Introducing my next academic book: Race and the Yugoslav Region

Until the middle of last year I wasn’t expecting to be announcing this as my next academic book project, but now it is: Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? is under contract with Manchester University Press’s ‘Theory for a Global Age‘ series, will be going into copy-editing in the next few months, and ought to be due out at some point in 2018.

Six months after publication, as things stand, MUP will also make the book Open Access – like the others in the series – which will make it more accessible than anything I’ve published before to students, activists and scholars in and from the region (and elsewhere).

Race and the Yugoslav Region is the first of the projects I was working on during 2016 – a year that often felt as if, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words, I was ‘writing like you’re running out of time – to see print, but not I hope the last. Ultimately, it’s the outcome of my own confusion at my first home discipline of south-east European studies not seeming to offer a script for understanding the representations of race, blackness and whiteness I encountered during my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia in the same way that constructions of ‘westernness’ versus ‘easternness’, or ‘Europe’ versus ‘the Balkans’, did have an entire framework of academic literature to explain them.

Moreover, that framework had come from postcolonial studies in the first place, through the foundational work of Milica Bakić-Hayden and Maria Todorova and their engagements with (and against) Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (producing the idea of ‘balkanism’) – and yet I could get away with bracketing race and the global legacies of colonialism to one side when writing about collective identity, in a way I’m deeply dissatisfied with after coming to understand that whiteness let me bracket them off and not have to engage with them, because ‘the Yugoslav region hadn’t had its own empire, after all…’

It didn’t: but many imperial projects have passed through it, and people from the region as travellers or settlers have been implicated in yet more, though their positions in structures of imperial and colonial power have often been as contingent and ambiguous as the global structural position of this peripheralised region of Europe itself.

Yet if the international marginalisation of the Balkans and the fact that the Yugoslav region did not become a destination for mass postcolonial migration of people of colour meant that ‘race’ – in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘religion’ – didn’t have to be on the agenda for understanding the region’s experiences, studies of the global legacies of race or ‘race in translation’ (the title of an inspiring book by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam) also tend to leave surprising gaps when it comes to incorporating state socialist and postsocialist Europe into their globe.

Without these connections, however, we don’t have the transnational and global historical context that we need in order to think ‘between the posts’, as Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery put it in an essential article for Comparative Studies in Society and History that demonstrated postsocialism and postcoloniality needed to be drawn together as ways of thinking about the recent past, present and future, not kept apart.

Neither postsocialism or postcolonialism, Chari and Verdery argued, are just themes for understanding a certain region of the world: we should be asking about the effects of the collapse of state socialism as a ruling ideology in Europe beyond the places that were state socialist; we should be asking about the consequences of colonialism and decolonisation beyond the countries that had empires or were colonised by them.

But to do that requires understanding how – and simply talking about how – the Yugoslav region and its people have fitted into the global history of race, and of the colonial projects which spread ‘race’ as a structure of oppression around the globe so that it could be translated into many racisms through the filter of different societies’ own cultural narratives and social divides.

(I’ve blogged about this before in articles like this one on the politics of race behind post-Yugoslav states’ and citizens’ responses to the refugee crisis in 2015, or this one on reconciling the themes of south-east European studies with the premises of postcolonial history and international relations, not to mention on Eurovision and European multiculturalism here…)

Scholars of Black history in Germany, of postcoloniality and whiteness in the Nordic region, and of the meanings of ‘race’ or transnational connections with Africa in socialist and postsocialist Russia and Ukraine have all been able to put ‘race’ at the centre of their enquiry in a way that is also possible for the Yugoslav region – and would have been possible even during my PhD if the work of authors who were already writing on global ‘raciality’ and whiteness in eastern Europe (like Anikó Imre on ‘postcolonial whiteness‘ and media representations of Roma, or Miglena Todorova on translations of American, European and Soviet formations of ‘race’ through Bulgaria) had changed the course of debate in south-east European studies like the ‘balkanism’ studies had in the 1990s.

By the time I was teaching for a year at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I’d done my PhD, in 2011-12, I was starting to express my sense of what was missing from south-east European studies as ‘What would this field look like if its formative theory had been based on Gilroy’ – author of The Black Atlantic – ‘as well as Said?’

As a researcher, meanwhile, the point I could no longer avoid thinking about where the Yugoslav region belonged in the global politics of ‘race’ and whiteness was when researching the micropolitics of international/local encounters in peacekeeping needed me to contend with the idea – expressed by authors like Sherene Razack – that peacekeeping itself is a racialised project, showing far more continuity with colonialism than liberals like to think.

Razack, in her work on Canadian peacekeeping in Somalia, argued that peacekeeping ‘maintains a colour line between a family of white nations constructed as civilized and a third world constructed as a dark threat’ – but here, too, where would the Yugoslav region fit, in a part of the world which has traditionally seemed (as Maria Todorova, author of Imagining the Balkans, put it) ‘historically white’?

