September 12, 2019
What’s in a name? Racism by any other name still stinks.
Amid the many issues that have been plaguing the field of medieval studies since its inception in the nineteenth century is rampant and unabashed white supremacy. White scholars involved in the field have long wanted to erase or bury the inherent white supremacy of a field of study that came into existence largely for the purpose of bolstering imperialist claims of European nations. The British Empire, for example, projected onto the past a “pure” white origin myth entangled with racial supremacy in order to justify their wholesale slaughter, enslavement, and genocide of peoples the globe over.
We, as a field, must not kid ourselves that our scholarship has any legacy that doesn’t include blood, oppression, and white supremacy.
The fact that the field has recently been “rocked with scandal” over the exposure of its racist bedrock is simply a marker of the institutional (and likely white) privilege of those who haven’t been paying attention to what scholars of color have been telling us all along. There has never been a time when medieval studies was not racist. Medievalists of color’s calls for anti-racist reform within medieval studies and many of its subfields require us all to reckon with that past AND the present.
The latest group to actively choose white supremacy over the safety and well-being of its members is the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), which has been called to task for its racism, dehumanization and objectification of indigenous populations at conference sites, exclusion of scholars of color at conferences, shielding of sexual predators, lack of harassment policy, and lack of access for Early Career Researchers (ECRs).
Queerdievalists recognize that the terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” participate in a racist, colonialist narrative about early Britain that locates the origins of British history with mercenaries-become-settler-colonists (Angles and Saxons) in order to align Britain with a mythological Germanic racial ideal. We recognize that the name itself is both historically inaccurate and literally harmful to all those whom it excludes from the history of early Britain and the scholarship thereof. Furthermore, we recognize that “Anglo-Saxon,” via its Imperial British legacy, continues to signify white supremacy, both to the white supremacists themselves and for many communities of color who are regular targets of race-based hate and violence.
It is not merely a non-scholarly American audience that appropriates a de-contextualized medieval history to attempt to prop up their race-based hatred. European colleagues who would wish to retain the name “Anglo-Saxon” based on the claims of its purported “neutrality” in their contexts utterly fail to appreciate that its invention was and always has been for violent, racist purposes. The fact that you, white European scholar, are ignorant of its racial charge is not evidence that it has none.
Queerdievalists therefore reaffirm the Medievalists of Color Statement of Support for Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm and support the calls from medievalists of color to ask ISAS to change its name, to stop being complicit in this history of colonial oppression and violence, and to acknowledge the continued harm its legitimizing of the term does to early medieval scholars of color and people of color around the world.
But further than what’s in the name of ISAS, queerdievalists would like to voice our support for Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm, who served as a vice president of ISAS and worked tirelessly to move the field and its disciplinary body toward racial justice and inclusivity. Dr. Rambaran-Olm is not only a well-published scholar in the field, but she has written about her work to urge the field to do better on behalf of its medievalists of color. ISAS has, however, been resistant to change, silenced the voices of scholars of color, excluded ECRs–who are more likely to be from marginalized groups–and prioritized institutional “rules” and the comfort of (mostly senior & white) members over the safety of medievalists of color. Make no mistake, the prioritizing of rules over people is a key feature of institutional racism.
We understand that Dr. Rambaran-Olm did not simply resign over the name of ISAS, nor even over the sedimentation of racist resistance, aggression (micro and macro), and exclusion she experienced in the field. She has articulated a list of ten specific points for ISAS leadership to address in order to begin the necessary and urgent work of racial justice within their organization. We understand and support these reasonable requests of her colleagues as well as her refusal to be tokenized as a lone person of color in ISAS leadership while denied any voice in how the society might improve its problem with white supremacy. We applaud Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s work and her decision to remove her self, her body, her labor, her racialized presence from a scholarly community that neither appropriately recognized the value of her work–both scholarly and institutional–nor was committed to her safety, well-being, or personhood.
As a group of mostly white members, Queerdievalists would like to end this statement by calling those of us who are white, as well as all white medievalists, to take note of what we can and should be doing to improve the field. It’s never too late to begin work against racial injustice, and that work begins and ends within ourselves. We live in a society steeped in racism, colonial oppression, and continued violence; they have become so deeply embedded that we don’t always recognize them. This means that there will always be work to be done in rooting out the assumptions of that system within ourselves, our lives, our habits, our institutions.
With that in mind, white medieval colleagues, please take as many of these action steps as you find yourself able to do:
- When a medievalist of color speaks to you (or a group of which you are a part) about their experience of oppression, LISTEN. Don’t talk. Just listen. Don’t offer suggestions. Don’t play the devil’s advocate. Don’t attempt to understand the person who did the oppressing or defend their actions. And if they happen to be talking about oppression they experienced from you directly, don’t defend yourself. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
- Educate yourself on the issues of race in the field and race in the Middle Ages. Medievalists of Color have helpfully compiled a bibliography where you can find excellent resources to do this.
