Looking at Racism, Eugenics, and Biopolitics in Europe Historically: An Interview with Marius Turda
In Historicizing Race, Marius Turda and Maria Sophia Quine make the case for apprehending the idea of race through its chronology and the context of racial thinking over time, taking into account the way in which past conceptions of race are part of present racial constructions, especially in Europe. Arguing that “to combat the use of race and of racist interpretations of human relations, we should not avoid the term but rather try to understand its meaning and sense, across time and place,” they insist on the necessity of situating the concept through its historical trajectory to address various disciplinary currents on the notion. In this interview, Marius Turda reflects on his own trajectory as a historian of race and eugenics, tracing his intellectual genealogy to East-Central European thought. Since then, he has been not only a prolific writer, but also an academic actively engaged in public scholarship, generously devoting his time to diffusing research to general audiences. As one example, he recently participated in a remarkable exhibit featured on the walls of the former Poale Tzedek synagogue in Cluj/Kolozsvár in north-western Romania to draw attention to the Jewish communities of Northern Transylvania that fell victims to anti-Semitic and eugenics policies during the 1940s. While often omitted from commonly taught narratives of the Holocaust, their history illustrates how nation-building, religious identities, and science came together to produce a history of oppression, persecution, and extermination. Marius Turda further shares with me here his reading of George Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter as trigger events for global mobilization around racial injustice, as well as how European nations and the European Union have faced (or not) issues of racism. Commenting on the legacies of European colonialism, as well as “biomedical racism” against Roma communities in Eastern Europe, he highlights that ethnic inclusion and racial emancipation are prerequisites for a full expression of democratic values.
—Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow
EuropeNow How did you come to be interested in the history of eugenics and racism, and how did you train academically in this field?
Marius Turda I trained as an intellectual historian, but was always interested in the history of science and philosophy. As an undergraduate student, two historians influenced me: Sorin Antohi in Romania and Péter Hanák in Hungary. I learned a great deal from both of them. During a research trip to Budapest in 1993, I came across the works of an Austrian-Polish sociologist, Ludwig Gumplowicz, and became interested in Social Darwinism and how it influenced fin-de-siècle nationalism, particularly in East-Central Europe. Hungary seemed to me a very good case study to understand how ideas of cultural superiority developed and infused assimilation of non-Hungarians and historical claims of statehood. This research served as the basis for my first book, entitled The Idea of National Superiority in Central Europe, published in 2004. Social Darwinism was closely connected to eugenics and racism and most of the books treated eugenics as a form of Social Darwinism or as a form of racism, or both. Regrettably, at the time, there was not much on the history of eugenics and racism in East-Central Europe: Mária M. Kovács mentioned eugenics in her work on illiberal politics in Hungary, published in 1994, but it was not until Maria Bucur and Magda Gawin published their works on Romanian and Polish eugenics, respectively, in the early 2000s, that we had proper studies devoted to the history of eugenics in East-Central Europe. I had by then moved into the history of eugenics myself, but from the perspective of the history of medicine and history of anthropology.
If during my research on Social Darwinism and nationalism I was under the influence of a great historian of East-Central Europe in Oxford, Robert Evans, the beginnings of my research into the history of eugenics were guided by another great historian of German eugenics, namely Paul Weindling. I started with a research project on eugenics, anti-Semitism, and racism in the medical professions in Hungary and Romania. I was, rather mistakenly as it turned out, under the impression that there was not enough material on eugenics in these two countries to warrant a separate study, so a comparison seemed feasible at the time. As Maria Bucur had just published her book on Romania, I decided that I would start with Hungary. It’s been eighteen years since then, and I published many articles on Hungarian eugenics and anthropology. I have also completed a history of Hungarian eugenics between 1900 and 1944, divided into two volumes: the first, dealing with the period prior to Trianon, was published as a book by Palgrave in 2014. The second and final part, entitled Scientific Racism in Hungary, 1920-1944 is forthcoming. In parallel with my interest in the social history of medicine, which led me to get involved in various projects in medical humanities, I had the chance to work closely with another Oxford historian, a specialist on fascism, Roger Griffin.
