Monstrous regiment: how should we talk about those who dressed as men and went to war?

This article first appeared at the History Today website on 17 April 2018.

Whether the stories come via a 17th-century ballad, a 19th-century newspaper or a 21st-century tablet, the public has been fascinated for centuries by tales of women who put on men’s clothes, take a male name and run away to join the army – or to go to sea.

Mark Stoyle, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, is the latest scholar to add to these entangled histories of war and gender. His forthcoming article, ‘“Give mee a Souldier’s coat”: female cross-dressing during the English Civil War’, is based on the study of hundreds of printed works and original manuscripts, and unsurprisingly drew The Guardian’s attention.

These stories of transgression have, as Stoyle writes, an ‘intrinsic human interest’ as well as a ‘peculiar elusiveness’ and have captured the imaginations of women dreaming of life outside restrictive gender norms. Feminist writers such as Julie Wheelwright, author of Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness, have written dozens of ‘cross-dressing soldiers’ into a history of women’s collective struggle for emancipation, which they themselves project back on to the past.

Yet does calling all these individuals who went to war in men’s attire ‘cross-dressing women’ account for all the possibilities of how they might have viewed themselves?

Historians as a profession are, rightly, reluctant to draw conclusions about the interior lives of people who left no first-hand evidence of how they regarded themselves, or to project modern ways of thinking about gender and the body on to the past. The concept of being ‘transgender’ as an identity is the historically and culturally specific consequence of 20th-century medical science and, later, community activism: it would be anachronistic to believe any of these cross-dressing troopers understood themselves as ‘transgender’ as someone might today.

And yet, as Christine Burns writes in the introduction to her recent collection Trans Britain, behaviours suggesting people were living outside the gender identities they had been ascribed at birth can be found in sources dating back to ancient history.

If gender non-conforming people have always been finding their precarious ways around the social identities they would have been expected to live in, during peacetime as well as war, the possibilities for how ‘cross-dressing’ soldiers might have lived are wider than history has usually allowed them to be.

Acknowledging that trans histories exist as a principle is different from being able to know for certain that individuals whose behaviour transgressed the extremely fixed gender structures of early modern England ‘were definitely a woman’ or ‘would be called a trans man today’. Stronger conclusions about the social identity of any ‘cross-dressed’ soldier would depend on evidence about whether they took steps to be socially recognised in an identity that was not female after wartime, or whether they immediately put men’s clothes aside on leaving military service. It does not erase historians’ knowledge about soldiers who did live as women to allow for trans possibilities in other lives.

Evidence of gender non-conforming soldiers’ postwar lives is scant enough for the 19th century, where DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook (authors of They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War) found at least 250 such individuals serving on both sides of the US Civil War. The strongest example is probably the Union soldier Albert Cashier, who carried on living as male until doctors at the asylum where he died in 1915 forced him to wear women’s clothes (his ex-comrades campaigned for him to be brought back to the old soldiers’ home where he had lived before). The Edinburgh-trained army surgeon James Barry lived his whole adult life, public and private, as a man, yet his most recent biographers in 2016 still called him ‘a woman ahead of her time’.

Whether or not historians choose to represent Cashier or Barry in the same terms that they presented themselves to the world, their stories are only known today because they were put on display during or soon after their lifetimes. Trans histories’ great irony is that those who most successfully ‘passed’ in times when gender transgression was against the law, and were never ‘outed’ by physicians or in court, have taken their full selves to their graves – just as those who sought secrecy in their lifetimes would probably have wished.

Often, the available sources will not even tell historians what became of a soldier after the wars they fought in, let alone give access to their interior lives. Yet, even then, and even with historians’ proper caution against imposing modern identity labels on the past, history can accept some people have felt such deep incongruity with the gender they had been born into that they took whatever options were available within the social, medical and spiritual frameworks – the very structures historians strive to uncover – to live differently.

For an unknown but, in the popular imagination, striking number of people in 17th-century Britain, those options included putting on men’s clothes and going to war.

There are many reasons why someone brought up as a woman might have enlisted in a man’s name. Some women likely made the choice through economic necessity: their husbands had been killed, the army was in camp and they needed pay. Ballads have popularised the trope of women taking on a man’s identity to serve alongside a husband or lover – especially at sea, where a woman could not slip in alongside the female camp-followers who supplied the army’s logistics needs on land. (The ballad tradition is affectionately parodied in Terry Pratchett’s novel Monstrous Regiment, which follows ‘Polly’, in the guise of ‘Oliver’, into a company of soldiers who all turn out not to be men.)

For others, an army filling its ranks was one space where someone who sought to live in society as a man could be what they were.

Indeed, early modern armies like the royalist and parliamentarian forces, which depended on women camp-followers for much of their logistics and supply, pose the question: why would people go to such lengths to present a masculine identity while there were ways to stay close to the army while dressed as a woman?

Comparative historians of war and gender, as well as specialists in early modern Britain, will find Stoyle’s article invaluable because of the weight of historical evidence it assembles about the extent of ‘cross-dressing’ in the Civil Wars – or rather, how surprisingly little firm evidence there is to corroborate the balladeers’ (and King Charles’) belief that it was widespread.

Importantly, it also sets wartime gender transgressions in the context of a vibrant prewar cultural imagination surrounding women in masculine dress in early Stuart London. ‘In January 1620’, Stoyle writes, ‘the king had famously ordered his clergy to preach “against the insolencie of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimd hats [and] pointed dublets [with] theyre haire cut short … and some of them [carrying] stilettos or poniards”.’

But here too, – once we understand that people lived lives that we might now call trans centuries before the 20th century named them as such – do we trust the king and clergy, hardly impartial observers of the social order, to know that every person they railed against as a woman in masculine dress understood themselves that way?

Even the article itself recognises that what the evidence can prove about gender-transgressive behaviour is not the same as the extent we might infer there had been. Charles, we discover, had originally apostilled a 1643 proclamation to include a memorandum ‘that no woman presume to weare mens apparell’. The amendment, primarily directed against sex workers whom they believed were putting on men’s clothes to get closer to soldiers in camp, was left out of the final proclamation.

Stoyle speculates that it might have been dropped because so many ‘women in mens apparell’ were marching with the troops and foraging that it would have been impractical to stamp it out, or because parliamentarian propaganda would have seized on the proclamation as proof that the royalist army was defying God through endemic cross-dressing (even, perhaps, because Queen Henrietta Maria herself had dressed up as an Amazon three years before in a court masque).

If ‘cross-dressed royalist women’ had not been that unusual, the article even hints, would we need to interpret the parliamentarian massacre of women royalist camp-followers at Naseby in 1645 as punishment for gender transgression by some of their number, as well as for being ‘Irish’ (the women had spoken Welsh) and ‘whores’?

All this could still be demonstrated, about the Civil Wars or others such, with space for acknowledging what we can know, and what we can not, about the people who come down to us through the sources as ‘cross-dressing women’. What is more, the possibilities of gender-variant lives in the past are not just an academic matter.

Adventurous women, and lesbians drawn to traditionally masculine style and dress, have long identified with historic figures like the soldiers in the manuscripts Stoyle studied, or cultural representations like the ‘Polly Olivers’ of early modern ballads. Trans readers of history might identify with these soldiers just as strongly. Many trans men and non-binary people might recognise parallels to their own experiences in the methods ‘cross-dressed’ soldiers had to use to ‘pass’ as military men, the unexpected acceptance they would sometimes win from their closest comrades and their fears of being publicly revealed. Most historical writing, however, has not offered trans people the same space to recognise echoes of their own lives that women have been able to enjoy.

