Marius Turda: The idea of race across centuries and our current moment of reckoning

Marius Turda in conversation with Ferenc Laczo about A Cultural History of Race.

Ferenc Laczó: You have just acted as the main anthology editor of a series of six books collectively titled A Cultural History of Race which contains over 1,700 pages in total. This impressive new project of yours traces history on the long term, from antiquity all the way till contemporary times, what you call the modern and genomic age. May I ask what this long-term horizon allows you to grasp? What does it reveal about how conceptions of race and practices around race and racism became more forceful during the Renaissance and the Reformation, and then even more so during what we tend to term the period of the Enlightenment?    

Marius Turda: Thank you for the question. I’m very pleased to be able to say a few words about this massive project. As you pointed out, it covers a long period of time. It starts with Antiquity and brings the conversation about race and various personifications of racial thinking all the way into the present day. It is not an easy feat to put together six volumes on the history of race – it’s not an easy feat to put together six volumes on the history of any idea. How do you do it? What do you select? Which things you include, and which things to leave out are all questions that need to be answered.

Apart from the intellectual conversations you have about the project of this scale, there’s also an internal dynamic that relates to the personal subjectivities of the authors; their scholarly background, ideological convictions, and indeed the times we live in. Most of the work on these six volumes happened during the past two and a half years. It coincided with the pandemic; it coincided with Black Lives Matter, the killing of George Floyd in America, and the global uproar it caused. We are living in extremely interesting times, so to be part of that global conversation and then work on a project related to race and racism was extremely challenging and rewarding for me.

I think it was a good strategy to try and reflect in this work over the long-term horizon. On the one hand, it allowed us to see how ideas of race change over time. They in fact have a sophisticated capability to adapt to specific contexts, geographical areas, moments in time. At the same time, this project made us reflect on periods of time which normally do not come under the scrutiny of scholars of race and racism.

We have a great deal of work being done on the modern personification of race and modern racism roughly since the 1700s onwards, and especially on the 20th century.  But unless you’re a scholar of race and racism, you wouldn’t really know much about what happened before; what happened during the Reformation or the Renaissance, or indeed what happened in early modern period and the way back to antiquity, to classical Greece or Egypt? Our project is intended for the general public and scholars interested in how race emerged and changed into various personifications across time.

It is also about how we write about race; how the scholarship about race changes, and how it’s under continuous transformation. To give an example: for us it was not simply about how race was represented in the Antiquity, but also about how classical scholars engage with race in their work.

This was the two-pronged approach we try to pursue in these six volumes.

On the one hand, we need to see whether what we call race today – the biological version of it, the cultural version of it, the linguistic version of it, or all of those together – can be traced back and to when and how. But at the same time, we as writers, as scholars, as historians, literary critics, as philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists want to engage with this particular issue and reflect on how we write about it in a particular period.

Our contributors and editors are indeed not just historians – some of them are historians while others, as I have pointed out, might be sociologists, anthropologists, literary historians, philosophers, or representatives of other disciplines. All these different takes on the issue of race are being put forward in these volumes. I think that creates a very interesting interplay that shows how various disciplines can contribute to a discussion about race.  The other thing we’re trying to do in the series is to move away from a Euro-centric or Western-centric perspective about race, as we try to question and critique paradigms in historical writing about a particular period. 

I’ve been blessed with a host of editors and contributors who have produced something quite remarkable.  As a tool, our project is designed to serve an educational purpose. It’s got to be ambitious as a scholarly project, but ultimately it is designed to be a tool for students and for educators – our volumes are meant to be used in the classroom as a way of introducing students and non-specialists to the topic of race and racism. That was the ambition I was guided by when I put together these six volumes.

You insist in your general editor’s preface that the six volumes in the series approach the history of race intersectionally, with a clear understanding of its complex relationship with other concepts such as gender, religion, class, or nation. Would you care to comment on some of the main conclusions regarding issues of intersectionality? What can we say about how categories of race have intersected with those other key categories across millennia?

