Northern Europe did very little of note. Countries like Iran, Ethiopia, Iraq, Cambodia, India and Peru are hardly regarded as examples of modernity today, yet they boasted relatively advanced civilizations at a time when Northern Europeans were worshiping trees and getting invaded by their more advanced and aggressive neighbours.
But civilizations rise and fall. Angkor in what is now Cambodia, and Axum in present-day Ethiopia, are just two nation-states that for whatever reason didn't last, while others nearby flourished. The earliest cities were in the Middle East, yet several thousand years later, that region has lagged behind others in its advancements. Then through the discovery of oil, several Middle Eastern nations find themselves amongst the world's wealthiest again. China was the world's largest and most advanced nation for longer than any other, far ahead of even Rome at its height. China then began to stagnate from the 15th Century onward while Europeans aggressively sought out new expansions, yet the 21st Century sees China rising again and soon to displace the US as the world's main mover-and-shaker.
Saying that "whites have made most of the accomplishments in the world" reflects a very limited short-term understanding of world history. It's like spending 5 minutes looking at the darkened sky at night, and then concluding that the sky has always been dark.
(2) The importance of opportunity
But even given my previous point, it still begs the question: why do some cultures and ethnic groups seem to be responsible for more inventions and advancements? Why do the people of North America, Europe and East Asia tend to wealthier and more advanced societies?
The best book that answers this question is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. But assuming that you're not going run straight out and read that book now, I'll break it down briefly for you.
During the colonial era, European societies had electricity, the wheel, paper, gunpowder, and many other cultural advancements. Many of the world's tribal cultures - the Australian Aborigines, for example - had nothing approaching these things. So it is frequently assumed that there is something inherently backward about either Aboriginal culture, or Aboriginal people themselves.
Now without wishing to belittle the great things that have been accomplished by Europeans, there is one clear reason why they were able to do lots of things that indigenous Australians weren't: opportunity. To independently invent something truly significant - let's say, the sailing ship - you need to have certain things available to you already. For example, you need to have knowledge of more primitive forms of boat,such as the rowboat. You also need to be around large bodies of water. It should come as no surprise that people living in deserts did not independently invent sailboats. It's not because they weren't smart enough.
The Australian Aborigines never knew the art of agriculture. This would seem like a fairly basic step in human cultural development, so why did they never learn it before the Europeans arrived?
Well, the Europeans didn't invent agriculture either. They knew how to farm because thousands of years ago, someone in the Middle East invented it, and this knowledge gradually worked its way into Europe where it was adopted. Australia, by contrast, was isolated from developments happening elsewhere, and was not possessed with suitable flora and fauna anyway.
Europe succeeded largely because it had a relatively temperate climate, and had access to the innovations developed in other parts of the world.
Another important point to remember is this: European countries became so powerful in the colonial era because they decided to invade other countries. They were obviously not alone in this activity. But contrast that with China. China was the most advanced and most powerful nation in the world for thousands of years, yet at the time when European powers were looking for new territories to exploit, China decided it was content with what it already had. Had China really wanted to conquer the world, it probably could have.
Power and dominance throughout human history has not come merely through being smart. People and nations became powerful because they had not just the means, but the desire to kill, conquer and enslave those who stood in their way. Was this noble, a sign of greater civilization? It depends on your perspective. It is notable that when Japan became a colonial power from the late 19th century onwards, they were guilty of activities that we now quite rightly regard as barbaric. Yet they were really just doing what the Europeans had been doing for centuries.