To be repeatedly, wrongly assumed to be the gender that society projects on to you – as CN Lester explains in their acclaimed Trans Like Me – is one of the most painful experiences trans people have to contend with. Popular and academic history, unwittingly or not, has played its own part in trans ‘erasure’ by foreclosing the very possibility that some of these ‘cross-dressing’ histories might reveal trans lives in the past.

The same sources that show us women who cross-dressed also offer us glimpses of how people who might have distanced themselves from womanhood over a longer period of time got by, how those who felt equally at home in more than one gender role accommodated that fluidity, and how people with intersex conditions coped with a society where their bodies did not belong. They only rarely reveal which interior reasons motivated an individual’s behaviour: but the ways a woman who wanted to cope in a masculine space managed, and the way someone who wanted to put aside a ‘female’ identity for good managed, often looked indistinguishable from the outside.

The proclamations and ballads and court records that give us most of our evidence for gender transgressions in the early modern military will not distinguish how any ‘cross-dressed woman’ in the Civil Wars lived. But historians can interpret them in ways that let trans histories be possible, even when the evidence does not let them be known.

 

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Postsocialism and whiteness: why the Yugoslav region was never outside ‘race’

This post originally appeared at Discover Society on 6 March 2018.

Race has worked its way into national identities around the globe except, as most studies of postsocialist Europe until very recently would suggest, in former state socialist societies such as the Yugoslav region. The Yugoslav successor states and other central and east European countries have the reputation of being historically white nations, which did not have overseas empires and did not therefore experience the mass postcolonial migration that western European countries witnessed after 1945. Indeed, their experiences of fighting what national histories remember as wars of liberation against foreign empires might seem to place them among imperialism’s victims rather than its agents. For all these reasons, sociologists, anthropologists and historians have rarely viewed national identity in the Yugoslav region as part of the global politics of coloniality and ‘race’ – while state socialism and postsocialism has seemed like one complication too far for most theorists of how ‘race’ itself has travelled and translated itself around the world.

Usually, social scientists and historians trying to make sense of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region have either equated race with ethnicity – a category of identity which represents a powerful social fact dividing people into national majorities and minorities, no matter how socially constructed the boundaries between ethnic ‘selves’ and ‘others’ are – or dismissed race altogether. Even after accepting that racism and ‘racialisation’ (the process of projecting racial categories on to people, places and cultural symbols) are the products of structures of power that date back to European colonialism and the enslavement of Africans, rather than the result of individuals’ prejudice and bias, several factors might seem to put the Yugoslav region and similar postsocialist societies outside the global framework of ‘race’. Race and the Yugoslav Region, my new book for Manchester University Press, comes at a moment where the refugee crisis has revealed they are not outside that framework and scholars are increasingly trying to show that they have never been.

Why might the common sense of most experts on the Yugoslav region until recently have suggested that race did not matter as much in the Balkans or eastern Europe as it did in much of the West? For all but the last few decades of the era when European powers were exercising direct imperial domination over much of the globe, Yugoslavia did not even exist. Instead, the region’s people(s) had struggled for independence from three different empires (and one of them was the Ottoman Empire, which white Europeans often treated as non-European itself): if Yugoslavia had had no empire of its own, it surely had no historical accountability to render for the sins of empire, nor any reason for its non-white population to expand through mass postcolonial migration like Britain’s or France’s had. The skin colour of most people from majority nations in the region – though few of its own racialised minority, the Roma – would be described in most systems of ‘race’ as white. The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, whose Imagining the Balkans both popularised and criticised the idea of using Edward Said’s postcolonial theory of ‘orientalism’ to understand postsocialist identities as well, called the Balkans ‘white and […] predominantly Christian’ to explain why she thought denigration of the Balkans had turned into the last acceptable prejudice in the early 1990s. Yet, by the late 2000s, postcolonial social scientists such as Dušan Bjelić and Konstantin Kilibarda were already arguing that assuming the Balkans were white closed off opportunities to ask how ‘whiteness’, as a racialised ideology of identification with civilisation and modernity, might have worked in collective identity-making in south-east Europe.

One approach to ‘race’ in the region was therefore an implicit or explicit ‘exceptionalism’, which let it be widely taken for granted that south-east Europe could be studied perfectly well without ‘race’. Another, for some authors, was to draw parallels between how ideas of ‘the Balkans’ or ‘the East’ were stigmatised inside and outside south-east Europe (as being ‘less modern’ than ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’) and how the black diaspora was marginalised around the world. This mode of analogy was symbolised in the title of Nicole Lindstrom and Maple Razsa’s influential article on Croatia, ‘Balkan is Beautiful’ (playing on the reclamatory liberation slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’). It began to place nationalism and ethnicity in the region into a wider context of the global struggle for racial justice, yet still keeps the region oddly separate from the main course of world history where colonialism and therefore ‘race’ did shape identities: ‘Balkan’, it implies, is to south-east Europe as ‘black’ is elsewhere.

However, cultural sociology and postcolonial contemporary history were already starting to point to transnational reverberations of the legacies of colonialism (which include ‘race’ and racism) that extended (or could be extended) into the region. The scepticism Paul Gilroy showed in works such as Between Camps towards over-essentialised expressions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ as categories of identity, for instance, resonated with an equally anti-essentialist turn that the anthropology of ethnicity and nationalism of south-east Europe had taken (e.g. pointing out how ambiguous the symbolic boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ constantly being constructed around markers of cultural identity actually are, despite ethnic identities supposedly being ‘fixed’). But his approach to collective identity also involved the sense of postcolonial, transnational historical connectivity he had illustrated in an earlier book, The Black Atlantic. Can we say there are any traces of ‘the Black Atlantic’ in south-east Europe? The study of popular music gives an example of how to look for them. Most scholars would already describe popular music histories in south-east Europe as transnational, because the folk traditions that have influenced them cut across national borders (and were usually there before them). They are transnational in this sense, but – to the extent that music traditions of the worldwide African diaspora have also influenced them – they are also transnational enough to represent another echo of the worldwide history of colonialism and slavery, which had created the routes through which black diasporic intellectual and cultural resistance was expressed. The echo may be distant, but it should not go unheard.

Another essential foundation for tracing the global politics of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region is to recognise that ‘postsocialism’ and ‘postcolonialism’ are not just words that describe the condition of two separate parts of the world. The geographer Sharad Chari and the anthropologist Katherine Verdery wrote what became a manifesto for a postsocialist and postcolonial contemporary history when they published an article in 2009 that challenged scholars of both the postsocialist and postcolonial ‘worlds’ not to see them as separate zones. Chari, a geographer of postcolonial development, and Verdery, among the anthropologists who had effectively founded the critical study of postsocialism, combined to argue that postsocialism was not simply a lens for making sense of former state socialist societies, nor was postcoloniality a lens that only applied to the former metropoles and colonies of empire. Instead, it mattered just as much to ask how the collapse of state socialism in Europe and the end of bipolar ideological competition between the superpowers in 1989–91 had affected societies more usually thought of as postcolonial, and how legacies of colonialism had affected what social scientists often still call ‘postsocialist’ space. Chief among those legacies – no matter how narratives of ‘benign’ imperialism deny it – are the reverberations of Europeans’ mass enslavement of Africans and the depth to which formations of ‘race’ were embedded in international political, social and cultural thought. ‘Thinking between the posts’, as Chari and Verdery put it, to connect the global legacies of colonialism and state socialism would have to account for south-east Europe’s position in global ‘raciality’ – Race and the Yugoslav Region argues – or it is not tracing colonialism’s deepest-rooted legacy at all.