How race works in connection with other concepts and across time is an important question, we’ve indeed addressed in this collection. One of the advantages of looking at this particular topic across time is that it allows you quite distinctly to see the permutations and the intersectionality of it.

If you look at the Antiquity or the early periods, you could see how already in the work of the classical authors or in the works of the major theologians of the early period, religion and gender and race worked together. Sometimes race or racial differences, or human differences, were expressed through the category of gender or through the category of culture. We know this from classical authors such as Aristotle.  In other instances, race gets expressed through the categories of religion – whether you were a Christian or a Jew or non-Christian or non-Jew or Muslim, if we bring it towards the period of the crusades. When we go to the medieval period, we can see how again gender becomes very important in the medieval construction of race, and religion obviously also plays an important role then.

We can sometimes see race in the background, at other times it is front and center.

Sometimes it’s expressed directly using quite explicit terminology, namely referring to physical differences between individuals, the color of the hair or the color of the skin. Sometimes it is implicit in the construction of the author that allows us to understand that the message was about difference, about constructing barriers or obstacles or about drawing boundaries between people.

Just think of Shakespeare and how he played very astutely with ideas of religion and class and gender and race in some of his plays.  

I suppose the term intersectionality is of rather recent use. In the 20th and 21st centuries, it has become part and parcel of the discussion about race and racism. But the same strategy was applied by scholars of earlier periods, even when they didn’t use the term, because it was felt that to understand the complexity of what we call a cultural construction of race in early periods would require you to intersect it with other registers, such as religion or culture or gender.  That allowed us, the editors, to put forward a very interesting way of looking at the issue of race and racism.

Now in the modern period the relationship between race and religion and gender or nation becomes more articulate and it’s easier to discuss. There’s a great deal of scholarship about the conflation of terms in the 19th century or 20th century when people talk about nation and about people and about race; there’s a great deal of overlapping between these terms.

In order to unpack and exfoliate the complex edifice of race, you need not just good hermeneutical skills and good linguistic skills, but it also requires, as I put it in the general introduction, to look at the history of race in an intersectional way and be alert that there is always a possibility of the transmodification or transformation of race into something that you would not necessarily expect.

That could be a very helpful way of asking afresh some of the big questions in the history of Western and non-Western culture and civilization by revising some of the big debates we had in historiography for the past 200 years, and then to rewrite some of the answers by offering a fresh interpretation of the classical authors.  

As you’ll see in these six volumes, some of the names mentioned there are literally in the Pantheon of world culture – we discuss major philosophers and major writers, poets, painters and musicians. What that shows is that the entire construction of race is being done by everyone contributing to human culture. We can therefore look at the history of race historiographically and try to understand what people said in the past, how they said it, and why they said it in that way.

With this topic, there is always that nudge you get when you read something – it could be a poem from the 15th century, it could be a philosophical text from the 18th century, or it could be a debate about whether some people deserve to be ‘saved’, whether some communities are better than others, or it could be about whether a particular group of individuals have ‘souls’ or not. 

There seems to be an innate tendency in human societies to engage in this form of categorization: to catalog separation rather than to provide that wider view that allows for diversity to flourish properly.

I would also like us to talk a bit about the methodologies and specific foci of these six volumes. You clarify in your introduction that your project reflects how methodologies have been shifting in your field of study, and that next to the historical, cultural, and philosophical realities of race, your volumes also deal with its aesthetics, literary functions, and representations. Could I ask you to say more about what some of the key methodologies used by the altogether 61 contributors to these volumes are? And how do authors approach the aesthetics, literary functions, and various representations of race in particular?

Creating a methodology that worked across the six volumes was a big challenge and I hope it worked in the end: I had to come up with a unifying structure because the publisher wanted the same structure applied across all six volumes.

But how do you apply a structure that works very well with 20th century history to the Antiquity without becoming anachronistic or forcing a modern construction rather than something that the ancient authors or the medieval authors would have recognized?