I wrote what I now realise was the very first outline for Race and the Yugoslav Region in June 2013, on the back of a programme at a workshop on ‘The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia’, during a presentation by Julija Sardelić on Romani minorities and post-Yugoslav citizenship. The bullet-pointed list began:

  • Socialist/Communist ideas about race – what were they? What legacies? Did practice match theory?
  • Histories of thought about race in south-east Europe generally
  • Histories of people of colour in SEE – settlement, travel etc
  • Race and the Non Aligned Movement
  • Where do the Roma fit in

and carried on thinking about the region in the kinds of contexts that feminist and postcolonial security studies scholars had been using throughout the International Studies Association and International Feminist Journal of Politics conferences in April and May:

  • Border security and (regular and irregular) migration
  • […] Portability of postcolonial theory – if SEE or part of it is being thought of / has been thought of as the subaltern, can it actually get away with that?
  • Was there SEE complicity in the racial oppression of European colonialism
  • And what about SEE participation in the slave trade
  • SEE complicity in racialised narratives of the War on Terror; participation in detention and rendition of Muslims suspected of terrorism
  • How far is SEE as a site of international intervention, humanitarian relief, peacebuilding etc actually comparable to sites in the Global South? Did the whiteness of Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars actually make these interventions and their politics of rescue fundamentally different in some way from interventions in (above all) Africa?
  • Peacekeepers and interveners of colour in SEE

It wove through questions from current politics and my own previous research that I still didn’t feel equipped to answer, even though I was beginning to know how to ask them:

  • Race and the far right (especially in light of those transnational Islamophobic European right-wing groups that keep going on about the ‘Gates of Vienna’…)
  • Position of BiH in post-9/11 discourses about the West and Islam
  • Popular culture/popular music
  • Production, appreciation and reception of ‘world music’
  • Do we need to talk about cultural appropriation? By whom? Of whose culture(s)?

and finished with the politics of knowledge in south-east European studies itself:

  • Methods issues: encounters with race and racism in field research
  • The politics of race within research and teaching on SEE

I wasn’t able to found the research network I wanted to bring together to start answering these questions from multiple perspectives at the same time, but I did use an invitation to a Russian and Slavonic Studies research seminar at Nottingham two years later to pose some of these problems together in a presentation that, to jar the audience into seeing the region differently, I titled ‘The Black Adriatic?’ in allusion to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.

(I haven’t carried that title over to the book, for two reasons: most importantly, as the title of a book that could have a direct impact on my personal and financial success, I felt it would be an appropriation of Gilroy’s scholarship and the Black intellectual traditions he rests on for a white woman to take it up from him; and secondly, by the time I was proposing Race and the Yugoslav Region, the series it would join had already published Robbie Shilliam’s excellent The Black Pacific, on how the African diaspora’s struggles for liberation have resonated through the South Pacific.)

By the time I led a workshop based on it at Central European University a year after that – and because of the insight, sensitivity and solidarity with which the CEU graduate students and faculty talked from the perspective of their own research – my working document had become around 20,000 words of notes – and the single article I thought I could write to get my main point across would have had to be at least three articles for three different journals to keep everything I wanted to include together.

At the same time, I knew that I didn’t have either the source material or, really, the right intellectual and personal position to write a long historical monograph on race and the Yugoslav region that would become the authoritative work. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a short book, like the others in its series, which I hoped was achieving similar aims to what the series editor Gurminder Bhambra had called for in her own Connected Sociologies: in this case, to move beyond analogies of how the marginalisation of the Balkans might be similar to marginalisations based on ‘race’, into a mode of connection where the Yugoslav region, as well as the rest of the globe, is demonstrably part of the world that colonialism, slavery and racisms made, not outside it.

Race and the Yugoslav Region has one author’s name on the cover, but if not for other people’s writing – especially the scholarship of east European women and women of colour – would not have existed at all. The two largest intellectual debts I owe are to Flavia Dzodan and Zara Bain, both of whom I got to know as writers because of online feminism and activism – I would have encountered their work differently, or more likely not at all, in a less networked world.

Whereas ‘Europe’, in the study of postsocialism, represents the longed-for symbol of modernity and progress, the ‘Europe’ of Dzodan’s writing was and is a system of whiteness and ongoing colonial violence that, through the militarisation of the European Union’s land and sea borders, was directly implicating the ‘Western Balkans’ even if it had not done so before.

Bain, meanwhile, is a philosopher and disability activist whose research on the critical race theory of Charles Mills, once we started talking about it on Twitter, made me understand one of Mills’s key arguments and made me begin to see a hinge for joining south-east European studies’ translation of postcolonial thought with the global history of ‘race’ and racisms.

Mills argues, in The Racial Contract, that ‘race’ is a ‘moral cartography’ that divides the world into civilised and modern spaces, populated by and belonging to people of white European descent, and the ‘wild and racialized’ rest of the world, where people, territory, histories, cultures and knowledges are marked as permanently subordinated, exploitable and disposable.