To accept this argument, however, one first has to accept that ‘race’, slavery and colonialism are inextricably joined. Liberal understandings of racism as a personal prejudice and relic of the past, which hope that enlightenment and education will be enough to eradicate racism, do not require seeing race in the same ‘structural’ terms (and often, Alana Lentin argues, this more liberal model is how anti-racist movements have theorised race). When ‘race’ and racism are not seen as necessarily connected to colonialism, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ (or ‘racism’ and ‘ethnic antagonism’) are probably easier to conflate. They do already have interwoven histories as ideas, and scholars such as Nevenko Bartulin, Miglena Todorova and Marius Turda have done much to show how transnational racial ideology was adapted and embedded into the history of defining central and east European ethnic identities in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are mutually entangled, but they are not the same thing, and ethnic relations in the Yugoslav region (or elsewhere in postsocialist Europe) are not just the equivalent of race relations elsewhere: they have also been shaped by a history and sociology of ‘race’ that runs across the globe. That historical framework not only permits, but forces, the dynamics of south-east European self-identifications with ‘Europe’, ‘modernity’ and ‘the West’ (and the symbolic boundaries that position sociocultural and ethnonational Others in ‘the Balkans’ and ‘the East’) to be seen within the history of ‘race’ itself.

The symbolic binary oppositions that help to construct so many collective identities in the Yugoslav region are, therefore, not just mirror images of the symbolic binary oppositions (of modernity versus primitivism, civilisation versus wildness, reason versus unreason) that critical race theory perceives in hierarchies of whiteness and non-whiteness: they are part of the same framework, because the framework is already worldwide. Critical race theorists argue that colonialism’s way of dividing the world into civilised and uncivilised zones, and its way of ascribing cultural and personal characteristics to people and communities based on which of these spaces they are presumed to have descended from, produced a powerful racialised imagination. No part of the world has escaped the global racial hierarchy, not even – as Jemima Pierre argues in a recent study of Ghana – postcolonial Africa where decolonisation might have been expected to do away with colonial structures of ‘race’: their intimate, embodied politics and their continual transnational remediation have made them ‘stickier’ (in Sara Ahmed’s sense) than direct colonial rule. Why should the world’s only exception be the Yugoslav region, or the rest of central and south-east Europe?

Postcolonial approaches already give cultural historians, anthropologists and literary scholars a rich methodology for showing racialised cultural imaginations at work in European societies that had not yet colonised territory or experienced mass ‘postcolonial’ migration, and even in those that never went on to do so. Researchers such as Maxim Matusevich in transnational history, Kesha Fikes and Alaina Lemon in anthropology, and Adriana Helbig in ethnomusicology have shown through studies of African diasporic presences in Russia and Ukraine that encounters with racialised difference helped to constitute geopolitical and cultural identities during state socialism and postsocialism even though Communism displaced responsibility for racism and the very salience of ‘race’ on to the imperialist and capitalist influence of, above all, the USA. Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race refutes the exceptionalism of white Dutch perceptions that racism did not exist in the Netherlands before the era of mass migration and shows scholars working elsewhere how to collect evidence against the exceptionalist narratives they contend with as well.

In the historical sections of White Innocence, Wekker extends Edward Said’s notion of the ‘cultural archive’ from his own specialism of literature into historic sites of everyday knowledge about ‘race’. These include education, visual arts, medical and anthropological magazines and commercial advertising, as well as the spectacle of fin-de-siècle colonial exhibitions. In all these sites, Wekker finds more than enough proof of a gendered and sexualised racial imagination at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to expose the disingenuousness of mainstream Dutch professions of ‘white innocence’ about ‘race’. From the colonial tropes still embedded in coffee and confectionery branding to occasional but unquestioned instances of blackface performance on entertainment television, the Yugoslav region exhibits its own ‘cultural archive’ of racialisation dating back to the racial formations of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Venetian empires that used to rule it. These were already forming before the state socialist period when, as Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić have recently argued, Tito and other Yugoslav Communists made their case for leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement by arguing that Yugoslavs, having liberated themselves from imperial oppression, were both part of and (more paternalistically) could lead African and Asian allies in worldwide anti-colonial struggle in the new international order that was emerging after the so-called ‘global racial break’. Even then, Yugoslav identifications shifted between the protagonists of anti-colonial struggle and the civilised modernity of the Europeans who had subjugated them. Topics like these have been hidden away behind the racial exceptionalism that has dominated central and east European studies.

This does not mean, however, that they were not already being researched. The postcolonial feminist Anikó Imre had, for instance, already unambiguously opposed the idea that eastern Europe was outside ‘race’ in a chapter for a volume on Postcolonial Whiteness in 2005, but her intervention (in a book that east Europeanists who were not already looking for work on whiteness and postcolonialism would probably not have read) did not change the direction of the field like the ‘balkanism’ debate (about applying ‘orientalism’ to the Balkans) had done in the 1990s. Research on antiziganism such as Imre’s has since led the field in connecting national ethnopolitics with the transnational politics of cultural racism in Europe to explain the situation of Romani people in south-east European societies. And yet the region’s identifications with ‘Europe’ and ‘modernity’ are linked to global formations of race and the politics of emotion that sustain them in even more ways than that. Spatialised hierarchies of civilisation and barbarism, of modernity and backwardness, of readiness to rule and capacity to be taught are, Charles Mills and Walter Mignolo both show, integral to the history of ‘race’ and racialisation. Critical race theory argues that this process was global. And if it was, the construction of social and ethnic identities around images of ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in the Yugoslav region must already have been unfolding within this history.

Nevertheless, even most global sociologists of race have passed over the complexities of the Yugoslav region, central and eastern Europe, and state socialism. If many of the region’s future nation-states were not even independent when European powers were creating and administering their structures of colonial violence, how far are the ‘Europes’ imagined there part of the same ‘Europe’ being denounced by decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism – and why could individuals from the region still find points of identification with the coloniser? Were the answers different under state socialism, when Communist ideology held that racism only existed in capitalist societies, than during postsocialism’s so-called ‘return to Europe’, when the ‘Europe’ that liberals aspired to join was already fortifying its borders against migrants and refugees from the Global South? How far do the long-term and recent ways in which the region has been made into a periphery of Europe and (the post-Yugoslav New Left argues) kept in a relationship of dependency by the European Union complicate notions of ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’? A question resting underneath all these in moral terms might be what measure of historical responsibility for coloniality and racism the people(s) of the Yugoslav region and the rest of central and eastern Europe could be said to share. And yet, even when ‘global’ race scholarship travels all round the Atlantic, it stops so often at Europe’s Atlantic coast that the conversation further inland has only just begun.

It might have been easier to ignore these questions, at least from positions of so-called ‘white ignorance’, when the most urgent phenomena in the Yugoslav region that needed explaining seemed to be being produced inside it, through ethnopolitical conflict. Yet agendas that might have sufficed for explaining the Yugoslav wars were far less help in explaining how post-Yugoslav states and their neighbours responded to the ‘refugee crisis’ as it manifested in the Western Balkans in 2015, when 1 million migrants and refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan traversed the region on foot. The politics of how far national communities defined by cultural traditions and values might have welcomed or excluded refugees, and the structural position in the EU border project that European institutions had assigned the region’s governments, could not be understood without reference to how security and migration were and are racialised in 21st-century Europe. ‘Race’, not just ethnicity, governed official and public reactions to migrants who were perceived through a racialised transnational politics of security and Islamophobia. The spectacle of Macedonian police beating refugees at Gevgelia station as they rushed to board trains to Hungary (before Viktor Orban’s increasingly ethnocentric government could finish building an announced border fence) produced images of violent unrest in ‘the Balkans’ beyond the frame of conventional approaches to ‘Balkan violence’ which separated the Balkans from the world.

Moreover, the institutional and digital spaces in which scholars were researching and teaching about the Yugoslav region were also sites of decolonial protest and activism that influenced the questions students – and teachers – brought to class. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a book I would like to have existed when the BAME-student-led ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ initiative at UCL (where I had done my PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies) launched a campaign in 2014 called ‘Why is My Curriculum White?

And yet ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ is not the only necessary question for revealing the racialised politics of knowledge production surrounding south-east European studies or any other discipline: so is the other question that Dismantling The Master’s House posed, ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’ Indeed, when 29 per cent of UK students beginning first degrees in England in 2015–16 were BME (‘black and minority ethnic’), why aren’t more of our students? A discipline that had largely left ‘whiteness’ in its own region, and its own academic literature, unexamined, might well have implied to prospective students of colour that their own everyday knowledge about race and racism would not be welcomed or recognised as part of their scholarship. If this is the case, then understanding postsocialism and postcoloniality as interlocking, not separate, things is not just necessary to make historical and sociological accounts of the region stronger: it is also necessary, in a multicultural postcolonial society, for giving studies of the area the conditions to thrive.

Race and the Yugoslav Region‘ will be published by Manchester University Press on 22 March 2018.

Navigating the silence of enslavement: Does the Eurovision Song Contest community need to know Lisbon’s history of slavery?

This post originally appeared at the German Historical Institute’s History of Knowledge blog on 15 January and has also been republished at ESC Insight.

It has taken sixty-one editions of the Eurovision Song Contest, and fifty-three years of Portuguese participation, for any Portuguese city to have the chance to host the annual song competition and show the contest’s reputed 200 million viewers its own interpretation of Europe’s cultural identity.

Portugal’s reputation as one of the longest-running Eurovision entrants never to win meant that the victor’s privilege of hosting the next Contest has never until now fallen on Portugal and its national broadcaster Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP), even as early twenty-first-century Eurovision became famous for more and more first-time winners emerging across a seemingly ever-enlarging Europe.

Indeed, Portugal had spent years not even qualifying for the Eurovision grand final before Salvador Sobral, whose song ‘Amar pelos dois‘ (Love enough for two) harked back to the orchestral European popular music culture of Eurovision’s earliest days, won a surprise victory at the contest in Kiev in 2017.

The wave of new winners in the early 2000s saw Eurovision hosted for much of the decade in cities like Tallinn, Riga, and Kiev—capitals of countries that had not even participated in Eurovision before the end of the Cold War, indeed had only recently become independent. Other host cities, such as Istanbul, Athens, and Helsinki, represented countries often perceived as peripheries of Europe and which had competed for years without a win. The metaphors, symbols, and historical narratives with which these contests’ local producers emphasized how deeply their countries and cities belonged to Europe turned places often imagined to be on Europe’s margins into the continent’s “symbolic centre” for a night.[1]

Eurovision researchers are accustomed now to interpreting entries as literal performances of national identity and European belonging, embodying how a nation appears to have mastered transnational popular culture, national cultural tradition, or contemporary modes of combining the two.[2] Hosting Eurovision, however, takes these identity performances up an extra structural level. Like the Olympic Games, Eurovision allows a broadcaster and city to make a certain narrative of their nation and its relationship to Europe into the frame through which millions of viewers see the whole event, making every contest a fresh exercise in nation (and city) branding.[3]

The historical themes that Lisbon and Portugal might communicate to a transnational audience in 2018 were perceptible as early as last July, when RTP confirmed Lisbon as the host city with a promotional video that proclaimed, “Portugal: 500 years connected to the oceans; Lisbon: city of convergence; Lisbon: a bridge between Europe and the world.” The contest’s slogan, fans found out in November, would be “All Aboard!”

The same myth of maritime heritage and global connectivity underlies the stage design concept revealed by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in December. The narrative behind Lisbon’s first Eurovision, reflecting how important maritime heritage has been in Portugal’s and Lisbon’s myths of identity, will perhaps unsurprisingly be “inspired by navigation, the sea, ships and maps.”

These four themes, the designer Florian Wieder explained, combined like the four points of a compass to symbolize the history of discovery and exploration that had shaped Portuguese culture and made Lisbon the maritime metropolis it became.

Yet to historians of slavery, sociologists of “race” and postcolonialism, and many people among the world’s African diaspora today, to talk of discovery and exploration—or even to celebrate Europe’s relationship to the sea—is to evoke memories of the mass enslavement of Africans that Portuguese traders and sea-captains began, knowledge of the violence of colonial dispossession that Portugal was among the first European powers to perpetrate, and the legacies of racism and oppression that still permeate European and global societies today.

Reading the planned Eurovision stage’s “four points of inspiration” with a postcolonial eye reveals silence after silence within the historic symbols that have inspired its design.

The voyages of exploration sponsored by Portuguese rulers, including by the country’s most famous prince, Infante Dom Henrique (known in English as Henry the Navigator), were driven not by high-minded curiosity but by the search for new imperial territories and new sources of goods to trade. Portuguese merchants quickly discovered these “goods” could include human beings: it was under Henrique’s direction in the 1440s and 1450s that Portuguese captains first brought back enslaved Africans from raids in Mauritania, then struck deals with local rulers to institutionalize a trade in slaves, while the government regulated this expanded economy of slavery in Portuguese trading-posts and ports. By 1486, the slave trade had grown so large that King John II made the House of Slaves a department of the royal trading house. (The place was destroyed with almost all its records in the earthquake of 1755.)

At first, slave traders’ primary market was Portugal itself, which was already part of the Mediterranean system of slavery (where most of the enslaved were North African Muslims who had been captured at sea). Pope Nicholas V, as the moral ruler of Christendom, sanctioned Portugal’s monopoly of the West African trade and Catholics’ right to enslave non-Christians—including North African Muslims, black Africans, and indigenous people in the Americas—with a papal bull in 1454. As Portuguese merchants began to sell Africans on across the Atlantic, to Portuguese colonies and sugar plantations in Brazil, they created the first routes of the transatlantic slave trade.

Other European imperial powers, plus thousands of Europeans whose nations did not have their own empires, would join Portugal in sustaining a system of domination and brutality without parallel in world history, where the ideologies necessary to justify Europeans’ enslavement and repression of enslaved Africans and their descendants would become the hierarchical modes of classifying human beings by presumed biological descent from “more civilized” or “less civilized” areas of the world that we know today as classifications of “race.” From a postcolonial perspective, the very concept of “Europe” as a symbol of modernity—an idea which celebrations of belonging to or becoming part of Europe almost always take for granted—is inextricable from the history of how modernity (in the shape of “civilization”) and “race” were imagined together during the age of empire and slavery.