If you’re a classical scholar, if your area of expertise is Aristotle, would you use the same terminology about human difference and categories of racial identification as someone like me who’s a modern historian? In other words, that compatibility had to be achieved somehow. There had to be a balance so not to homogenize the options, but to create a relationship that would work across the volumes. 

I’m a modern historian, and I know more about the 19th and 20th century than I know about classical periods.  I had to really engage with the scholarship and with the editors and the contributors to see whether they see some of the questions and themes in the same way. I proposed to the authors that we are going to have 10 chapters in each volume.  Each chapter will deal with one particular theme such as race and gender; representation of the body; the interconnection between race and religion; race and nation; race and ethnicity; race and culture; race and anti-race, in other words the reaction authors and people had to racialized interpretations of identity. That was the methodology that I had to stick to, and it was extremely difficult at the beginning to see how to find the authors to really fit into that.

Geographical expertise was also important. I know more about East and Central Europe, for example, and I know that someone who knows about East and Central Europe would have a slightly different understanding of the same things than a specialist in Brazil or a specialist in South America or Australian history. How do we bring all those understandings together in a global effort to conceptualize something that remains extremely relevant to our debates about history and even outside the confines of history, such as the concept of race?

The aesthetics of race or the literary functions of racial tropes and various representations of race had to be considered in a flexible way, in a rather fluid way, so that we could create a rigorous methodology. People who will have the time and the patience to read the six volumes will be capable to judge whether our endeavor was successful in this way. We developed one approach which was my suggestion to the editors and to the contributors and which was based on the fact that the series had to look similar to other series Bloomsbury is publishing – series devoted to a cultural history of food, of clothing, of genocide, etc. There is a certain strategy that the publisher wants to adopt in order to make these series look coherent and uniform, which might work with certain topics and might not work so well with other topics. The editor then tries to find a way to bring it all together, to remap the arrangement so that everyone is able to contribute.  

I will give you an example: the last chapter in each volume is about anti-race and anti-racism. The basic principle is that this chapter is devoted to a critique of race, no matter how you formulate it. It is very easy to have a chapter on critiques of race when you write about the 21st century or even about the 19th century, but how do you apply that to the medieval period or even the Enlightenment? The debate among classical scholars is still raging whether we can apply the word ‘race’ to that period in the first place. To write a chapter on people critiquing race presupposes they’ve already got a category considered as such.

Here comes that two-pronged approach I mentioned at the beginning, which implies looking at how we write about the history of race.  When we look at earlier periods, it becomes more about how later scholars created the canonical reading of the past, and what words or terminology they used. Their terminology must be questioned. In some cases, it needs to be reconsidered. This way it became possible to write about anti-race in early modern periods or in the Antiquity, because what you actually wrote about was your personal characterization as a classical scholar or a medieval scholar, and your engagement with the scholarship that you come from and represent. That interesting relationship between the subject and you as an individual writing about it is something that this collection puts forward quite forcefully, which I consider one of its achievements.

This is a major history on over 1,700 pages and an essential resource for researchers and members of the wider public. Could I ask how you have aimed to deal with the global dimensions of the questions you and your authors were interested in? May I also ask how the East and Central European region fits into the picture that the authors paint? Is there something specific to this broad and diverse region’s cultural history of race, or is East and Central Europe perhaps not a particularly relevant category when analyzing this major subject on a global scale?

I would argue that the category of race and the discussion about race in East and Central Europe is essential. It must happen in accordance with the global debate, but it must also follow the internal logic of the historiographic traditions in the region which are not easy to follow for someone who’s not familiar with the region’s history, and indeed its linguistic diversity. It’s a complex story without adding the word race to it, but that must be happening. Not even considering the tragedies and the horrors of the 20th century, even if we look at the 19th century, we know enough to articulate a well-written, well-argued collaboration between the category of race and other concepts such as nation, or people, or the Church in general in East and Central Europe. We have enough evidence now regarding major 19th-century East and Central European writers who were already familiar not only with a debate about the race, scholarly speaking – they had read the classics from Arthur de Gobineau to Houston Stewart Chamberlain – but while putting the bases of their own national traditions, they were trying to find a way to insert these very important categories somewhere in the big tapestry that would become the national historiography.

