After Race Before Race: Education

image credit ACMRS

This week, Jan 20-23, 2021 saw the first online iteration of the biannual #RaceB4Race symposium. Having shifted to the online format due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, this meeting was also the first in the wake of the global uprising for the movement for Black Lives that erupted in the Summer of 2020 after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the white supremacist shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. The theme of this year’s symposium, then, education was especially timely, since so many of us in higher education were wrestling the complicity of our institutions, fields, and departments with white supremacist ideologies and looking to transform our teaching practices so that they reflected the justice and equity missions of those same institutions and of our personal ethics and activism.

In her opening address, founder of #RaceB4Race and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Professor Ayanna Thompson, focused on the urgency of education as this year’s theme, noting that education is vital to systemic change: “Education is the key to unlock the concept and creation of new structures, new systems, new theories, new practices and new possibilities. We have to be taught to be actively anti-racist. We have to be taught to pursue radical equity. We have to be taught how to make systemic change. We have to be taught how to open our fields and we have to be taught how to teach premodern studies in a more inclusive fashion.”

Following Thompson’s lead, the presenters at #RaceB4Race: Education approached the theme through varied, capacious, and incisive critiques of the relation between race in the premodern and how we teach that period. The topics of presentations ranged from the problematic construction of racialized blackness in premodern German texts, to the racial subtext of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its critical erasure, to the trauma inflicted by the English language and its colonizing impulse, to the refusal to recognize the medieval when it shows up in and is appropriated by African American writers, to the use of the War on Terror to frame premodern European encounters with Islamicate regimes, to the aesthetic elevation necessary in projects that position Shakespeare as a white savior, to the new ways of seeing made possible through indigenous knowledge systems, to museum curatorial practices that offer a better understanding of the diversity and race consciousness of antiquity and the premodern, to a pedagogy that uncovers the knowledge/power undergirding travel narratives, and finally to an orientation toward teaching and research that bases itself on the multiplicity of knowledge and identity, rather than on its exclusion. Here’s a link to the program and to videos of the talks.

One of the central features of every #RaceB4Race symposium that I have attended has been the deliberate centering of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, whether through the identities of the speakers, the objects of inquiry, or the theoretical methodologies that were employed. This kind of prioritizing reveals an incredible level of care for the scholars and for the knowledge that they produce, which often comes from a place of trauma elicited by the structures and epistemologies of whiteness. In fact, the conference seems to pointedly marginalize whiteness, so that we can see beyond its corrosive and controlling frame. 

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Decentering whiteness is vital to any project that is invested in anti-racism. By this I don’t mean that white people have no role to play, indeed, they do. However, we cannot take on the work of dismantling white supremacy if we are invested in preserving the traditional (white) approach to Shakespeare and other canonical texts or in how those texts have contributed to the racist structuring of our societies. The fierce and brave work shared by the panelists at #RaceB4Race: Education, highlighted the liberatory possibilities opened up to our fields if they are open to modes of knowing that emerge as a legitimate challenge to the colonizing hegemony of whiteness. They further advocated for a pedagogy that will liberate all, not just some of us. 

When we discuss anti-racist pedagogy, especially as scholars of color, it is routine, for example, to get asked how you manage white students’ reactions when you undertake this work, a question that emerges from a place of whiteness, a place of care and concern for white feelings and white anger. On the one hand it, recenters whiteness as the most important thing to consider when doing anti-racist work, and on the other, it exposes little care for our non-white students. It further suggests that anti-racist education will not offer liberation our white students as well, excluding them from this possibility and removing any kind of responsibility they might have toward creating a more just world. This is not what I want for any of my students. We all have a responsibility to destroy white supremacy, and perhaps those who benefit the most from it share more of that burden, and so should not be insulated from it. The future I try to build for all of my students is one where none of them are bound to or by the insidious violence of white supremacy.

As always, #RaceB4Race has raised so many necessary questions and offered trenchant provocations to move premodern critical race studies forward and to move our fields in a direction that acknowledges the centrality of racial formation in our periods and in the genealogy of scholarship that we have inherited over hundreds of years. I’m just sorry that we could not all meet in person, since #RaceB4Race is one of the few places where scholars of color are often in the majority as both speakers and audience members and so is a place where we sit in community with one another.  Until the time when we can safely hold space with each other, I look forward, from a distance, to the paradigm shifting interventions my colleagues will make.

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