If Portuguese navigation and discovery are inseparable from this history, how does such knowledge affect what the symbols inspiring the next Eurovision Song Contest appear to mean? The armillary sphere that distinguishes Portugal’s national flag and will give Lisbon 2018 the “visual key element” of its design is unambiguously, according to its designer, “associated with the Portuguese discoveries during the Age of Exploration.”

“The Portuguese have been masters in crafting ships since the ancient times,” the narrative continues, and “were able to explore the world because of this outstanding skill.” But where did these ships go, and what did their Portuguese crews do in the places they explored? Portugal, after all, was the first European power to conquer territory in India and the first to ship enslaved Africans across the Atlantic.

The sea, whose waves have inspired the sweeping form of the Eurovision stage, supposedly “gives us a sense of freedom and clarity, making it one of the most peaceful places on earth.” Yet how peaceful is the sea to the migrants and refugees who risk capture in North Africa and shipwreck on unsafe rafts to wash up on Mediterranean coastlines because the European Union affords them no legal means to travel?

Even the map, Lisbon 2018’s fourth point of inspiration, is in its modern form an instrument that postcolonial scholars know as a colonial technology. European mapmakers recorded the geographical features that their empires’ traders, soldiers, missionaries, and officials needed to know, and abstracted or erased those they did not. The ethnic or tribal divisions between peoples and territories that European maps of Africa and Asia recorded at the height of the colonial period created lines of demarcation that would later become social and political realities because of how colonial power had translated a more complex demographic reality into metropolitan knowledge.

Narrating Portugal’s history of maritime discovery and exploration without the history of slavery and colonialism leaves—to those who know and do not choose to unknow that silenced history—a yawning gap. The silence resounds throughout Wieder’s explanation of why Portugal’s maritime history is so well suited as the narrative of a Eurovision Song Contest held in Lisbon:

The rich history of the Portuguese as a maritime nation reflects, without any boundaries, all of the values that make the Eurovision Song Contest unique today. Portugal and especially Lisbon are historic melting pots enriched by the impressions of newly discovered cultures that were brought back to the home port. This is mainly due to the Portuguese sailor men, who traveled the seas with courage and outstanding skills of navigation.

We do not hear of how cultures were newly discovered and then subjugated, nor how the people who lived some of those cultures were brought back in chains.

***

European cities have only recently begun publicly acknowledging their complicity in slavery, and it has taken sustained pressure from their black residents plus committed historians and heritage professionals for them to do so. What historical narratives are privileged or marginalized in the commemorated, what forms of recognition campaigners seek, and how slavery reverberates through a society’s racialized categories of identity all vary from country to country, and even city to city. Nantes became the first European port to officially commemorate its role in the transatlantic slave trade in 1989, and it opened a permanent exhibition on the slave trade there in 1992, whereas Bordeaux, with a similar history, took a decade and a half longer to do so. Among British cities, Liverpool led with an official public apology for the slave trade in 1999, and the city’s International Slavery Museum, which opened in 2007, incorporates Africans’ resistance and agency as well as the legacies of slavery behind contemporary racism into its narrative more integrally than many other such museums.[4]

Projects to make visible the public memory of slavery are intensely local—often, as in Bristol, turning on the microhistory of sites built to honor slave-owners or used in the slave trade—but also transnational.[5] UNESCO launched its own Slave Route project, which aimed to “break the silence” about the heritage of slavery around the world, in 1994. Campaigners and curators often translate parallels from comparable cities abroad into their own local contexts in identifying contentious sites and imagining how slavery could be better remembered there. Since the 1990s, Ana Lucia Araujo has written, a “resurgence of the public memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade” has connected sites in Europe, Africa, and Latin America as well as the USA.[6]

Europe’s Atlantic ports would not have become so prosperous without the wealth the slave trade brought them. To make and keep the slave trade and its legacies a part of public memory means making knowledge of these things undeniable, even to white majority publics who would prefer not to know.

To remember and acknowledge that a city’s and nation’s grandeur came from the horrific kidnapping and deportation of millions of people, and the systematic dehumanization of their descendants, does not inspire the pride on which relations of belonging between individuals and nations are supposed to depend. More openly activist forms of commemorating the slave trade, as opposed to the more celebratory, less destabilizing commemorations of its abolition, seek to make remembering necessary. They seek to make it impossible for white inhabitants and visitors, above all, to still be able to contend they did not know.

Lisbon, the historian Yessenia Barragan observed last year, “remains largely silent on its legacy of white terror and black captivity.”[7] No museum or memorial there acknowledges that the transatlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion that accompanied it were constitutive parts of the city’s history. Lisbon has no analog to the Liverpool or Nantes slavery museums, nor to the museums of African diasporic history in São Paulo or Washington, DC. Elsewhere in Portugal, the old customs house once used for slave auctions in Lagos on the Algarve, thought to be the first town where enslaved Africans were brought to Europe, reopened as a slavery museum in 2016. Otherwise, to see Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade commemorated, one must go to Brazil, the place where so many captives enslaved by the Portuguese were sold. As Araujo reminds us, Brazil imported many more enslaved Africans than the United States and now contains a larger population of people of African descent than any other country in the world except Nigeria. The presence of this diaspora and the racial politics of contemporary Brazil are both consequences of the trade established by the Portuguese.[8]

Lisbon, too, has a globally significant black history. A census of Lisbon in 1552 revealed that 10 percent of its population was enslaved, and the historian A. C. Saunders estimated in 1982 (in a book on black slaves and freedmen in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portugal, republished in 2010) that 15,000 mostly black slaves were likely to have lived in the rapidly growing city by 1633.[9] Saunders not only notes that this black population represented “one of the greatest concentrations of black people in any European society before our own time” but points to the Portuguese enslavement of Africans as a key moment in the transition between slavery customs around the Mediterranean and the racialized system of transatlantic deportation and enslavement that Europeans went on to establish.

[T]he form taken by relations between black Africans and white Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was, with some modifications and exceptions, that which was to prevail throughout the Atlantic world until the nineteenth century, and we still suffer from its consequences today. The salient feature of this system of relations were the Atlantic slave-trade and the relegation of black people to servitude or positions of inferior status in countries ruled by whites. The triangular slave-trade was organized by the Portuguese and it was in Portugal that considerable numbers of blacks first came to experience white domination and whites first decided what place blacks should hold in society.[10]

The sixteenth-century Portuguese argument that “enslavement was an effective method of bringing blacks to a knowledge of Christianity” (even though, as the friar Fernão de Oliveira wrote in 1555, few Portuguese slave owners even allowed their slaves to go to church) prefigured the “civilizing mission” with which European powers in the nineteenth century would justify their conquests of most of Africa.[11]

To historians of early modern Iberia and researchers like the historical tour guide Naky Gaglo, whom Barragan credits for many of her insights into Lisbon’s past and present black history, these legacies of enslavement in Lisbon and their connections to racism and inequality in the present are already established knowledge. For outside communities with no professional or personal reasons to know about how enslavement in Lisbon and present-day racism are connected, they are not.

