August 1, 2017
Medieval studies is increasingly acknowledging realities of race and racism in the profession—reflected in everything from the call to recognize that racism is inherent in the very use of the term “Anglo-Saxon”; to Richard Spencer and the so-called alt-right’s cooptation of Western European medieval studies to buttress their white supremacist ideology; to concerns about the exploitation of Hawaiian culture in the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists’ conference currently underway in Honolulu. These issues have arisen most visibly since the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2017 with individual and collective calls for structural change in the profession and its culture.
Medievalists of Color is a fellowship of scholars who study the early, high, and late Middle Ages across the disciplines and who identify as persons of color from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds. We, the Medievalists of Color, find it necessary to offer a collective response that advocates for a more inclusive, productive, and world-improving medieval studies.
If the recent controversies in medieval studies have seemed shocking, that shock derives simply from the truth of how uneven and disparate our realities are within the field. A tasteless joke about skin color that inaugurated the 2017 Leeds keynote plenary on “Otherness” illustrated this disparity all too well. Those who object to the attention given to a single joke about race fail to understand that for medievalists of color, this joke is not an isolated event. It is a symptom of a culture, both in medieval studies and in the wider world, in which we regularly hear jokes about our appearances, accents, names, and experiences. Indeed, such jokes frequently escalate into mockery, threats, and even physical violence. Opening the plenary session on the problematic thematic strand “Otherness,” the joke established an unwelcoming environment from the outset. Likewise, the open acceptance of such racist jokes has proliferated in various social media, listservs, and other spaces in which medievalists congregate. This then is not merely a sensationalized incident, but rather a normalized speech act that indicates a pervasive and deeply problematic professional and social climate.
Creating and maintaining a climate that is welcoming to all requires intention and deliberation. Drawing from extensive administrative experience in higher education in the UK and Australia as well as several traditions of philosophical inquiry, Sara Ahmed attests to how professional environments and intellectual cultures engage in a “politics of stranger making” that reveals “how some and not others become strangers” and “how some bodies become understood as the rightful inhabitants of certain spaces” (On Being Included, 2012). The moderator’s joke—that a suntan would make him appear as an “other”—would have been inappropriate in any professional setting, but in the particular context of an introduction to the opening keynotes at one of the major medievalist conferences in the world, this act of “stranger making” reveals an underlying assumption that the physical presence of nonwhite medievalists—and our collective years of expertise in the field on topics of “otherness”—is ignorable and extraneous to primary conversations in the field.
We emphasize that our letter is not just about any one person’s alienating comments, nor even about the conception of one problematic thread. What is at stake here is the very possibility that such a statement, like countless similar statements every day, could be made and condoned while its real harm to nonwhite medievalists was left unacknowledged and unchecked. Though such statements are sometimes made without malice or intent to harm, the harm they cause is nonetheless real—from stigmatizing individuals to foreclosing lines of scholarly inquiry. When our scholarly spaces are not welcoming to all who would practice in the field, the field loses the capacity for intellectual risk and no longer serves its primary objective: to seek a comprehensive understanding of the past in order to analyze the present and help shape the future.
The current controversy offers an opportunity for medievalists who identify as white to understand the perspectives and experiences of medievalists and other people of color. On blog posts and comments, on listservs and on Facebook, the reactions of many of our fellow scholars have been deeply disturbing, with remarks that range from dismissing such jokes as “harmless social lubricant” to accusing those who legitimately express dismay at such jokes as “policing,” “silencing,” or “blacklisting” conference speakers to violent and profanity-laden abuse directed at medievalists of color. Some comments and conversations suggest that our white medievalist colleagues experience dismay at assumptions about them based on their race: their intentions seem not to matter; they are objects of suspicion; their positions are assumed to be wrong. We ask white medievalists feeling this way to recognize that this is what is it is like to be a person of color every day, in the world and all too often in the profession. We make this point not to perpetuate a loop of mutual resentment but rather to offer an inroad to understanding our perspective. This is a watershed moment that, if used productively, will make medieval studies home to an intellectual environment that is sustainable and innovative, promotes risk-taking, and leverages an ever greater number of experiences and scholarly lenses in order to build the most comprehensive body of knowledge about the Middle Ages possible.
We, Medievalists of Color, need our colleagues to understand the systemic racism of which we speak and the role it has continued to play in our field’s constitution and practices; to educate themselves in the critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit; and in doing so to move past preoccupations with individual intentions. Chafing at the accusation of racism is illogical: systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices. The most damaging consequence of systemic racism is not that one might stand accused of racism; it is the harm—historically manifested on a continuum from rhetorical to psychological to physical violence—done to persons of color. Were more constituents of medieval studies to educate themselves in the critical theory of race, we could all actively address these harmful impacts in ways hitherto not possible in the field of medieval studies.
Indeed, the intellectual and ethical protocols of our discipline require us to immerse ourselves in relevant scholarly discourses. No medievalist working on Western Europe would dare discuss the term “nation” without consulting Patrick Geary’s Before France and Germany. No medievalist working on medieval memory would ignore the work of Mary Carruthers in the Book of Memory. We affirm that the same ethic of scholarly rigor applies to critical race studies and to the discussion of race, ethnicity, nationhood, and “otherness” because these topics are crucial to both the content and the professional conduct of medieval studies. Even, and especially, if we find that the scholarly paradigms of critical race and ethnic studies, postcolonialism, and decolonization do not speak fully to the historical moments we study, we are obligated to enter, and even expand, the conversations they engender. If we wish medieval studies to engage meaningfully in the modern world of which it is a product, and in which it is an agent, then medievalists must also rigorously engage with the fields that examine the ideologies and distributions of power that define the modern world. When medievalists endeavor to understand systemic racism, medieval studies becomes a stronger field whose constituents together have far greater resources for analyzing the past and present while shaping the future.
We aim our attention toward the survival and future of the study of the Middle Ages, which we must continuously work to separate from its links to nationalist and white supremacist impulses. At a time when such impulses have increased the rates of violence—rhetorical, psychological, and physical—in the US, UK, Europe, and elsewhere, we must ensure that the conditions for violence are not fostered within medieval studies. Indeed, medieval studies must form a bulwark against such conditions. We wish to foster a medieval studies whose members respond to one another, even in disagreement, with the responsibility to be ethical, compassionate, and well informed about the systems in which we operate in order that medieval studies will be a space for free intellectual inquiry—for all medievalists. Race has always mattered to medieval studies, and scholars of color play key roles in the field’s past, present, and future.
We intervene, putting ourselves at professional risk and in the path of potential aggression and hostility, because of the meaning this field holds for us, the stakes we have in it, and our commitment to contributing productively to its continued viability. We intervene for the sake of the innovative space medieval studies has at times been, and can increasingly be. We intervene to protect the powerful lessons that the Middle Ages holds for the modern world, and because we believe that deep and considered knowledge of the Middle Ages, with rigorous scholarly practices, can help realize a future in which the world is a better place—for medievalists and non-medievalists alike.
For additional professional responses to the “Otherness” thread at the International Medieval Congress, see the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the open letter and petition by the President-Elect of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA), and two letters from the President of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS).