A guest post by Sierra Lomuto
By now we probably all know about the National Policy Institute, an innocuously named white supremacist think tank that held their annual conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC on November 19th. The not-so-subtle yet still coded conference title “Become Who We Are" served as a call to white nationalists to come out from the shadows and proudly re-emerge under the authority of our country's new president-elect. With over 200 people in attendance and mass media coverage, it does appear that their public profile is indeed on the rise.
NPI President and Director Richard Spencer gave a lecture in which he declared, “The Trump movement was kind of a body without a head. The alt-right, as an intellectual vanguard, can complete Trump” (according to Dave Weigel at the Washington Post). With Trump's presidency and planned appointments, white nationalism is poised to take a position of open, unapologetic influence in the governance of our laws and policies. Spencer intends to harness this political endorsement as he becomes a public intellectual of the movement and legitimizes white supremacy within the cultural sphere.
With the tagline “For our people, our culture, our future,” NPI's surface rhetoric belies the white supremacist ideology that the think tank espouses. Their mission statement reads: “NPI is an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” This language seems to present a positive message regarding the celebration of European heritage and even employs a rhetoric of inclusion through reference to a shared global identity. The absence of hate speech and racist language is strategic not only to deter those who oppose white nationalism, but also to recruit those who wouldn’t otherwise want to be associated with swastikas, the Ku Klux Klan, and other more recognizable forms of white supremacy. The NPI also publishes articles which conceal their racist ideology by presenting it through the guise of research, a facade of scholarly character, and the credibility of academic degrees. Spencer received his BA in English and Music from the University of Virginia, and his MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, before leaving his doctoral program at Duke to pursue what we often refer to as an "alt-ac" career in the public humanities.
On the "Become Who We Are" list of speakers was another well-educated intellectual, Kevin MacDonald, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University--Long Beach. In addition to MacDonald's status among the academic elite, he is the editor of The Occidental Quarterly, a white nationalist journal that publishes content on "white identity, white interests, and the culture of the West," according to their online mission statement.
As white nationalists leverage the most powerful seats in U.S. government to buttress the institutional legitimacy and intellectual justification of white supremacy, there should be no doubt that they will reach us in our bubble of academia. They will likely reach us medievalists first.
Over the same weekend as the NPI conference asserted the place of white supremacy within the mainstream of American intellectual culture, I attended a conference on medieval manuscripts where I witnessed its normalization within academia. But while most (hopefully all) of us in the conference room would readily rail against the racist ideologies being promoted by NPI and Spencer in DC, hardly anyone seemed to notice what was happening within our own local community of medievalists.
One panel, whose aim was to highlight medieval and modern connections by way of material culture, included a presentation by a tattoo artist who translates Celtic iconography from medieval manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, into body art. The panel's second speaker discussed how he drew from Anglo-Saxon history and illuminated medieval manuscripts to design his strategy card game, which was launched earlier this year. Both presentations promised to appeal to a medievalist audience eager to see how the distant past we study resonates with artistic communities in our contemporary world. As the panelists moved through their talks, however, a subtext of white nationalism became increasingly clear to me.
The deep significance of Celtic iconography within the white nationalist community was never explicitly referenced during the first speaker's presentation nor during the Q & A, but it was unavoidably present. As the beautiful images of the artist's work were projected onto the overhead screen, I began to notice the consistency of canvas: every example was etched into white skin. When asked about her clients’ motivations by an audience member, the artist explained that her clients are white people looking for a heritage to celebrate during a time when "being white is bad." Her answer echoed the white supremacist rhetoric we find in places like Stormfront, a white nationalist online community whose tagline reads, "We are the voice of the new, embattled White minority" and whose emblem is the “sun-cross” version of the Celtic cross. In fact, on one of the site's message boards, the OP asks for tattoo ideas and our conference speaker’s name is suggested along with the advice that Celtic crosses work better for tattoos because they are not as obvious as a swastika. The OP expresses concern about being ostracized for his beliefs, fully aware of the negative perception of white nationalists, and his respondents offer him ways in which he might be more covert. A Celtic tattoo is one such suggestion.
If the panelist's comments on white heritage weren't enough to reveal the community to whom her business caters, her response in the Q & A that it would be stunning for a client to care about the distinction between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon iconography confirmed it for me. It is one thing for an Irish person to celebrate their ethnic heritage with a Celtic tattoo and quite another for a white person to use Celtic iconography to symbolize their racial whiteness despite their actual heritage. Race and ethnicity are not interchangeable categories of identity. To celebrate one's Irish, German, or Italian ethnicity is akin to celebrating one's Ethiopian, Chilean, or Thai ethnicity. There is no equation to be made between whiteness and ethnic heritage. Whiteness is a racial category of privileged dominance; it is a power structure upheld by the oppression and marginalization of non-whiteness. And I don't think I need to point out that it has never been "bad" to be white in America.
The speaker had already triggered my racism-odometer when she made a joke during her talk: while explaining that Hawaiian tattoo artists don't like to connect the bands in tribal tattoos because of their belief system, she joked that it was more likely that they were too high to keep the needle straight. While the joke made me cringe, the eruption of laughter with which it was met alarmed me more than the joke itself, and I perked up to a much deeper problem: the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies. As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see "Oriental" used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples. And in scholarship on cross-cultural relations, I still see the case being made that curiosity for and openness toward difference—i.e., an ethos of multiculturalism—undermines the presence of racial hierarchies.