Whether this knowledge is pushed aside or not even consciously considered, they remain absent when navigation and connectivity across the sea are turned into myths detached from Portugal’s and Europe’s implication in colonialism and slavery.

Does any of this matter for making sense of the pan-European party that the Eurovision Song Contest is supposed to be?

***

The “Europe” that Eurovision maps and celebrates today is geographically larger than the “Europe” of colonial maps, extending as far east as the Caucasus or Russia’s Pacific coast (plus, since 2014, Australia). Its eastern “peripheries” have given twenty-first-century Eurovision much of its energy and symbolic meaning, with broadcasters and even governments investing in Eurovision as a site for realizing their “return to Europe.” On the other hand, their access to the apparent center of Eurovision’s imagined transnational community appears more conditional when commentators in the West begrudge the so-called bloc voting they attribute to the East.[12] Perhaps postsocialist enlargement is one way through which “Europe,” in Eurovision and even outside, might have been redefined.

Or perhaps not. Even before postsocialist assertions of identification with European “civilization” and, implicitly or explicitly, whiteness, the parallels between anti-colonial struggle and east European national liberations that state socialist regimes often drew could still go hand in hand with paternalistic attitudes towards development and with stereotypes of “Africa” and blackness that had originated in Europe’s colonial past.[13]

Even nations without any history of their own as imperial powers, nations that spent centuries ruled by other empires instead, produced individuals who participated in colonialism as a system. There was the Croatian explorer Dragutin Lerman, for instance, who shortly before joining the Stanley Expedition to Congo wrote to a friend, “I am especially happy to represent my dear homeland Croatia in this kind of international expedition.” Lerman mapped large parts of southwestern Congo for the Belgian colonial administration and acted for several years as commissaire-general of Kwango Oriental.[14] Imaginatively, even if not geopolitically, members of central and eastern European peoples—as my forthcoming book Race and the Yugoslav Region argues—have still been able to identify with the “Europe” colonialism made.

Since the collapse of state socialism, this has been ever more the case. The European Union that, during the 1990s, almost all postsocialist countries aspired to join as part of their symbolic “returns to Europe” (another such symbol was participating in Eurovision), was already implementing racialized migration policies that afforded the least legal mobility to migrants from the Global South. Yet many of the reasons the migrants’ countries of origin were so much more insecure and environmentally degraded than the European destinations where they sought to live were results of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

Today’s EU border security project, in which the EU has obliged Southeast European countries to play frontline roles and where the Central European Visegrád Group leads opposition to imposed refugee quotas, rests even more visibly on the logic that the public of member states will not accept Muslim and African migrants settling in their countries in large enough numbers to potentially change national culture. The ideologies on which present-day xenophobias and racisms in the EU depend—which are even sometimes turned, as in Britain, on East European migrants within the EU—stem ultimately from the ideologies of “race” that white Europeans had to internalize to justify their enslavement of Africans and their colonization of indigenous lands. Such continuities between past and present racisms are often not even drawn in the commemoration of slavery and abolition, but they are at the very foundations of what critical race theory “knows.”

The condition of not needing to know about racism or the histories and legacies of race is the privilege of whiteness—or of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” the asymmetry of knowledge that enables white supremacy.[15] To live untroubled as a white inhabitant of a society that gained its wealth through colonial exploitation indeed requires displacing the knowledge that your predecessors, whose history supposedly gives you your cultural identity, obtained that wealth by impoverishing and enslaving other human beings. The dominant institutions of society, Mills argues, are structured so that whites do not, need not, and must not ever know.

The memory of slavery and the knowledge that present-day racism is a legacy of colonialism and enslavement are what Araujo describes as “wounded” memory.[16] They are also wounded knowledge—knowledge that is painful for a historically dominant group to absorb. And they are dangerous knowledge—knowledge that threatens to upend the meanings of cherished collective myths and symbols, and change the emotions they arouse.

Eurovision host cities, for a week or a night, are cast temporarily as the “symbolic center of Europe, tying a certain narrative of their own histories into what they imagine as the continent’s heritage. In all its sixty-two years, Eurovision has never come from a city as tied to the history of slavery as Lisbon. The four Contests held in London are probably as close as it has come.

The historical narrative of Portugal, Europe, and the sea that has been designed for the next Eurovision Song Contest is, like many European countries’ public celebrations of their imperial pasts, the product of an exceptionalism that does not want to know that the curves of a masterfully constructed carrack are also the curves of a slave ship.

End of 2017 publications round-up

I nearly always forget to write these, most years, but here are the academic publications I’ve had come out in 2017:

Two things I know will have 2018 publication dates: another piece for Critical Studies on Security about identification, stardom, embodiment and the military in Wonder Woman, and the book I’ve mentioned here before, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial?, which shows how phenomena from the Rijeka carnival to the refugee crisis (and many things in between) prove how deeply and how long the Yugoslav region has been embedded in global politics of ‘race’ which have often been thought to pass it by. You can pre-order it already from Manchester University Press.

Also filtering through may be one or two pieces on reassessing the micropolitics of international intervention in the Yugoslav region in view of politics today, one or two articles that spun out of Race and the Yugoslav Region, and more of my work on queer identifications and the aesthetics of militarism, in the various forms that’s going to take…

Militarisation and social media: back from a workshop in Stockholm

This post was originally written for the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures blog at the University of Hull.

From the ranks of past, present and future soldiers on toyshop shelves to the ubiquitous red Remembrance poppy, war and the military permeate everyday life in ways we often take for granted. Yet these everyday traces of militarism in popular culture, and the histories behind how they were produced or how people talked about them, can give us insights into what a society thought the relationship between the military and the public might be, what stories it told about the nation’s past, or what it meant to be a woman or a man. Historians studying ‘militarisation’ and the everyday imagination of war in previous centuries might use material objects, song sheets or recordings, paintings and photographs, or the popular press, depending on the technology of the time; future historians of our present will find social media just as rich a source.

For the last four years, a research team at Stockholm University with partners in Germany (University of Siegen), the Netherlands (Radboud University) and the UK (Leeds) has had funding from the Swedish Research Council to investigate how ‘militarisation’ works through social media. In late October, they invited some other researchers who study militarism, media and gender to a workshop in Stockholm where we’d discuss our own research and join in a public engagement day at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, helping the ‘Militarisation 2.0’ team pilot-test a toolkit peace activists can use for critically analysing social media clips that make war and the arms trade seem ‘good, natural and necessary’ (to coincide with the team’s new policy brief for SIPRI).

Because I often research popular music and am especially interested in music video, the shift from television to YouTube as the main communications channel for music video means that the ecosystem of social media has had to become part of my research. This time, however, I was exploring how Croatia’s first female president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, has constructed her public persona through the photo-opportunities she has created for news and social media since her election in 2015, including a striking number of her wearing Croatian military uniform or posing with rifles while visiting arms fairs and bases in Croatia, Afghanistan and the USA: in a Croatian context, these help to cast her presidency and Croatia’s 2009 accession to NATO as a fulfilment of what Croats are supposed to have struggled for during the 1991–5 war of independence from Yugoslavia. Indeed, they even seem to present her as a symbolic daughter of the 1990s president, Franjo Tuđman, whose own public persona was as a symbolic father of the nation.

