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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

IAS Fellows' Seminar - When Black and White isn't Black and White: Researching the Racial Scale for the 21st-Century

14th November 2016, 13:00 to 14:00, IAS Seminar Room, Palace Green, Dr Julia Prest, University of St Andrews

Writing and speaking about the racial scale poses a number of methodological and terminological challenges that Dr Prest would like to explore with colleagues at the IAS.

Some individuals believe that the very term “race”should be avoided: in 2013, the French National Assembly voted (controversially) to remove the words “race” and “racial” from its penal code on the basis that the concept of “race” has no scientific foundation. While most researchers agree that the topic is important and still timely and that therefore the term must be used, this is a reminder of how careful the researcher must be.

The situation is further complicated when the researcher is studying an undeniably racist society (in Dr Prest's case, the slave society of eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue). How is one to fully understand
that society while distancing oneself from its racist precepts? And what terms should be used when writing or speaking about it for a modern audience? How, for instance, should she refer to the term
“nègre” that occurs repeatedly in the primary literature? This is not simply an ethical dilemma; the
issue is also one of accuracy. Even if anachronism can be negotiated, what exactly is meant by the racially-inflected terms “noir” and “blanc” (or “black” and “white”) and all the nuances in between?

These terms are loaded, ambiguous and charged. The question of self-positioning is also a difficult one. Recent discussions on the website of the American Musicological Society have included comments from established researchers suggesting that “white” individuals have no business researching issues relating to “black” music and that those who do are necessarily, if inadvertently, perpetuating the oppression inflicted by their ancestors.

Should Dr Prest begin every talk by acknowledging (and perhaps apologizing for) the fact that she is white and middle class? Or should the response to the researcher be colour-blind in line with the casting practices that opera companies and theatre companies are being encouraged to adopt? It turns out that the issues she is researching have become part of the experience of transmitting that research to others and that they may both be equally difficult to resolve.

Fellows' seminars take place on Monday lunchtimes in the seminar room at Cosin's Hall.

Places are limited and so any academic colleagues interested in attending a seminar should contact the Institute in advance to reserve a place.

The aim of these seminars is to develop new thinking on the big issues that are of current concern/interest for the Fellows . Each Fellow is asked to present a core idea that informs their current work, or a problem that they are tackling, that could benefit from cross-disciplinary thinking. These seminars are informal and designed to encourage discussion.

Contact for more information about this event.