- Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World
There is surprisingly little research produced by world historians that directly addresses the question of race. While the large historiographies on slavery and empire building cast some light on the global history of race as a social category, there have been few attempts to map systematically the divergent racial formations that have taken shape under modernity, yet alone to think about race as a significant phenomenon in world history at the broadest level. Here the contrast with work on gender is telling, as a diverse range of scholars from a variety of disciplinary (history, gender and women's studies, anthropology) and geographical locations are currently demonstrating that gender is an indispensable category of analysis for work on world history.
This collection of essays edited by Paul Spickard is an important attempt to think about the history of race within a global frame. The volume consists of an introduction by Spickard himself, seventeen chapters that examine an array of contexts from early nineteenth-century [End Page 247] California to contemporary Khmer identity, from the early Turkish republic to contemporary Brazil, as well as an extensive and very useful bibliography. Taken as a whole, this collection is a significant addition to the field of world history, and because of the range of the case studies it examines it will certainly function as a valuable teaching text.
Spickard's introduction is thought provoking. It opens with a compelling anecdote that explains why Spickard, a white American who was traveling in China's western borderlands during the late 1980s, was viewed by Uighur people not as "white" or "European" but instead as "Japanese" (who, for the inhabitants of Turpan stood for all outsiders who were not Chinese). This story communicates the ways in which, even at the end of the twentieth century, understandings of race remained highly localized and embedded in the power struggles that framed the social and political worlds of various communities. From this starting point, Spickard makes two very important general statements about the nature of race. First, he emphasizes that human communities have always lived with various forms of social difference, but race emerges as significant only when communities "begin to see themselves as fundamentally and irrevocably different." Spickard terms this crystallization of difference "the racial moment" (p. 2). Second, he offers a very useful characterization of race: "race is about power, and it is written on the body" (p. 2). This formulation moves us away from the traditional emphasis on race as a simple product of "attitude" or "prejudice" to reconnect corporeality with power, while recognizing that difference itself is the product of cultural work (race is "written on the body" rather than being a self-evident bodily fact). Spickard suggests that these insights serve as a very useful starting point for work on cultural difference at a global level and for charting the complex imbrication of race, ethnicity, and nationality.
This analytical agenda is framed by Spickard's desire to write of a world history of race and ethnicity that is "as widely comparative as practical, yet specific as possible" (p. 4). The seventeen essays that make up the bulk of the volume offer these specific perspectives, with most essays firmly focused on the development of racial and ethnic systems within a particular nation-state. All of these case studies are intrinsically interesting, and the individual essays are generally well written and compelling. Ultimately, however, they do not really offer the kind of rich comparative picture Spickard hoped the volume might offer. This is not simply the work of the particularity of each national case study, but it also reflects a general lack of coherence and cohesion across the volume as a whole. At one level, this reflects the ambition [End Page 248] of Spickard's agenda that effectively folds religion, race, ethnicity, and nationality into a unified analytical field. A narrower focus on race itself would have meant that some essays, especially Darshan Singh Tatla's incisive overview of the...