I was thus very lucky to be able to work across the disciplines and geographical areas, although the main focus of my research remained the history of eugenics and race. It was not only the history of eugenics in East-Central Europe that was little known and researched, but also other eugenic movements which did not conform neatly to the Anglo-American or German-Scandinavian models. Nancy Stepan published a pioneering book on eugenics in Latin America, entitled The Hour of Eugenics, but she did not include the Romanian eugenic movement in her overview of various “Latin” countries. I thought there was more to be done in this area, particularly as I had access to the Romanian sources. One of the first articles I wrote on Romanian eugenics is from 2007 and was published in Slavic Review. By then I had become very interested in the history of anthropology, but also in the history of eugenics across East-Central and Southern Europe. In 2006, I created the Working Group in the History of Race and Eugenics at Oxford. My aim was to bring international recognition to my work on the history of eugenics and race in East-Central Europe, while at the same time facilitating collaboration on the international stage, through the organization of workshops and conferences, as well as through attracting students to engage in emerging debates within the history of eugenics and race, globally. Also in 2006, I published my first edited volume on the history of eugenics and racial nationalism, which came out with CEU Press. Although I contributed to the history of medicine, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, the comparative history of eugenics remained one of my main research interests, culminating in a co-authored book (with Aaron Gillette) on “Latin” eugenics, published in 2014, and an edited volume on the history of eugenics in East-Central Europe, published in 2015. It is rewarding to see that many of my doctoral students are now at the forefront of the scholarship on eugenics and racism, researching as diverse topics as Darwinism in Romania, the control of reproduction in Greece, homosexuality and evolution, “problem families” in Britain or the sterilization policies in Californian prisons.
EuropeNow What does the study of eugenics and the eugenics movement in Europe tell us about race/racism there and the ways in which the two fields of study have come together throughout history?
Marius Turda The history of eugenics intersects the history of racism from its inception. Most eugenicists, particularly the “founders” of the eugenic movements across the world, from England to Greece, and from Romania to the US, were also supporters of racial ideas of white/European superiority. There were of course many anti-racist eugenicists as well. During the interwar period, eugenics was often adjacent to nationalism and racism, as it served various programs of nation-building and as such it proved particularly successful. It is therefore important to understand the history of eugenics and how it relates to racism at a time when racist and eugenic beliefs are once again becoming more widespread across the world. The legacy of twentieth century eugenics has propelled fresh questions into a myriad of issues, from renaming of buildings to ideological movements such as White supremacy, and the revival of various health programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eugenics and racism continue to inflict suffering on people across the world.
In my work, I discuss and challenge both, and their accompanying Eurocentric and Western narratives, particularly in the public imagination. There is rich material to be explored in eugenics’ enduring appeal to contemporary sensibilities, not only in the US and Britain and certainly not only in connection to empire and various scientists such as Francis Galton, but also in countries such as Romania or Hungary, and in connection to the Roma communities or the disabled. To this effect, between 2018 and 2020, I curated two exhibitions on the history of eugenics, biopolitics, and anthropology in Romania during the first half of the twentieth century (including the Holocaust), precisely because I felt that scholars in Romania rarely discuss the history of biopolitics, racism, and eugenics, while younger generations and the general public are largely unaware of it. I uncovered many new archival sources, hitherto unknown even to specialists in Romanian history, medicine, anthropology, and sociology, shedding considerable light on how the Holocaust and Samudaripen (the Romani genocide) became possible in Romania. It is therefore important to discuss the history of eugenics in Europe, in order to show just how popular these ideas of human (by which eugenicists meant the nation and the race) were during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, we can understand better the wider scientific and political impact of these ideas and highlight their lingering effects in today’s collective behavior, particularly towards ethnic minorities such as the Roma. In the current pandemic situation, interwar eugenic arguments are being re-used in order to target the Roma communities and to reinforce their racialization, stigmatization and marginalization.
EuropeNow In one of your books (written in collaboration with Maria Sophia Quine), you advocate for the necessary historicizing of race. What does that mean and why is it important today?
Marius Turda Across Europe and the US, many continue to believe that there is a natural racial hierarchy and ranking order of inferior (non-White) and superior (White) peoples, coupled with the idea that nations and races can be defined by verifiable cultural and physical characteristics. Race can be biological and social, real and imagined; it is understood by many as the osmotic element that connects the individual to a broader community whose members are bound together by a sense of purpose, mission, and identity. To grasp the labyrinthine meanings of race remains a challenge. Books and articles dealing with race are regularly churned out, but it seems that scholars find it difficult to get their message across to both policy makers and the general public. Maria Sophia Quine and I felt that one needs to historicize race by exploring the interconnectedness of historical, scientific, cultural, and political strands of racial thought in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. We turned “the corrosive historicizing eye” on the idea of race, so that its impact on our lives can be discredited. I always suggested―in this book and other works―that more is needed in terms of both historical exegesis and philosophical reflection on the meaning and place of race in modern societies. There is need to know historical traditions, scientific paradigms, and political agendas which had been put forward in the name of “superior European/white” race. The history of race has been fraught with complexities and contradictions. One possible strategy to understand them is through historicity, that is to say through an understanding of the concept of race and racism as something which is historically contingent, based on history and living through historical processes.
