Revisiting the “Contours of Race, Racialization, and Race-Making” in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
This blog originally appeared in the June 2021 NewsNet.
by Elana Resnick, UC Santa Barbara, Sunnie Rucker-Chang, University of Cincinnati, and Chelsi West Ohueri, University of Texas, Austin
To advance dialogue about the applicability of critical theories of race and racialization to Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (SEEES) fields, six scholars (including a scholar journalist), who work and write on race and racialization in Central and Southeast Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, came together for the roundtable, “The Contours of Race, Racialization, and Race-Making,” at the 2020 ASEEES Annual Convention. Roundtable participants actively challenged the entrenched silences about race, racialization, and “amnesia of racial capitalism” (Bjelić, 2021) in Central and Southeast Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, and urged others, particularly those engaged in similar scholarly pursuits, to push for the recognition of how racial logics and processes of racialization affect the various members of racialized, and otherwise minoritized, communities throughout geographies associated with SEEES fields. For this article, three of the roundtable participants, who work in the Balkans, reflect on their own research, their positionalities, and the significance of the roundtable to their scholarship, the field, and ASEEES as an organization.
The theme of last year’s ASEEES meeting was “Anxiety and Rebellion,” and one of our conversations was shaped by a type of anxiety that scholars themselves can perpetuate when it comes to the subjects of race and racism. Our roundtable participants called attention to this anxiety, specifically highlighting what it means for us as scholars to conduct research on race in our region. In order to meaningfully address race and racialization, it is imperative that scholars in our field be willing to discuss the tension between being unable to engage vs. unwilling to examine forms of racism and anti-blackness. Given more recent global conversations and dialogue about race and racialization, this framing could create an opportunity to investigate race and racism in multiple forms, and move beyond racism as unfortunate, unexpected, or not reflective of an entity’s true values, but instead as shaped by global white supremacy and in need of critical engagement.
Several key questions animated our discussion, including those pertaining to how we situate race as a historical category of social organization and not just as a newly emergent one in Eastern, Central and Southeast Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. Though roundtable participants were working in different areas across the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, and though shaped by multiple disciplines including anthropology, cultural studies, journalism, film and media studies, gender studies, and history, we found numerous intersecting and overlapping threads as they pertain to race and racialization. This enabled us to conduct a rich conversation that addressed the interrelated subjects of marginalization and othering, and how these ideas shaped our engagement with gender, religion, migration, and diaspora within our region.
When and how does the language of whiteness, blackness, and otherness get employed across our region? And how and when does this language get strategically avoided or dismissed? How does this inform us about the globality of racialization? As sociologist Michelle Christian argues, we cannot look at racial dynamics and inequities in any given society as emanating solely from the logics, beliefs, and structures of that society. Although white supremacy is not at all new or “resurgent” (Speed 2020), its latent roots are being explored globally—and finally in SEEES fields. And the roots and histories of white supremacy throughout the region have been discussed among local communities of color for decades—if not centuries—but have yet to enter the traditionally white spaces of SEEE area studies.
Chelsi West Ohueri’s experience with long-term, ethnographic research in the Balkan region has allowed her to consider the complex registers of racialization and belonging that emerge in everyday life, even in spaces that often cling to notions of racelessness. As many of the other roundtable participants also noted, this type of ethnographic work can yield insight into how particular histories and the contemporary moment shape lived experiences surrounding racialization, marginalization, othering, and dehumanization. Regarding dehumanization, the roundtable also drew attention to silences that often prevent authentic engagement on this subject, whether the conversation is pertaining to Roma persons in the Balkans, to Africans in the former Soviet Union, or to Black folks in the United States.
From a more personal perspective, this roundtable represented an intellectual shift from West Ohueri’s first ASEEES conference in 2014. At that time, she was an advanced graduate student presenting on racial belonging in Albania, but there were no opportunities to collectively discuss race and racialization, nor was she able to connect with other scholars conducting similar research. The roundtable in 2020 gave us a chance to reflect and dialogue about race studies in the field, as well as the opportunity to collectively strategize about addressing race within our association.
In writing about race in SEEES fields, Elana Resnick acknowledges how she has been consistently confronted with questions about the fundamental premise of her research: does race (or racial hierarchy) in Bulgaria even exist? Throughout her fieldwork, she was often asked to justify why race is a relevant framework, support it with quantifiable numbers, and account for why race is not just an “Americanization” of a local issue—of what many of her non-Romani interlocutors (academic and non-academic) categorized as “culture.” When she disagreed with the notion that the terms “ethnicity” or “culture” could adequately account for the power differentials or perspectives of the Romani communities with whom she worked, many non-Romani scholars dismissed her approach as not “emic” enough. They would assert that her reliance on “American notions of race” was out of place in the region. However, this phenomenon is part of what needs to be studied by scholars of the region: denials of race and racialized hierarchies as assertions of white supremacy.
This, however, was only the tip of the iceberg of the expertise regime that has surrounded discussions of power and racialized hierarchies in the region. Even when people use the terms “race” and “racism” to analyze their own conditions, these concepts and framings have been dismissed in widespread scholarship in and on the region. For centuries, white scholars worked to proprietarily document—without collaboration—Romani culture and language (for example). This approach has strategically precluded Roma from the very circles and analytical authority that would transform the study of power, history, and politics in East Europe into one in which critical studies of race and racialization have a place.
