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.

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