One problem that confronts scholars of race is one of inconsistency between the denouncement of racism by scientists and the subtle or not-so-subtle re-employment of it by politicians and peoples on the street. When I was working on the book in 2015, one could hear exclusionary and rhetorically aggressive language in Washington, Budapest, London, and Warsaw. Politicians were critical of immigration and advocating a return to true national values, all aiming to revive the responsibility towards one’s ethnic community, deemed to have been devalued by globalization and predatory forms of political assimilation in transnational projects. I felt with the election of Donald Trump and the referendum on Brexit that there is space for another take, so I planned a book intended for my students and the general public, not for specialists. Most scholarly accounts of race are written in isolation from the broader theories of culture and civilization, and as such they rarely provide an adequate framework for understanding the development of racial science not only as pseudo-science, but, more importantly, as a cluster of beliefs underpinning ideas of white/European/Western superiority. To recognize the constant popularity of the idea of race one must attend to its historical traditions, and to its corresponding ideas of culture and civilization. Thus we can challenge the historical reification of race based on the assumption that Europe (and by extension the West) is the producer of the world’s greatest historical achievements.
EuropeNow Focusing on the death of George Floyd in May 2020 in the US as a trigger event for global mobilization around racial injustice, what similarities and differences do you see in the apprehension of race and patterns of racism in Europe and the United States?
Marius Turda We need to acknowledge fully the global significance of the death of George Floyd, and to see it in accordance with the unsettling reconfiguration of race within current political discourse and social practices, not only in the US and Europe, but also in Australia or South America. Racial injustice abounds across the world. Racism is systemic rather than just the actions of individuals. There are similarities between the US and Europe, particularly between the US, Britain, and France—countries with a long history of colonialism and racism and we need to see those in terms of their common historical framework, designed to subjugate, exploit and control non-white peoples. But there are also differences in the ways these countries deal with questions of collective, minority, and individual identity. Seen in this way, any form of racism conforms itself within a set of boundaries it recognizes as its own. But we need to cross over those geographical, cultural, and political boundaries in order to reveal how race and racism are embedded in European and American culture and politics. The impact of racism continues to be far-reaching, for both majorities and minorities in a population.
EuropeNow Why do you think George Floyd became an immediate icon that brought together people all over the world who have felt oppressed by the State? In your opinion, why did George Floyd’s death acquire universal value in ways that others before him had not? What was ripe about this particular moment for a global movement to rise in the way it so quickly did?
Marius Turda In Trump’s America, various forms of racism, which were shunned by decades of public opprobrium and civil rights activism, returned. Continuous vigilance, insecurity, and uncertainty have unfortunately become a chronic condition for many Black Americans who are arbitrarily and repeatedly treated differently and less favorably than the White Americans with whom they supposedly share rights of citizenship. Combined with various forms of racism and eugenics ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of George Floyd immediately became the tipping point for a long list of social grievances and racial abuse that had insidiously eroded our commitment to ethnic inclusion, gender, and racial emancipation, and overall our democratic values. Across the world, people protested and marched, condemning not only racism but also established political parties for their failure to promote an anti-racist agenda consistently. This is a serious impetus for an open conversation about race and racism, while at the same time, providing a historical opportunity for anti-racist work, which should not be missed.
EuropeNow How does the idea of the Nation and nationalisms partake in the debate on race/racism in Europe, and specifically in the European Union, where nations are supposed to abide by a greater supra-national ideal?
Marius Turda Recent political developments in Europe have resurrected scholarly interest in the history of race. Officially abandoned after 1945, theories of race have been slowly re-adapted to reflect developments not only in history and sociology but also biology, medicine, and science, more generally. Increasingly, attention has shifted towards the wider narratives, languages, and terminologies of race that never disappeared and, thus, have paved the way to the increasingly racialized world of today. These epistemologically-oriented narratives revised those outdated lines of reasoning that depicted the history of race as a form of “reactionary bourgeois irrationalism” unworthy of the same critical hermeneutics applied to other topics of historical inquiry. To accomplish this, however, one has to rethink the very categories in which the history of modern nationalism in Europe and elsewhere has been traditionally formulated. Race is one putative “stable” academic concept, although in practice it morphs within its specific social, cultural, and religious context. Every racial act, when set within a larger field of critical thinking (cultural, religious, legal, sexual) is destabilized in its interaction with other acts (such as those aiming at integration and peaceful coexistence for instance). Precisely for this reason, it is necessary to steer away from established, but ultimately outdated, methodologies of nationalism, and propose an intersectional interpretation of racism that is continually viewed in relationship to other markers of identity such as gender, class, and religion.
