The invention of race in the European Middle Ages. A research post

* Re-find also that Berkeley professor working on history of business, plantation and corporation.

Canonical critical race theory sees race as a modern invention, and often says it came in with the Enlightenment (sometimes moving back to the early modern period, but not earlier. This is not accurate. (See 261-62 for a list of major theorists who make this claim.)

In principle, then, race studies after the mid-20th century, and particularly in the last
three and a half decades, encourage a view of race as a blank that is contingently filled under an infinitely flexible range of historical pressures and occasions. The motility of race, as Ann Stoler puts it, means that racial discourses are always both ‘new and renewed’ through historical time (we think of the Jewish badge in premodernity and modernity), always ‘well-worn’ and ‘innovative’ (such as the type and scale of ‘final solutions’ like expulsion and genocide), and ‘draw on the past’ as they ‘harness themselves to new visions and projects’.
The ability of racial logic to stalk and merge with other hierarchical systems – such as class, gender, or sexuality – also means that race can function as class (so that whiteness is the color of medieval nobility), as ‘ethnicity’ and religion (Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia), or as sexuality (seen in the suggestion raised at the height of AIDS hysteria in the 1980s that gay people should be rounded up, and cordoned off, in the style of Japanese American internment camps in World War II). Indeed, the ‘transformational grammar’ of race through time means that the current masks of race are now overwhelmingly cultural, as witnessed since September 11, 2001.

This applies to the refusal of race generally:

Or, to put it another way: the refusal of race de-stigmatizes the impacts and consequences of certain laws, acts, practices, and institutions in the medieval period, so that we cannot name them for what they are, nor can we bear adequate witness to the full meaning of the manifestations and phenomena they install. The unavailability of race thus often colludes in relegating such manifestations to an epiphenomenal status: enabling omissions that have, among other things, facilitated the entrenchment and reproduction of foundational historiography in the academy and beyond. (266)

Race is always articulated differently and the Brazilian scholars’ insistence on exceptionalism is misguided: of course racial categories are different there, they are different everywhere (and that doesn’t mean white supremacy, or patriarchy, are not what they are, or are not what these categorizations serve).

There is more to be said.


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