During the rest of the workshop, at the Swedish Army Museum, I was giving feedback on other colleagues’ papers (which covered everything from how users interact with photos on the British Army’s Facebook page to how the Nigerian military has communicated through social media in its operations against the militant group Boko Haram) and taking some time to look around the museum – where the gift shop was as interesting as the collections in the invitations it was making for visitors to take home pieces of the Swedish military past. I’ll be able to teach about some of these topics later this year, when I contribute to our Masters module on ‘Memory, Meaning and History’ – and in the meantime will have even more ideas about what to look out for in the social media I see…

Finding my place in queer cultural history through the ‘post-Cold-War’ period

This post originally appeared at History Matters on 14 August 2017.

I’ve been researching the 1990s since the beginning of my academic career, when I wrote my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. (This was published in 2010 as my first book, Sounds of the Borderland.) As a queer writer and academic who was born in the early 1980s, I’m also someone whose consciousness and identity were shaped by the queer cultural politics of the 1990s – or by the lengths I went to in trying to distance myself from them.

Some queer historians become historians to investigate a personal past. My experience was the opposite, or so I thought: sometimes, while reading archived Croatian newspapers and magazines from 1990 to what was then the present during my PhD, I’d note abstractly that an issue’s cover date in 1996 or 1997 coincided with a personally significant day, or realise that, if I’d been the same age and Croatian, this or that pop video instead of this or that performance on Top of the Pops might have played a part in the protracted process of me trying to prove that, even though I kept noticing androgynous-looking women, I wasn’t queer.

At the same time, on a macro level, I’ve always believed that the histories of the Yugoslav region and the society where I live are much more connected than most British public discourse in the 1990s about the former Yugoslavia would suggest. During the Yugoslav wars, Cold War east–west geopolitics overhung older, semi-orientalised tropes about ‘the Balkans’ in the minds of many commentators who implied that Britain and the Balkans travelled at two separate historical speeds.

The more expansive and transnational view of the 1990s as cultural history that I take now has as much to do with Britain as the Balkans, and sometimes more. The period we can now name as ‘the post-Cold-War’ was defined by changing ideas about conflict and security, and how gender might determine who participates in conflict in what ways, who ought to protect whom, and who threatens whom. Also important were narratives of capitalism and progress that held out the hope of prosperity to many more young (and older) people than felt it in the 1980s or feel it today; rapid changes in the technologies through which people experienced popular culture and communicated with each other (it is already an imaginative leap for a student in their late teens to put themselves in the trainers of a young person the same age organising a night out in 1991); and also by the visibility and ambiguous position of queer identities in media and society. This, it turns out, is where I come in.

The project I conceived a year or two ago on how representations of the Yugoslav wars fed back into Western cultural imaginations of conflict, and how Western cultural imaginations of conflict also circulated through the Yugoslav region, needed me to start defining what did distinguish the 1990s or the ‘post-Cold-War’ as a period.

Meanwhile, the conceptual contribution I wanted it to make – what can cultural historians and scholars interested in the aesthetics of international politics learn from feminist and queer media studies? – sent me back to scholarship in feminist film theory and in cultural memory that was being written during the 1990s and was being produced within the very historical context I was trying to understand. Meanwhile, as a researcher embedded in 2016, I was becoming ever more conscious of how easily queer visibilities in the past and present can be erased, and starting to explore the 1990s’ and 2000s’ interlinked transformations of media technology, imaginations of conflict, and queer politics creatively in ways that even began pointing to new linkages in my academic work.)

Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (on women’s identification with Forties and Fifties women film stars) or equally Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes (on boys’ identification with military and imperial heroes through adventure play) both came out in 1994. Both books have passages that read like darts of recognition; both books have passages that my own embodied knowledge leaves me annotating, ‘What about masculinities?’ or ‘Can’t this happen with women?’

Together, they help me pursue a hunch that the dynamics of identification that can make people so invested in the characters and narratives of popular culture and the dynamics of emotional attachment to the nation that states and militaries depend on, have a lot in common with each other.

A thread of articles and book chapters in feminist and lesbian ‘gaze’ theory (which inform how I understand identification with the nation and with militarism) came out between 1994 and 1997: work by scholars like Caroline Evans and Reina Lewis on identification, desire and spectatorship (theorising things like what the pleasures of looking at fashion spreads in the British lesbian magazine Diva might have been for lesbians in the mid-90s).

In other words, in the mid 1990s, people were already writing about and answering questions that had been confusing me for years at exactly the same time – when I still had no idea they could even be spoken, let alone asked with academic authority. (I still wouldn’t even have dared touch a copy of Diva at the newsagent, in 1997, in case it meant I was a lesbian…)

And yet the first encounter with Croatian popular music that I remember, through the Eurovision Song Contest, is already entangled with my own history of queer spectatorship and not-coming-out. I would have seen Croatian entries in the 1994 and 1995 Eurovisions, but the first one I remember seeing is Maja Blagdan’s performance of ‘Sveta ljubav’ in 1996, for reasons that would have been quite obvious to me at the time.

(Not having had the foresight to press ‘record’ at the start of the song on the video tape where I used to collect highlights of Top of the Pops, I expected with disappointment never to see again, until a viewer who had written to the BBC about Terry Wogan speaking over the singing meant they played thirty seconds of it a few weeks later on Points of View.)

Blagdan went on to be one of the first Croatian singers I wanted to find out more about, and so the trajectory towards me becoming able to write a book that a BASEES prize panel judged ‘exceptional in both its originality and its careful research’, a book which has helped to inspire younger researchers to develop their own projects on post-Yugoslav nationalism, music, media, or sport, doesn’t just involve me as a historical subject trying to understand how a new nation like Croatia could suddenly appear out of what had seemed to be an old one like Yugoslavia. It also involves me as a queer viewer and teenager at a very specific moment, when lesbian visibility coexisted with an intense cultural anxiety over women as agents of the gaze towards other women.

Historicising the theoretical work I wanted to use for one project, in other words, has already pointed me towards another: what was the relationship between queer women and popular culture in the 1990s? This feels all the more urgent, not just because it belongs to a Very Contemporary History that’s already different from the present, but also because it denotes a past I managed to simultaneously live through and push aside.

 

Expanding the ‘mental phone book’: unconscious bias and diversity in conference panels and edited volumes

This post originally appeared at the NYU Jordan Center blog on 3 August 2017.

Thanks to the feminist researcher and artist Saara Särmä, the blogging platform Tumblr, and some carefully-placed roundels of David Hasselhoff, the all-too-common sight of a panel or table of contents consisting entirely of male experts has had a convenient rejoinder since Särmä’s digital activism went viral in 2015: ‘Congrats – you have an all male panel!’

Särmä’s companion project, ‘Congrats – you have an all white panel!’, uses another legend of Eighties action cinema, Mr T, to call out events where – even on topics such as how to build a more democratic Europe – the picture of intellectual authority and expertise that organisers have created through their choice of speakers does not include any speakers of colour.

(Curiously – or not – the ‘All White Panels’ Tumblr gained much less traction with mainstream media such as the BBC, Time and The Guardian that helped #allmalepanels become a meme, even though Särmä had been speaking about both projects at once.)

As an academic who strives to put my first area specialism (the Yugoslav region) in a transnational and global context, and to understand how cultural imaginations of ideas like ‘conflict’ or ‘Europe’ are translated across national borders, I am frequently in the position of organising conference panels, selecting contributors for workshops, or choosing chapters for edited collections – including the volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR I published in 2017 – so that a team of researchers can offer more perspectives on a problem than any one expert could alone.