EuropeNow How has the European Union engaged in the issue of racism in its member states?
Marius Turda The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) is very active, but the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), established in 1993, is probably the most important organization. There are recurrent projects run by the Council of Europe and the European Union to fight against racism, xenophobia, and discrimination, some successful, others not. Following the death of George Floyd, there were some powerful statements in the European Parliament, not least by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who condemned racism in very categorical terms. The EP Subcommittee on Human Rights also held a debate on the situation in the US after the death of George Floyd. But, regrettably, there is widespread discrimination, intolerance, and racism across the EU member states (particularly towards the Roma community and immigrants) that would require more drastic measures to be introduced, including the punishment of some MEP who voiced very clear racist statements in their own countries. Examples include the Dutch Marcel de Graaff, the Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, or the former Romanian President Traian Basescu, who recently made racist remarks against the Roma. The treatment of the Sri Lankan workers in Transylvania also exposed the deep anti-Black feelings in a country that has never questioned its whiteness and how it prevents any attempt to open up the communities to outsiders, particularly if they are of different color.
EuropeNow You founded the Cantemir Institute at the University of Oxford and have focused on Eastern and Central Europe in your work. Can you tell us about how you came to create this institute?
Marius Turda The Cantemir Institute was announced as a project in September 2010 and established at the University of Oxford in 2011. It was, however, the outcome of a long and convoluted process of trying to make the study of East-Central Europe more visible at Oxford. Here Robert Evans, at the time Regius Professor of History, played a crucial role. The “Cantemir Lectures” were given by established scholars such as Hayden White and Aziz Al-Azmeh. The Institute also organized the East and East Central Europe Seminar Series, and some of the speakers included Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Germany), Halil Berktay (Turkey), and Andrei Zorin (Russia-UK). The aim was to foster the interdisciplinary study of Central and Eastern Europe in its wider European, Eurasian, Mediterranean, and global contexts. At the time, this was my most ambitious project in terms of academic impact and public engagement, as it reached a wide audience within the University of Oxford and the world.
EuropeNow What is the context in Eastern and Central Europe for the discussion on race and racism? Is race and racism apprehended differently by researchers there? What is the public and political discourse on race there?
Marius Turda Scholars in East-Central Europe have often embraced a selective historical memory to construct how their countries came to conceive race and racism. There is some very interesting conservative and “far-right” literature produced under socialism mostly under the guise of Catholic (as in Croatia) or Orthodox revival and autochthonism (as in Romania) that remains to be studied. It is now acknowledged that many of the nationalist narratives articulated after the 1990s, for instance, remained deeply connected to the mentalities and styles of racist reasoning produced during the inter-war period. The residual importance of race thus provided a potent, if largely neglected, element in the resurgent appeal of populist and nationalist strategies devised recently in many countries in Europe. Their evaluation is, therefore, essential to provide refreshing insights into theories of the nation, particularly those narratives centered on race coded into ethnicity and territory.
Fortunately, the scholarship on race and racism in East-Central Europe has grown significantly in the past 20 years. There is now very good work focusing on mixed race, coloniality, race and religion, intersectionality, and LGBTQ, building on conceptual transfers of knowledge and ideas, and a trans-culturally appropriate set of analytical categories. In my work, I addressed the key components of European eugenic and racist thought as it was formulated on the basis of a regional and trans-regional comparative analysis, but research is also needed to investigate the “trading” of concepts: both in the direction of inserting specific historical experiences and analytical categories into European circulation, while also testing the value of those interpretative models linked to such notions as race and nation.