Mills is talking about spatialised hierarchies of modernity and primitivism – and so is south-east European studies, where Imagining the Balkans or Bakić-Hayden’s work on ‘symbolic geographies’ and ‘nesting Orientalisms’ are among the core texts every postgraduate will read.

Alongside Mills and the literature on ‘global formations of race’ (Michael Omi and Howard Winant) or ‘race in translation’ (Shohat and Stam) I had already expected the article(s) that became Race and the Yugoslav Region to be based on, one of the books I direct readers to most often appeared early in 2016: Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence.

White Innocence, Wekker’s challenge to Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ and the comforting myths most white Dutch people hold about their nation having one of the most liberal and tolerant traditions in the world, has a critical drive behind it that is simultaneously deeply grounded in the political struggles of feminists of colour in the Netherlands and deserves to carry well beyond the Dutch context.

In the course of refuting the exceptionalist excuse that white Dutch people ‘did not know’ about race until large numbers of postcolonial migrants and guest workers started arriving after the Second World War, however, Wekker uses the critical tools of Black feminism and Afro-European Studies to show, as scholars of Germany and the Nordic region have done, that ample evidence of public consciousness of race, racism and whiteness can be found even in societies with no history of mass migration of people of colour.

Part of the ‘cultural archive’ of colonialism, a term Wekker brings over from Said, is the ephemera of advertising and commerce, of school textbooks and medical discourse, of popular culture and entertainment, that were already revealing whiteness as a core part of national identity – with racialised notions of primitivism, hypersexuality and Africanity on the other side of this symbolic boundary – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As well as a challenge to racial exceptionalism itself, Wekker offers a model for tracing race, racism and whiteness through the everyday consciousness of predominantly white societies which overcomes one of the obstacles to putting race alongside other social identities at the centre of south-east European studies: does race really matter if there have been so few people of colour living there?

Starting with the everyday, and with the embodied cultural politics that we become able to see when we take apparently ephemeral sources like popular music seriously, shows that it does: and besides, ‘few’, of course, is not the same as ‘none’.

Many of the examples I discuss for a paragraph or two in Race and the Yugoslav Region could be books of their own, and I hope this book will help others to conceive them and many other books like it: how has the Venetian figure of the Moor lived on in the Yugoslav region (where Rijeka has its own blackface carnival character, the morčić), and what traces did traditions of colonial spectacle that radiated out from the German-speaking cultural area through the Habsburg lands leave behind? What was it about the small shore of Martinska, near Šibenik, that inspired Aimé Césaire to begin writing his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) – and what ties of anti-colonial friendship and solidarity brought him there? What histories of migration, pushed to the sidelines when the region’s history is written solely as the history of majority ethnic groups, reveal the region’s transnational connections to their full extent? And what could myths of South Slav nations standing at the ‘bulwark of Europe’ against the Ottoman Empire, or Venetian-Ottoman warfare in the early modern Adriatic, have to do with the emergence of ‘race’ through colonialism and slavery across and around the Atlantic itself? Historians of other periods will be able to take this further than a specialist in the post-Cold-War: this book will at least suggest some of what is at stake when they do.

Even as I was writing the book, the amount of new research on race as well as postcoloniality in state socialist Yugoslavia seemed to be increasing month by month – Peter Wright, Nemanja Radonjić, Aida Hozić, Radina Vučetić, Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić all presented new work at conferences in 2016 on issues such as the experiences of African students in Yugoslavia, or Tito’s visits to Africa – to say nothing of the amount of research starting to reassess the politics of post-Yugoslav national identity or public space in view of the refugee crisis.

For all these reasons, and in acknowledgement of authors like Dušan Bjelić, Tomislav Longinović and Konstantin Kilibarda who have already brought critical race scholarship to bear on understanding the Yugoslav region, plus the vein of ‘postsocialist/postcolonial’ research that has already started to extend so many of the connecting branches that made this book possible, I also hope that this book will not become the last word on race and the Yugoslav region – indeed, I urge the reader at the end to make sure through their own citational practices that it does not.

This is a book that responded to the challenges issued by campaigns such as ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?‘, rather than drove them, and is by an author who benefits from the assumed objectivity of whiteness and of not being from the region they are writing about: there is an even greater responsibility on me to create opportunities for the knowledge of marginalised scholars to be elevated, valued and remunerated than there would have been if I had not written this book.

In showing that the global legacies of colonialism have passed and do pass through the Yugoslav region, however, it also contributes to showing that Britain and the former Yugoslavia do not exist in separate spheres of history – and that if, for instance, recognition of historic wrongs (as so much scholarship on the Yugoslav region argues) is a precondition for social peace after ethnopolitical conflict, then for a society as implicated in and structured by the history of racism, slavery and colonialism as Britain, this must be even more the case.

The real impact of Race and the Yugoslav Region, I hope, will lie in how others extend, transform and criticise its suggestions in producing new knowledge and theory from their own situated perspectives – but, if nothing else, it will help to demonstrate that the Yugoslav region is not, and has never been, ‘outside’ the global politics of race.

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