Now, these six volumes could not devote too much to just East and Central Europe, but this region is represented, and so is Russia – or you might prefer to say East and Central Europe broadly defined is represented that also includes Russia. That is clearly the case in the volume about the modern debate on race where we have East and Central European and Russian contributors who are de-centering this obsession with the ideal types represented by the West.

I am happy you brought up East and Central Europe since in a way it’s not just about re-ordering the debate along different axes, such as East-West or North-South. That is being done across the six volumes which are all looking at debates, ideas, and examples from outside the Western sphere or the Western paradigm as well. There is also a need for remapping and reshuffling concepts and how they worked across the world, and I think East and Central Europe can provide the impetus for that reinterpretation.

So there is a global dimension and there are regional specificities.

In six volumes you would assume to have space to write something about Hungary or something about Romania, but then you realize it’s not that easy. I couldn’t push forward any particular preference in terms of geographical arrangement to the individual volume editors or to the contributors; it was simply a matter of them deciding how and where to stop in terms of geographical coverage. Maybe at some point to write the cultural history of race in East and Central Europe in six volumes would be a wonderful idea to complement the cultural history of race that we have just produced for Bloomsbury.

I wished to ask you about two types of balance next. You state that your overall aim was – and I am quoting – “to strike a balance between scholarly detachment, empathy and direct participation in the current conversations about decolonization, whiteness, anti-racism and Black Lives Matter.” And that you aim to provide “not only academic guidance but, equally important, a nuanced and innovative critique of race and racism as well.” How do you view the relationship between analysis and critique when it comes to your subject? And how might the approach employed in these six volumes differ from anti-racist academic and activist projects that have enjoyed great success in recent years, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s in the US?

It’s interesting you mentioned Ibram Kendi, I did correspond with him about the volumes, having read his first book Stamped from the Beginning, which I then used in my teaching as well. I spoke to him about these six volumes and about something that I had in mind while working with my colleagues on this project: how do we bring in that engagement and how do we bring in historical awareness? As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re living in times which represent big challenges on many levels, personal and collective, and from issues such as racism, to issues such as public health, and immigration and global warming. How do we, as scholars, engage with these topics while keeping a detached, more objective approach to the topics we want to write about, so our scholarly work doesn’t just become a politicized project?

We are aware of the need to engage civically and personally with the issues around us and we care about what’s happening with the world around us, but ultimately, this should still be a scholarly dialogue and should allow for a diversity of opinion and for different points of view and give the readers the possibility to make up their own minds rather than suggest a particular agenda to them.

So how do we strike that balance, which is not easy to strike? It used to be much easier, for example, to write about medieval topics because it happened so long ago and was considered completely out of touch with what’s happening around us. But then we saw what happened in 2016 to 2017 in the US with the revival of medieval symbols, from Anglo-Saxon to Nordic mythologies, within the movement of white supremacy. We saw their re-interpretation of medieval symbols, how they were applied immediately to political reality by various groups. Medieval scholars realized that they needed to engage with these developments. As medieval scholars, they needed to write about decolonization and whiteness and what it means to be ‘black’ or ‘white’. These are the types of issues that traditionally modern historians or modern observers would write about but with the recent reshuffling of the world, with Donald Trump in America, Brexit in Britain, then the pandemic, then the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, it was clear that these topics were being brought into the current vortex and that demanded a different type of writing.

Ibram Kendi is very right in suggesting that we are not in a post-racial period, and we need to still de-bunk and critique properly racism and to become anti-racist. That kind of drive can be clearly observed now across disciplines and across scholarships.

Hopefully, we did justice to both scholarship and civic activism by coming out of the ivory towers of scholarship, participating in the debate, and engaging in what people are concerned about. That was the project, but it is also the journey; and it is the journey we are all on at the moment.