At the level of public and political discourse, however, the debate on the history of race and racism in East-Central Europe needs constant reinforcement. To this effect, between 2018 and 2020, I curated two exhibitions: “Anthropological Research in Romania during the 1930s” and “Biopolitics and Eugenics in Romania, 1920-1944,” which have been seen by thousands of visitors, in and beyond Romania. Both exhibitions trace the scientific and intellectual sources of Romanian biopolitics, racism, and eugenics by contextualizing them historically during the first half of the twentieth century and by integrating the history of various ethnic groups (Hungarians, Germans, Jews, and Roma) within the national policies of the Romanian state. These policies included social marginalization, exclusion, and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide. What I discovered from travelling across the country is that Romanian students have never engaged with these sensitive topics at school or university, nor have they been encouraged to. For the first time, therefore, these exhibitions have opened up these historically suppressed subjects to younger generations and the general public, in the hope that such knowledge will help advance the overall process of coming to terms with the past in Romania. Regrettably, young Romanians know little or nothing about these topics; even their knowledge of the Holocaust is limited. I hope the exhibitions have familiarized them with another reading of the past, all but absent from existing textbooks, precisely because it challenges the Romanians’ self-perception as always tolerant and inclusive. The dislocating effects of racism must be tackled openly and not superficially. To give one example: In July 2019 the National History Museum in Bucharest, together with the French Institute and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, organized an exhibition on prejudice and racism that did not engage at all with the history of racism in Romania, or indeed with its current expressions in Romanian society.
EuropeNow What does the Romani experience with racism in Europe tell us about what needs to be done policy-wise to counter racism? Do you think that the current momentum of Black Lives Matter can buttress efforts on this topic in Europe? Are those two cases inscribed in the same dynamics, or are there differences in triggers, societal and institutional responses, and possible futures?
Marius Turda I did research the eugenic discourses against the Roma, particularly in Hungary and Romania. I tried to explore the manner in which the Roma interacted with, and were subjected to, eugenic discourses and practices not only during the interwar period but also under communism. Compared to other ethnic minorities (such as the Germans during the interwar period), the Roma communities did not embrace radical politics as the natural route to implement their own, parallel programs of ethnic survival under communism. While most of the existing scholarship on eugenics in East-Central Europe has focused on the interwar period, some of my current research delves deeper into the archives to rediscover its impact on the Roma communities during communism, when they were subjected to the application of eugenic theories by the state and the dominant ethnic group.
As known, it is not only “new” immigrants but also “old” ethnic minorities that remain a constant focus of racial abuse in Europe, particularly in East-Central and Southern Europe. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see, once again, how the Roma are ascribed a specific ethnic pathology by the majority (we see this happening in Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia), one derived from their “specific nature.” This biomedical racism reinforces their stigmatization as vectors of disease and contamination. Roma activists and scholars are drawing attention to a host of increases in police interventions and racist abuses in Roma communities. The Roma continue to be seen as “inherently” different from the rest of the population, while their social functions are repeatedly biologized and simplified as “natural,” “criminal,” and “unhealthy.” To be sure, the Black Lives Matter movement has served as an inspiration to many anti-racist individuals and groups. The European Roma Grassroots Organisations (ERGO) Network has been very active in this respect. We also heard the German politician Michael Roth speaking of the need for a new strategy to deal with anti-Roma racism in the EU. Roma Lives Matter, he noted in direct reference to Black Lives Matter.
EuropeNow I remember you telling me that you spent some time in France. France is often pointed to as having an ambiguous attitude towards race and racism. Growing up in France, I remember the SOS Racisme campaign “Touche pas à mon pote” and the pins that we wore to show solidarity with the movement. Has anything been accomplished since then?
Marius Turda Indeed. I was a visiting professor at Université de Paris and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS). France is an interesting case in the history of eugenics and racism. Regarding the latter, what Inoticed during my stays in France, is that below the surface there are deeply entrenched beliefs about French superiority, alongside a residuum of prejudices about “us” and “them,” foreigners, strangers, and outsiders. These beliefs continue to be derived from the importance of lineage, family, genealogy, and “blood ties.” To be sure, the French language is not a criterion for belonging. We continue to see that race continues to be an important component of daily human interaction, especially for those of North African and Arab descent, for whom it continues to be a limiting and determining feature of existence. Think of the controversy surrounding the ban on the burkini at seaside resorts, that much animated French debates on secularization and identity in the summer of 2016. The republican concept of secularism, as many scholars have pointed out, carries within it not only the potential for assimilation and integration, but also the drive for homogenization and uniformity, including the purification of the nation from “foreign elements.”
The SOS Racisme campaign that you mention was not only the first national anti-racist movement in France but it began, as the current movement in the US, as a reaction to the racially motivated crimes against African immigrants from The Maghreb (the gruesome murder of Habib Grimzi for instance). Jules Michelet encouraged his compatriots to love France above all else: “Un peuple! Une patrie! Une France!” And the current Constitution of the Fifth Republic, adopted in 1958, reasserts that view. But as we know from Frantz Fanon, a Black person has two countries, one that he shares with White French compatriots, and another that he inhabits, both physically and symbolically, with other Blacks.
