A brief example: some medievalists have found hope in the narrative of Derek Black, a former white supremacist whose views changed after attending college and studying medieval history. On the surface, this narrative suggests that a rigorous education in the medieval world has sufficient power to intervene into a racist’s beliefs. This account, however, occludes a crucial element in the reporting of this story: Black’s views were challenged by conversations and experiences outside the classroom rather than those within it. Black is not alone in turning to the Middle Ages in search of a white heritage and evidence of white exceptionalism. We need to acknowledge the possibility that the field’s lack of complex racial consciousness may have participated in Black’s self-construction as a white supremacist in the first place. We need to ask why Derek Black’s medieval education did not peremptorily unseat his fantasies about the Middle Ages or whiteness.
As a fellowship of medievalists of color across the discipline, we call upon all medievalists and especially on white allies to build racial consciousness in our field. We acknowledge the useful foundations already laid, including the tendency toward more diversity of texts and cultures on syllabi as well as the contributions of postcolonial approaches. But our workshop has another plan of approach. Because our training can preclude the familiarity with critical race theory that other fields take for granted, we are pre-circulating readings in this area; these will underpin a discussion of how whiteness operates in medieval studies in relation not only to what and how we teach but also to how the field functions professionally. Our goal is to show that without structural inclusivity, diversity on its own has only limited power. In order to make both our pedagogy and our professional environment more genuinely inclusive, we must create a stronger foundation in critical race theory in our medieval studies programs and, at the very least, in our reading practices. In other words, we need to make fundamental changes to not just the things we teach and who teaches them, but the way we teach, the way we design the degrees, and the way we understand race in our professional landscape. We must become racially conscious scholars if we are to disrupt the white supremacist attraction to our field as well as advance medieval studies’ own rigor, ethics, and vitality.
The reading materials for the discussion are available here. In the course of our reading and conversation, we hope to come away with a better understanding of the following:
- The implications— professional and pedagogical — of our field’s predominantly white constitution.
- The difference between diversity and inclusion.
- How centralizing monofaith and racially homogenous narratives of the Middle Ages can marginalize the voices of scholars of color, no matter what their areas of expertise.
- The training of white medievalist allies in what constituents of color in various situations need in order for meaningful change to be wrought.