In fact, this is part of the work of academia I enjoy most: creating dialogues between people working on different disciplines or areas who might not have met each other, and being able to work with junior scholars launching exciting new research at the same time as senior scholars whose thinking has helped to shape mine.

But when editors operate entirely according to the shape of the field that they already take for granted, we are at risk of perpetuating the same structural inequalities that anyone with a commitment to diversity in their field would say that they are fighting against – as the journalist Stephanie Boland recently explained in comments that are as relevant to workshop organisers and volume editors as they are to editors commissioning for the press.

Boland, the Head of Digital at Prospect magazine in the UK, points out that even when editors are keen in theory to diversify their pool of contributors, unconscious bias in the heat of the moment – compounded by the factors that make the media a disproportionately middle-class and white industry – often makes them fail to live up to their own aspirations:

In the past, I’ve been in commissioning meetings where there is every good intention to end up with a diverse table of contents.

Nobody really WANTS an all-male features list – usually, there’s a bit of hand-wringing if one goes to press

But most places commission by topic more than by writer. If there’s a feature idea floating about, they go through their mental phone book

And because white people/men are more prominent in the media, and most people have some unconscious bias, the names that come up… well, you get the picture.

Waiting until the editorial meeting to correct bias doesn’t work. You’ve got to sort out our inner Rolodex.

Once you’re looking at your flatplan/book chapters/speakers list/conference program and going ‘argh, we need a woman’—you’ve already lost

Putting together a table of contents for an edited volume, or choosing who to invite to a conference panel submission, very often starts with the same kind of mental phone book.

On specialist topics, such as the work on the aesthetic and embodied practices of ‘militarization’ that is emerging as a research area in feminist security studies and International Relations, I could easily ask myself ‘Who do I know that studies X?’ and write down five or ten names that, in this case, would all belong to white women.

I would at least have avoided an #allmalepanel – but would have created yet another all white one, moreover on a topic (the normalization of ideologies behind state violence) where the situated knowledge of people who experience racism and Islamophobia is essential for understanding the politics of emotion (as Sara Ahmed names them) behind nationalism and state power.

As my own career progresses, and as I become someone with the capacity to propose and publish collections of academic work – so that I am starting to shape and define fields of inquiry, rather than just participating in them – there are topics where I start to feel as if I know ‘everyone’ in a field: we have met at conferences or shared tables of contents in other volumes, we belong to the same mailing lists or Facebook groups.

For a new volume or panel now, even where I am close enough to the centre of a topic’s academic network that I might ‘know everyone’, I want to commit myself to at least 20 per cent of the participants I choose – the equivalent of at least one panellist on a panel of five – being people I have never worked with before (and that target figure should go up, not down).

This is all the more important when the opportunity is part of an ongoing collaboration, where many participants will already have presented to each other before: diversifying the range of who is involved helps to ensure that the conversation emerging through the panel or volume will move beyond its past iterations, along new directions – thus advancing the quality of the research.

The unfortunate but necessary cost, of course, is that an editor or panel organiser cannot involve every participant from their immediate, instinctive ‘mental phone book’ every time.

Even with strategies like these, however, too many of the contributor lists for panels, volumes and issues I have organised have been all white. The two annual conventions I am most likely to attend are the Association for Slavonic, East European and Eurasian Studies and the International Studies Association. An ISA member could feasibly pledge not to appear on or organise an all-white panel in the same way that thousands of speakers in academia, business and technology have pledged not to appear on all-male panels. At ASEEES, the discipline contains so few people of colour – a situation that the Association for Diversity in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies is working to change – that, if participants made a similar pledge, far fewer panels could even be organised.

Beyond the levels of racial diversity in particular academic disciplines, moreover, other factors affect all my networks and have led to me organising all-white panels when I had tried to commit not to do so (including two panels at the ISA convention this year): the high costs of conference travel disproportionately affect people of colour, who – as a result of structural racism in academia – are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work, and less likely to have the funds or time to travel.

The current US administration’s Islamophobic travel ban, which (first announced in January 2017) directly impedes scholars from the affected countries entering the USA and has persuaded many others, especially Muslims, not to travel, also contributed to the whiteness of our ISA panels, since after the ban was announced one participant (a South Asian woman) made the difficult decision not to attend.

At call-for-papers stage, at least, I could have chosen not to submit a panel I had organised if it turned out all white. So as not to disappoint other panellists, and because I have been excited about the opportunity to meet my colleagues, I have not yet made this choice: but, as a result, an all-white panel of mine has been selected when another panel, which might have contained more scholars of colour, therefore was not. I am still complicit in the panels’ whiteness even though I am pleased they went ahead.

Fewer structural constraints affect participation in edited volumes. Four years after beginning to plan Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, there are still contributors I have never met, and while we did organise some related panels based on the volume (including at ASEEES 2016), developing the chapters never required the participants to gather together.

Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR involved authors based in Serbia, Germany, Britain, the USA, Canada and Hungary, and contributors who grew up in several other countries but now work abroad: and yet its table of contents, like almost every volume in Slavic and east European studies, is still all white.

If I were inviting and selecting chapters for a similar volume now, rather than in 2013, not only would there be more active researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities to approach, but I would have the benefit of four more years expanding my own mental phone book by reading outside what I initially thought of as ‘my area’ to try to answer how topics I had previously worked on (such as post-Yugoslav popular music, or the micropolitics of peacekeeping in Bosnia) had been structured by the global dynamics of race.

The effects of racism and unexamined whiteness in Slavic and East European Studies affect who chooses to enter or remain in this discipline in the first place: one panel or volume will not resolve this inequality on its own, but every panel or volume will make its contribution to the picture of diversity in the discipline that a researcher of colour forms, as they decide through their own impressions of the discipline whether it is likely to welcome them.

Editors and panel organisers in Slavic and East European studies are more likely to be conscious of ethnicity and nationality as an element of diversity than they are of race. Many specialist readers will already mentally note the balance of eastern European and non-eastern European contributors in a project, above all in gender studies, where east European scholars have often used analogies with postcolonial feminism to show how the Anglophone West has made ‘postsocialist’ Europe a periphery. Even the location where an author currently works – in the centre or the periphery of the global economy of academic knowledge production? – has a bearing, as Madina Tlostanova shows, on the politics of where intellectual authority is perceived as travelling ‘from’ and ‘to’.

(The idea of ‘coming from’ or ‘not coming from’ the region someone studies is of course a spectrum not a fence, complicated by infinite degrees of diasporic, familial and social entanglement – although some researchers, like me, are definitely not from eastern Europe no matter how one defines belonging.)

Without planning well in advance how to widen the pool of contributors I might involve in a project – and being open to the possibility that the boundaries of my theme might change as a more diverse group of contributors brings more diverse worldviews and politics to the original line of inquiry I perceived – I am much more likely as an editor to fall back on ‘unconscious’ bias and miss an opportunity to reach a better understanding of my topic as well as supporting the diversity of my field.

But the discipline will need as strong an institutional commitment to racial diversity as it has made to gender equality, and far more understanding from white scholars of all nationalities of the obstacles that scholars of colour face in Slavic and East European Studies research, to make the all white panel as uncommon as the all male panel at ASEEES.