EuropeNow Do you feel that racism in Europe is diminishing or increasing, or is it a different situation from place to place and time to time?
Marius Turda Racism is on rise. Racist remarks have returned to our political language and are normalized in ways which would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Bringing to light local cultures of race, both explicit and implicit, represents a unique opportunity to come to terms with the history of our time, at a crucial political threshold when racism, populism, and xenophobia are on the increase in Europe. Unfortunately, as long as the underlying structural conditions, shaped by Europe’s slaving and colonial past, are not directly confronted and addressed, the unexamined social attitudes that caused them will continue to fester and generate new forms of scapegoating and stereotyping. Besides the task of mediating between the localized traditions of nation and their trans-national framework, there is a pressing need to tackle the history of race within the framework of the entangled European history: namely, to look at various national racial traditions in all regions of Europe, more generally, from a global perspective, and, thus, to challenge their purported uniqueness. The task now is to evaluate the degree and nature of conceptual transfers of knowledge and ideas, of interpreting race as an analytical category, as well as a new knowledge-production mechanism—and, thereby, to address the key components of European racial thought. The much-needed discussion about the basis of structural racism in Romania is hopefully happening at the moment.
EuropeNow Like France, different countries in the world do not collect official “ethnic/racial” data (as in census, etc.). Sometimes, it can be surprising to some Americans that there is a debate about it, since they are used to routinely filling out basic forms that contain ethnic self-identification boxes to check off. What are your thoughts on that topic? What is the rationale on each side of the debate?
Marius Turda Collecting “racial”/”ethnic” data has a long history in the US, and the resulting data is for the distribution of various social, demographic, health, and economic policies. During the 1920s, such data was used to justify the need for the imposition of strict eugenic immigration policies against individuals from southern and Eastern European, for example, deemed to be of “inferior stock” and whose arrival in the US had to be stopped. We can thus see how deeply problematic such data can be in the hands of governments.
How the individuals self-identify as a racial or ethnic group and how they are identified by others also play a very important role here. Think, for example, of the Italians, the Irish, or the Greeks, who until the 1940s were barely considered “white.” So categories are blurred and often what was considered “Black” in the 1920s had morphed into “white’ by the 1980s. The very category of “Black” has changed many times since the nineteenth century. In 1900, for instance, there was just one category of “Black,” but by the 1910s terms such as “Mulatto” (of mixed Black heritage) were used. The category of race does not map neatly onto ethnicity and ancestry, so attempts to categorize an individual to belong to the “white,” “Black” or “Latino” groups are often arbitrary. “Whiteness” and “Blackness” are not fixed, immutable categories. Race has always been in flux (a “floating signifier” as Stuart Hall put it), travelling across regional, national and global traditions. Is “Hispanic” a racial group/race or a cluster of ethnicities?
There is another problem with collecting “ethnic” data: its terminology. Most of it reproduces racial categories and taxonomies inherited from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For instance, the categories used to describe white Europeans as a group, such as Caucasian, are deeply problematic and steeped in European racial science. But then, again, the Census Bureau recognized “Hindus” as ethnically Caucasian, although they were not from Europe.
The idea of race developed and mutated across historical periods as well. It was endorsed politically across the world and has lived comfortably in our cultures for centuries now. I think the collecting of ethnic/racial statistics as it is carried out in the US only confirms how deeply race has imbibed the fabric of American society and its tentacular existence. And here is the difference between the US and Europe (although not in the UK, where such racial categories have long been used) where the post-WWII culture has excised the word race from official language favoring instead more neutral terms such as ethnicity. There is, however, pressure in both Germany and France, for instance, to collect demographic data on ethnicity and race. Sibeth Ndiaye, a French-Senegalese advisor who served as government spokeswoman until very recently, suggested gathering racial data would help deal with the realities of race relations in France. The debate continues.
EuropeNow Is BLM simply an expected episodic iteration of a more general movement that goes otherwise dormant for years in between spikes (Rodney King, etc…)? Or, is there something different taking place this time?