Sunnie Rucker-Chang notes that with race critical theories absent in SEEES fields, consistent inequities and attendant systemic disparities (in education, access to health care, employment, and in other aspects of daily life) persist among members of some groups without the critical lenses necessary to understand them fully. Perpetuation of the myths of racelessness in Eastern, Central, and Southeast Europe, Russia, and Central Asia does not diminish connections shared among marginalized communities transnationally and the structures that support what is typically their minoritized position. Instead, these relational qualities are dismissed as irrelevant or misplaced and we continue to lack the means to meaningfully include these perspectives into SEEES scholarship. The fervor to dismiss race, racialization, and its effects actually works against our field, however, as it perpetuates the region as peripheral, disconnecting it from global flows of information and even its own historical, transnational relevance.
While the disciplines of our field include various geographies, histories, cultures, and sociocultural and political realities, those who produce knowledge about our fields have long not been similarly “diverse.” As I recently wrote in the Slavic and East European Journal Symposium “Working Towards Equity in Slavic Language and Literature Programs: Experiences from the United States,” SEEES fields are dominated by scholars whose origins lie in unmarked majorities who identify or code as “white,” and this lack of broad racial diversity facilitates the continued promotion of majoritized positions and facilitates continued silences about race. The discussion that followed the roundtable highlighted that limited “diversity” produces similar experiences and positions that minimize critical frames of knowledge and understanding.
As an organization, the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies is supporting and incorporating more programs and initiatives that will hopefully result in more inclusive and racially diverse membership. The ASEEES Initiative for Diversity and Inclusion, ASEEES support for the US Russia Foundation-sponsored Undergraduate Think Tank and Cybersecurity Simulation hosted by Howard University, and focused articles highlighting the challenges of creating community for students of color in our fields, particularly when traveling abroad, show that ASEEES administration recognizes a lack of people of color among the organization’s membership as well as in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies fields, and that they are doing the work to create pathways to have more inclusive and racially diverse membership. Given that these initiatives are specifically targeting students and professionals of color, these new members will likely be from minoritized communities who will, inevitably, be knowledgeable about the dominant cultural idiom, but what language will these students use to express their positionalities, experiences, and potential academic interests in relation to their work in SEEES fields? That is not to assume that all students of minoritized communities will have an interest in working on issues of race and racialization, but, if they do, how will we provide them the frameworks for analysis when the relevance of racial logics to our fields remains perennially challenged? Moreover, what language will these students use to express their experiences abroad where their racial positions will inevitably define them much more than at home? How will their faculty leaders or advisors help them work through their experiences? There are both scholarly and practical implications for our fields if addressing race and racialization remains taboo. Without the adoption of updated modalities incorporating race and racialization in our fields, the answers to these questions will remain elusive.
And that is where this roundtable comes in: it creates a new space for thinking about race in Europe and Eurasia that works to unsettle the gatekeeping of SEEES. The variety of perspectives brought to light issues of how to understand race as a historically present—but often disavowed—category of social organization across Central and Southeast Europe, Russia, and Central Asia that has been changed, exacerbated, and transformed by ongoing conditions of white supremacy, migration, and religion. The power in this approach is not just adding race to a pre-existing conversation but fundamentally shifting the analytical paradigms upon which studies of our regions rely and to which they contribute. This roundtable was inspiring, not only for the collaborations it has cultivated, but also for the possibilities of interdisciplinary and transnational work in East Europe and the post-Soviet space as we reckon with the longstanding structures of white supremacy upon which previous scholarship was built, and which current scholarship too often continues to ignore or deny.
Sunnie Rucker-Chang is Assistant Professor of Slavic and East European Studies and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead for the Institute for Research in Sensing at the U of Cincinnati. She works, writes, and teaches primarily on racial and cultural formations and minority-majority relations in Southeast Europe. She is the co-editor of and contributor to Cultures of Mobility and Alterity: Crossing the Balkans and Beyond (forthcoming with Liverpool University Press, 2022), co-author of Roma Rights and Civil Rights: A Transatlantic Comparison (Cambridge, 2020), and co-editor of and contributor to Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2011).
Chelsi West Ohueri is sociocultural and medical anthropologist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the U of Texas, Austin. Her scholarship and teaching are primarily concerned with the study of racialization, marginalization, and structural inequality. She has conducted extensive ethnographic research throughout Albania and is interested in configurations of race and belonging among Albanian, Romani, and Egyptian communities in Southeastern Europe. West Ohueri is currently completing her ethnographic book project about this research.
Elana Resnick is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the U of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently working on a book manuscript about waste and race in Europe. Based on fieldwork in Bulgaria conducted on city streets, in landfills, Romani neighborhoods, executive offices, and at the Ministry of the Environment, the book examines the juncture of material waste management and racialization. Resnick has a recent (2021) article in American Anthropologist stemming from this research entitled “The Limits of Resilience: Managing Waste in the Racialized Anthropocene.”
Bjelić, Dušan, “Abolition of a National Paradigm: The Case Against Benedict Anderson and Maria Todorova’s Raceless Imaginaries,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (2021), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2020.1863842.
Christian, Michelle. “A Global Critical Race and Racism Framework: Racial Entanglements and Deep and Malleable Whiteness.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 5, no. 2 (2019): 169-185.
Speed, Shannon. “The Persistence of White Supremacy: Indigenous Women Migrants and the Structures of Settler Capitalism.” American Anthropologist 122, no. 1 (2020): 76-85.