- Commit to creating inclusive syllabi and classroom spaces (also, controversially called decolonizing your syllabi). This isn’t as simple as adding a few writers of color or indigenous voices to your syllabus. As Dorothy Kim’s In the Middle guest blog pointed out in 2017, our classrooms inherently provide fodder for white supremacist ideologies unless we take pains to say otherwise. Unless we push against the canon and its history of explicit white supremacy we continue to contribute to a fantasy of a white Middle Ages for those who would use it to legitimize their belief in white racial (and/or cultural) superiority.
- Call out racism when you see it. Out loud. In front of everyone. To their faces. Even (and especially) if they’re the most senior, tenured, respected, fawned-over scholar in your field. Have the courage to call it out so that the burden of anti-racist work does not always fall on the shoulders of medievalists of color. They have enough burden as it is.
- Get an accountability partner–another white academic who is committed to doing anti-racist work and who can hold you accountable for your work toward the same. This is also the person to whom you can turn to figure out if something you are doing or saying is problematic, considering the racial implications of your actions without burdening a person of color.
- Remember that no matter how much work you do, no matter how feminist, queer, or anti-racist you are, the work is never done and you are never done. You are going to make mistakes. Your positive work toward racial (and/or gender, and/or identity, and/or ability) equity is not a guarantee that you will never do or say something harmful while you work toward your anti-racist goals. When you do inevitably stumble, take the feedback on the chin, and once you know better, do better. Deal with your feelings about that misstep on your own, or with a white accountability partner, not with a person of color who brought it to your attention or with your BIPOC friend.
We’ll end with the words of writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo:
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”
The following queerdievalists co-sign their names to this statement of support:
Dr. Joy Ambler, Dwight-Englewood School
Dr. A.R. Bennett, University of Nevada Reno, Assistant Professor
Dr. Marjorie Housley, University of Notre Dame, Postdoctoral Fellow
Dr. Christopher Roman, Kent State University, Professor
M G Vanderpoel
Dr. Kara L. McShane, Ursinus College, Assistant Professor of English
Dainy Bernstein, CUNY, PhD Candidate
Dr. Heide Estes, Medieval Ecocriticisms & Monmouth University, Professor
M. Breann Leake
Dr. Carla María Thomas, Florida Atlantic University, Assistant Professor
Erik Wade, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Dr. Roberta Magnani, Swansea University, Senior Lecturer
Nicholas Hoffman, The Ohio State University, Graduate Student
Zachary Clifton Egledow, Indiana University–Bloomington
Dr. Liz Schirmer, New Mexico State University, Assoc. Prof.
Dr. Will Rogers, University of Louisiana Monroe, Assistant Professor
Dr. Anna Klosowska, Miami University, Professor
Emma Kathleen Lloyd, Northern Illinois University
Diane Watt, University of Surrey, Professor
Jennifer Jordan, SUNY Stony Brook, Graduate Student
Han Tame, University of Kent
Dr. Anna Wilson, Harvard University, Assistant Professor
Ellis Light, Fordham University
Dr. C. Libby, Penn State University, Assistant Teaching Professor
Danielle Allor, Rutgers University
Dr. Helen Young, Deakin University, Australia
Shoshana Adler, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate Student
Jeff Stoyanoff, Spring Hill College, Assistant Professor
Dr. Rachel Karas
Dr. Heather Blatt, Florida International University, Associate Professor
Rombert S. Sturges, ASU, Professor
Emmie Rose Price-Goodfellow
Dr. S.C. Kaplan
Dr. Andrew Albin, Fordham University, Associate Professor
Maxwell Gray, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Graduate Student
Jes Battis, University of Regina, Associate Professor
Nicholas Holterman, University of Michigan, PhD Candidate
Shela Raman McCabe
Dr. Caitlyn McLoughlin
Dr. Elizabeta Strakhov, Marquette University, Assistant Professor of English
Prof. Mo Pareles, UBC
David Carrillo-Rangel, University of Bergen
Dr Amy Louise Morgan, University of Surrey
Kersti Francis, UCLA
Dr. James Estes, Wesley Theological Seminary, Assoc. Professor and Library Director
Michael A. RYAN, University of New Mexico, Associate Professor of History
Eileen Joy, Punctum Books
Dr. James C. Staples, NYU, Postdoctoral Lecturer
Masha Raskolnikov, Cornell University, Associate Professor
Celine Vezina, Graduate student
Mx. Bard R. Swallow
Dr. Alyssa Coltrain, Rutgers University
Gregory J. Tolliver, Indiana University–Bloomington, PhD Student
Andrea Whitacre, Indiana University
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