Marius Turda I think something different is taking place now. The legacy of empire and colonialism forged a mind-set of superiority, pseudo-science, and arrogance persisting into the twenty-first century and is so difficult to dislodge. A mind-set that, despite anti-racism legislation and an apparent shift towards values of non-discrimination and equal treatment, gets so easily exposed when someone lets loose a floodgate of racial expletives to belittle and abuse the dignity of a person who happens to be perceived as other – not belonging to the imagined “us.” One may see these moments as the inevitable eruptions of those feeling increasingly frustrated in their inability to make sense of an ever-changing world or disturbing their certainties in a world that has moved on, away from the colonial mind-set. In response to an ever-increasing sense of change, many individuals tend to adopt a racist language and posture (which often translates into practice) that is boldly set against the image of a harmoniously multicultural and multi-ethnic society. The assertion that certain identities are under threat reflects, in fact, a growing apprehension amongst politicians and the general public alike, an apprehension, moreover, that feeds off the growing popularity of institutional racism and xenophobia. We are, in effect, witnessing the return to more aggressive forms of whiteness, which threaten to destabilize the social equilibrium of our societies. Let us remember that only a day after Trump’s inauguration, on 21 January 2017, European right-wing leaders met in Koblenz, Germany. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French Front National (renamed Rassemblement National in 2018), announced a new dawn of patriotism and national spirit. “2016,” she claimed, “was the year the Anglo-Saxon world woke up [making a reference to Brexit as well]. I am certain 2017 will be the year when the people of continental Europe wake up!” It is in 2020 that the world has woken up, not to glorify ideas of White superiority but to fight racial injustice!
EuropeNow The ways in which race and racism have become part of the urban landscape through monumentalization is a hot topic. In some countries, the response to the BLM context has been swift, with statues being taken down (whether officially or by protesters) and buildings being de-named overnight, and in others, the response has given rise to slower or no action and instead to an intellectual/philosophical debate of experts and politicians over history vs memory, representation, and commemoration that has been very polarizing. What can you say about this? In your opinion, why such rapid response in some places and such reticence in others?
Marius Turda The crux of the matter is less about the rewriting of history from today’s vantage point and more about engaging with the legacy of empire and racism, and not just with the overall historical relationship between the two, but with the very idiom of cultural and racial superiority that such a relationship created since the sixteenth century. History is not a blank page. We can’t wipe away what happened in the past. But we can try to understand what happened and why it happened, and at the same time learn from these past experiences. The basic question is this: how are we to discuss history, especially those moments in national history that the White majorities in Europe are not proud of. As historians of Europe will tell you, this question was placed at the center of the program of democratic renewal after 1945; it changed not only the methodology of education, but also that of the discipline of history. The famous phrase Vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning coming to terms with a problematic past, was and remains to this day one of the foundations of public discussions regarding the Holocaust for instance. But that historiographic debate about the past did not include the history of racism. You have exemplary books written about political regimes and nationalist ideologies in Europe which are totally oblivious to the question of how race and racism infused these ideologies and fed into the policies of those regimes throughout the twentieth century, ultimately leading not only to the Holocaust but also to a continuous oppression and discrimination of ethnic, social, and sexual minorities in post-World II Europe. For example, the continuation of the sterilization practices against the Romani women in countries such as Switzerland and Czechoslovakia.
The discussion about racism and the superiority of culture is however different in the UK and France, where it always connected to the legacy of empire. For instance, although it is sometimes admitted that in the past British society had embraced racist and eugenic ideas, the popular impression is that the British Empire was not “eliminationist,” as was the Belgian in the Congo or the German in South West Africa, but was rather paternalistic and tolerant of the “colonized peoples.” Stripped of its explicit racist content, this narrative about the past continues to provide powerful ideological sustenance in twenty first century Britain. We had spent a great deal of time teaching about Nazi racism and eugenics, and documentaries about the Nazi regime are a recurrent feature on British television, but until very recently there was no public discussion about the British eugenic movement during the first half of the twentieth century, or the activities of the Eugenics Society in Britain regarding sterilization, issues of disability, poverty and race.
As recent events clearly showed, UK and France, like the United States, are racial societies, in the sense that different communities living there openly identify as belonging to certain “racial groups” (such as white, black, Asian, etc.). There is systemic racism all around us, built in for decades now (the so-called “Windrush scandal” revealed that clearly in the UK as did the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993). It is very important to accept this fact and try to understand the relations between various communities in these countries, not only through references to past events, but also through the prism of the present context, that is, to understand how current ethno-racist narratives of personal and collective identification work together but also against each other. The popular perception about what it means to be “British” (that is white and belonging to a “superior” culture) is now strongly disputed. The events in the United States, caused by George Floyd’s death, also led to widespread public protests against racism in the United Kingdom. Anti-racist solidarity movements are now happening all over the world. Will these civic movements lead to the long-awaited racial and gender equality in our society? I hope so.
