The Modern Legacy of Premodern Racial and Ethnic Concepts, Part 2: Deciphering Racial Markers, Medieval to Modern

AHA Session 82
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Michael E. Kulikowski, Penn State University
Hussein Fancy, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

This session features three papers devoted to racial categories and their construction from the later Middle Ages to the present day. Hannah Barker and Craig Koslofsky both focus on the racialization of human skin and its connection with slave regimes: the former through observations of skin color made by Genoses merchants and slave-traders, the latter on the significance attached to skin color and tattooing in the early modern Atlantic world. David Atwill's paper shows how the modern Chinese state has deployed historical mythologies in order to claim that Tibet has always been part of China, and that all Tibetans -- regardless of ethnicity or religion -- are Chinese. Together, they help us to understand how these techniques of differentiation -- or assimilation -- came into being.

As in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, current nationalist discourses and racial categories are frequently reliant on the misuse of medieval precedents and the invocation of popular medievalist mythologies. For example, claims to ethnic self-determination in Europe after World War I were all staked in the Middle Ages -- and were, indeed, arbitrated at the Versailles Conference based on guidelines established by Woodrow Wilson's special academic advisor, the American medievalist Charles Homer Haskins. Today in Europe, the claims that "essential" national characteristics are being threatened by immigration -- or, especially in the case of Britain, that national sovereignty is being yielded to Continental imperialism -- are also indebted to narratives of some preternatural ethnic purity rooted in medieval soil. Even the rise of the white supremacist movement in the United States relies on such narratives, as well as on the false claim that "the West" has always been homogeneously white and Judeo-Christian. This workshop features three interlocking sessions devoted to exploring and exposing the roots of these dangerous ideologies, while at the same time presenting new work on indigenous (premodern) racial and ethnic categories. It also reflects on some of the new scientific techniques being used to identify and differentiate among peoples of the past, and on the potential dangers of their misuse in new pseudo-scientific discourses.