After Race Before Race

 

On Friday and Saturday, January 18-19 2019, Arizona State University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies directed by Professor Ayanna Thompson hosted a paradigm shifting conference on race and race studies in the medieval and early modern periods. Following upon The Globe’s Shakespeare and Race Symposium of August 2018, this program expanded the field of inquiry to move beyond, as Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper noted, the greatest white writer of the English language to consider how race works in the premodern world, to tackle head-on the notion that race “is not a thing” before the eighteenth century, and to confront the ubiquitous and unbearable whiteness of our fields, not simply in the way that the objects we study are evacuated of racial character and racialized bodies erased from the historical and material record but also in the composition of the practitioners in our fields: whiteness organizes what and how we study and know and receives no sustained interrogation.

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The conference was exceptional in the way it brought together scholars working in the medieval and early modern periods; moreover, it prioritized the insights, experiences, and critical investments of scholars of color. Seeing these brilliant scholars speak with the authority of their expertise and of their identities and subjectivities was indescribably special. They reminded us that all scholarship is rooted in our identities, and as Dr. David Sterling Brown noted in his talk, even the work of white scholars reflects their whiteness, in their politics (which are never modified with the word identity) and in their positioning of whiteness (never mentioned always invisible) as universal. To witness these scholars uncover hidden figures in medieval and early modern literature, to expose racial regimes of representation, and to develop new frameworks and matrices through which to understand the slippery and unstable terrain of race and its imprimatur on bodies was to observe radical, liberatory scholarship in action. I was struck, as I always am in such situations, by the fact that scholars of color are still fighting for a seat at the table, to lift the recurring metaphor of Brown’s talk, and by the new work that this scholarship will enable.

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What was clear to all was the necessity and urgency of the work we are doing and that we still need to do. As was the need to get white people in the academy and other gate-keeping institutions on board. Not because their validation was needed, as the conference program and speakers made clear, that was not the point. The point was to practice the ethics that we preach in the academy, and to do that, as Dr. Dorothy Kim argued, was to center the lives, voices, interests, and experiences of BIPOC in our narratives and to consider how racializing regimes impact them, rather than the white supremacist society and peoples that create the system. At the same time, having white people as allies in the fight for the continued future of race studies means that white people have to put in the work of learning and utilizing a critical race theory framework. It also means they have to use the adjective white when they talk about anything that isn’t utilizing a critically informed intersectional theoretical lens. In this case intersectional needs to be invested with the meaning that Kimberlé Crenshaw articulates: the ways in which power affects the different parts of your identity in your interactions with the state or other forms of institutional status quo. Therefore, if we talk about women’s cooking cultures in the early modern period, we have to, as Professor Kim F. Hall stated, call out the white women who participate in this culture and also uphold a racial regime of bondage and servitude in the plantation colonies and the metropole. To think through race in the medieval and early modern periods and even in our own time is to think about the work that race, racial language, racial structures, and racial regimes are doing, the forms of knowledge they are producing and promoting, the ontologies they are constructing, and the violence they are perpetuating. That means that we can no longer let ourselves or others off the hook for not paying attention or forgetting race. Those are deliberate choices for which people will demand answers.

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This conference, like so much of early modern race studies and #ShakeRace, #LitPOC, and #MedievalTwitter, was a space of generosity, acceptance, critique, and rigor. I will say one thing about this final term. Having come to this conference after attending a week long training on how to participate in the Inside/Out prison education program, I know that no matter how inclusive we want to be, there will always be people who are not allowed into these transformative spaces because we live in and are complicit in the carceral state. Additionally, the common response to prison education is that to do that work you have to abandon rigor in your teaching. This is how rigor becomes weaponized in order to maintain the status quo, which all measures of inclusion, access, and equity seem to endanger. Rigor is an arbitrary standard mobilized and wielded by power in order to discount work that threatens to shake the racist, sexist, classist, and settler colonialist foundations of much of our work. I’m not suggesting that we don’t approach our work with difficulty or that this work isn’t critically informed and methodologically sound or even rigorous. What I am saying that I will dismiss out of hand any critique of race work that uses false claims of rigor as a measure to discount its value and necessity. Inclusion is scary but so is changing what and how we think about our periods and our objects of study. It’s past time we acknowledged why race studies has been marginalized for so long, and also, to borrow from Professor Kim Hall (and Beyoncé), it’s time to get in Formation.

For a full breakdown of the presenters and papers please follow #RaceB4Race or me (@DrDadabhoy) on Twitter.

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