What can we do? To start with, victims of racism must be acknowledged and apologized to. We must engage with our countries’ racist past and expose the constant stream of racial injustice around us. We can fight for the civil rights of any individual regardless of skin color and for the equality of all peoples. We can support organizations that fight for social justice and against racism. We can, at the same time, advocate a new interpretation of history that is inclusive and devoid of implicit or explicit feelings of racial and national superiority. We now have the civic responsibility to do so. We need to find new ways to express our concerns with the current problems in the world around us, to unmask racist and xenophobic attitudes in our academic environment and our public culture and to engage our students in ways to recognize and challenge these.
EuropeNow Can you tell us about your current research?
Marius Turda I am completing the book on Hungarian eugenics and racism during the interwar period, which I mentioned earlier. I am also the General Editor of Bloomsbury’s six volume on the Cultural History of Race from Antiquity to the present, which will be published in 2021. Meanwhile, I am continuing to promote the exhibitions on Romanian eugenics and biopolitics; their most recent display was at Tranzit House, the former Poale Tzedek synagogue, in Cluj. Alas, due to the pandemic, I had to postpone the opening of the Centre for the History of Eugenics and Racism, established this summer at the Institute of History of the Romanian Academy in Cluj, but the good news is that the Romanian translation of my book on Hungarian eugenics before 1919, just came out. I have not neglected the history of medicine and one of the projects I am working on at the moment focuses on the gerontologist Ana Aslan and theories of rejuvenation in communist Romania.
EuropeNow I am curious about your interdisciplinary graduate course on “Engineering Society: Eugenics and Biopolitics in Europe, 1860-1945.” Can you describe your approach in the course and what students seek out and gain from it? One often hears about “medical humanities.” Why is this approach useful to study race/racism?
Marius Turda I teach a course on race and racism for the undergraduates and a course on eugenics and biopolitics for the graduate students. Medical humanities is a cluster of ideas and methodologies through which I often teach the history of eugenics. What I try to do in all of my teaching is to dispel the fears and insecurities our students may have when talking about race and racism in our society and in their communities. My strategy here is to raise awareness of what is happening in the world and in our society and to connect the “real life” to education and teaching, specifically in relation to my own area of expertise, in the history of eugenics and racism. I try to create a coherent methodological framework suitable for dealing with questions of collective, minority, and individual identity, as well as the institutionalization of eugenic and racist discourses in a variety of cultural and political contexts across the world. I suppose the pedagogic aim of teaching about the pervasive nature of racism is to help students explore how it lives within the society at large. This is as much about the present (analyzing daily speech, media images, institutional policies, and societal behavior) as it is about the past (history of eugenics, of race and racism) and the future (peer group learning, family dynamic and traditions, public activism). In 2017, I began editing a newsletter called Upstreamin which I advocate an anti-racist pedagogy, alongside working with those colleagues in my university who are interested in critically assessing the historical evolution of race and racism, but perhaps more importantly looking at the impact of racism on our lives, work, and teaching. My teaching on the history of eugenics and of race is based on the premise that we must consider what racism means in everyday interactions, both within and outside the University, and in sites such as the workplace, places of worship or public sites. We need to find new ways to express our concerns with the current problems in the world around us, to unmask racist and xenophobic attitudes in our academic environment and our public culture, and to engage students and teachers alike in ways to recognize and challenge these. To this end, teaching about race and racism provides a space for both education and self-reflection. More needs to be done to encourage students to think critically about the issues of race and more support should be given to those teachers who want to tackle racism at its roots and equip their students to do the same.
Marius Turda is Professor and Director of the Centre for Medical Humanities at Oxford Brookes University. He was the founding director of the Cantemir Institute at the University of Oxford (2011-12). He is member of the Royal Historical Society, fellow of the Galton Institute and member of the Academia Europaea. His most recent books include Religion, Evolution and Heredity (2019); Historicizing Race (2018; Romanian translation 2019); The History of Eugenics in East-Central Europe, 1900-1944: Texts and Commentaries (2016); Eugenics and Nation in Early Twentieth Century Hungary (2014; Romanian translation 2020).
Hélène B. Ducros holds a Juris Doctor and a PhD in human geography. She studies cultural landscape change and processes by which people develop attachment to places. Her latest publication in The Routledge Handbook of Place(2020) looks at the intersection of public art and memory of place. She is Chair of Research and Pedagogy at EuropeNow and chairs the CES Critical European Studies Research Network (@CESCritEuro). In Law School, her research compared the treatment under the law of the Roma in Hungary/Romania and Spain/France.
 Marius Turda and Maria Sophia Quine, Historicizing Race (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).
 Susan Sontag, “Introduction” to E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist, 1968.
 Georg Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, 1952.
Published on October 6, 2020.