Despite my awareness of the race problem in our field, this particular moment struck me with a new urgency for change. Still reeling from the election and constant news of hate harassment and crimes around the country, including at my own institution, I was unable to brush this moment and this panel under the rug. In the return to white nationalist centrality in our mainstream political and cultural spheres, we as medievalists need to be extra diligent about increasing our racial consciousness—in our classrooms, in our scholarship, at our conferences, in any place where we create or share knowledge about the Middle Ages.
The second panelist received a lot of pushback in the Q & A on his game's complete lack of diversity, and rightfully so. His team used medieval manuscript illuminations to design their visual materials, such as castles and knights on horseback. In creating their fantasy world, he explained that there were many instances where they had to adapt authentic medieval images to appeal to their modern audience, as was the case when they transformed a medieval castle to appear more Disney-like. Yet he and his team were entirely comfortable designing the game with zero racial diversity, despite its genre of fantasy and the very real presence of people of color in the Middle Ages. Clearly they didn't envision an audience of non-white gamers during their design meetings; perhaps they weren't interested in one. Whatever their motivations, they imagined the Middle Ages—as does much of our popular culture—as a space of whiteness. And while I cheered on my colleagues for taking him to task during the Q & A, I couldn't help but think that we are the ones to blame for this.
The discussion on race in the Middle Ages has been fraught with controversy since medievalists began having one at the turn of this century. The conversation often stalled on the question of whether we could even talk about race because of a sensed threat of anachronism. In his 2015 postmedieval edition Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages, Cord Whitaker tried to end any lingering resistance to the topic by asserting that now is the time to move on, stop debating whether race is relevant to the medieval, and start thinking about how medieval race-thinking differs from and contributes to modern racism. Yet the debate continues, and the issue is often reduced to a quibble over terminology. This debate must end once and for all. When we refuse to see race in the Middle Ages, the stakes are much greater than etymology or linguistics; we are refusing to see how hierarchical structures of difference operate in all of their nuanced complexities, including within multicultural and transnational contexts. We are allowing the Middle Ages to be seen as a preracial space where whiteness can locate its ethnic heritage. And we end up convening conference panels that uncritically present the use of the medieval in perpetuating white supremacy. I keep returning to this idea that it would have been incredibly powerful, and leagues more significant, if the panel I attended had framed the discussion with a consideration of just how racialized the engagement is between modern pop culture and the medieval world.
We medievalists need to build our racial consciousness. We need to understand that race is not synonymous with ethnicity or culture, nor does it exclusively belong to a scientific discourse that postdates our premodern period of study. It does not begin and end with skin color or biological markers of difference. Race is a structural mode of codifying difference into an ideological system. It is malleable because its constitutive parts are themselves malleable. To echo Cord Whitaker, we need to stop asking whether we can discuss race in medieval texts and contexts, and instead ask how it operates in these materials. We need to stop reading a text like The Book of John Mandeville as an example of medieval cross-cultural tolerance and a celebration of multicultural difference. If we acknowledge the antisemitic sentiment expressed in this text, which is the prevailing consensus, then we must immediately acknowledge the tolerance we do see (for example, with the Great Khan) as part of a more nuanced system of racial hierarchy.
It is no coincidence that Medieval Studies has embraced the turn from the postcolonial to the global within our larger field designations. While the former was heavily resisted and spent more time justifying the pairing of the postcolonial with the medieval than it did producing medieval postcolonial theory, the Global Middle Ages is one of our hottest new fields. This is partly because the global seems to speak more readily to what we know was a medieval world engaged in intercultural exchange much different than the postcolonial world of the 20th century. But it is also because of our field's general resistance to the political, its discomfort with racial discourse, and its often self-imposed exile from critical theory (despite its capacity to travel and adapt across temporal origins). But to think of the global as a neutral mode of studying cross-cultural encounters, is to miss its point entirely. The global is and always will be inflected by perspective---when studying global histories we must always ask, from whose gaze is the world being seen, interpellated, and made legible?
Without a racial consciousness, Global Medieval Studies will only serve to perpetuate white dominance as it will only foreground more marginalized histories and peoples insofar as they remain within the dominance of the white gaze. Without a racial consciousness, Medieval Studies in general will only continue to perpetuate a myth of white European supremacy that white nationalists can latch onto for justification and validation for their racist belief system.
When white nationalists turn to the Middle Ages to find a heritage for whiteness—to seek validation for their claims of white supremacy—and they do not find resistance from the scholars of that past; when this quest is celebrated and given space within our academic community, our complacency becomes complicity. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the knowledge we create and disseminate about the medieval past is not weaponized against people of color and marginalized communities in our own contemporary world. If white nationalists want to corrupt Celtic iconography with their white supremacist ideologies, or find solace in a game whose currency is a fantasy of whiteness, we can't stop them. But we can refuse to help them. We can build a racial consciousness and stop using words like "Oriental" and "uncultured" to refer to non-white peoples in the Middle Ages. We can stop saying "race" doesn't apply to the Middle Ages when what we mean is that later forms of racial codification don't apply; we can start asking, what forms of race do we see operating in the primary sources we study and teach?
If we have a Richard Spencer in one of our classes, we can be sure he will not leave better equipped and more justified to spread his white supremacist hate. And our white students who likely wouldn't otherwise think about race, will leave our classes having at least learned that race is not something they can ignore because we—their professors whom they look up to and respect—both affirm its existence and the need to study it with care.
|Sierra Lomuto is a Ph.D. Candidate
at the University of Pennsylvania