Your volumes offer a cultural history of race. You do insist, and rightly so, of course, that “engaging with the legacy of slavery, empire, colonialism and genocide, and not just with the overall historical trajectory of race, is another important aspect” of your project. Could I ask how you wished to balance between a broad cultural history and the more specific histories of violence that are so central to the history of racial ideas and racist practices?

Violence is inherent in any construction of race. And race also constructs, it constructs a system of oppression, and a system of power and privileges. And it continues to privilege white people over non-white people and it generates its own violence that sustains the project. The racist project is sustained through oppression and violence, otherwise it doesn’t succeed.

We have these examples from the past; you mentioned colonialism, empires of slavery, and not only in North America or in South America or the West Indies, but slavery in Europe – if you think of the Roma slavery for 500 years. So that is an important part, and it has to be recognized. You have the Holocaust, then you have a litany of violent acts across the 20th century against communities of people, indigenous peoples, and that violence continues to this day.

That is represented in the writing of the chapters, and it is expressed clearly in the volumes. It all depends on each individual author how he or she or they interacted with the very idea of violence. We all agree this is central to explaining the intricacies of the racist project and the intricacies of the history of race. This is not only an academic conversation: what we are discussing led to the murder of millions of people throughout history, it led to annihilation of various communities, it led to the destruction of cultures. Racism destroyed lives and is destroying the hopes of so many people.

It is easy to see when looking at modern periods: if you only read volumes five and six, the history of violence will be quite obvious to you. When you go back to earlier periods and try to see how it was articulated at the time, then it becomes a different story, but a story, nevertheless, and a story that is there.

As a last question, I wished to ask you a question about the current moment. As somebody who is so intimately familiar with the longue durée cultural history of race, what strikes you the most about our current moment of reckoning? Would you say we are experiencing something truly novel, experiencing a major step forward right now, or would you rather say recent and current developments rather point to a new polarization around issues of race and racism?

That’s a very good question to engage with. Anti-racist behavior and anti-racist literature has existed for centuries, but it tended to be associated with certain communities of people.  For example, a critique of Nazi racism by Jewish authors, or by leftist intellectuals, or you have a critique of white supremacy by African American writers, or a critique of colonialism by former colonial authors, and so on.

I would say in terms of the anti-racist ethos or anti-racism, the way we experience it at the moment is quite remarkable. It’s quite novel and it’s quite tectonic in its impact.  What we can see now is that those earlier pillars are still there, but more and more people are being brought in from very different historical traditions.

Even if you look at East and Central Europe, which traditionally did not participate in the anti-racist debate, or it participated very differently both before the 1940s and during communism and in ways that maybe are not fully acknowledged or recognized, there is now clearly something novel going on in terms of the voices you hear, in terms of the arguments, in terms of the cohesion, in terms of the solidarity, in terms of the interest and genuine intentions to come to terms with the wrongs of the past.

On the other hand, racism in 2021 may wear a new dress, but it’s not a new thing. A lot of the racist behaviors and racist thinking, regrettably, have never gone away. It may have been more implicit in some contexts a while ago, it may have been more subterranean in its appearance, but it was always there. That’s something that has to be recognized as well, because it is our responsibility: maybe the postwar global community allowed it to linger for so long and allowed it to continue and even to continue to flourish in some instances – we can see this in what happened for the past 20 years.

We are faced with very serious global challenges. Building up an anti-racist and anti-eugenic ethos is one of them, and people are coming together and are working out a strategy. That mobilization, and that ability to transgress ideological persuasions and ideological options is new and I hope it can generate a truly new and a better way not only of coming to terms with the past in terms of a reckoning with the legacies of slavery, of racism, of extreme nationalism, of the Holocaust, but can generate a way to move forward. And we need to move forward after all this is done and we are able to look into each other’s eyes again.  We need to find a way to move forward and to build a better and fairer society for our children and for those coming after them.

In collaboration with Karen Culver.

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