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  • Racism in the Modern World: Historical Perspectives on Cultural Transfer and Adaptation ed. by Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt
  • Brett Bebber
Racism in the Modern World: Historical Perspectives on Cultural Transfer and Adaptation. Edited by Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011. 372 pp. $95.00 (cloth).

This ambitious collection of articles reflects a renewed attention to theories and ideologies of racism, as well as their dynamic histories. Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt have marshaled an extensive anthology of think pieces and case studies, all of which attend to broader discussions of multiple threads and debates in the histories of racism: how ideas of “race” and “racism” have changed over time, how Western notions of scientific racism collided with non-Western notions of cultural difference, the development of “whiteness” among colonizing societies, and the persistence of Eurocentric approaches to analyzing manifestations of racisms in world history.

The lucidly written and persuasive introduction sets forth an impressive research agenda for historians of racism, which is partially fulfilled by the subsequent chapters. Berg and Wendt outline a course of studies that “proposes to take a closer look at the complex processes of diffusion, transfer, adaptation, and transformation of racial ideas in various parts of the world, including their interaction with indigenous traditions” (p. 2). Noting that scholars have tended to focus on racial ideologies created in Europe and North America and then charted their imposition to legitimize colonization and aggressive expansion, the editors hope to go beyond earlier studies of the dissemination of white supremacy, instances of oppression and discrimination, and the rigid framework of racial nation-state building. Instead, they have collected [End Page 995] a series of essays that attempt to chart how racist ideologies were adopted in global locales but were adapted to fit contextual and historical circumstances. Their emphasis on cultural transfer and adaptation of racist systems of thought challenges the notion that these modes of thinking and perceiving the world could be systematic and stable in any way. What emerges is a complex and polyvalent mapping of how Western notions of biological and scientific racisms were diffused and reworked by anthropologists, colonial policymakers, nationalist reformers, and intellectuals in other global settings.

The first four essays address stirringly broad questions about how notions of race and racism spread across the globe, even if they present only partial answers. They are the backbone of the theoretical questions that emerge throughout the other articles. Frank Dikötter cites secondary research on Native American, Chinese, and African societies to contend that external markers like skin color were not merely a European idea but also fit tidily with indigenous traditions. While his claim that racisms had global appeal because they helped to legitimize political and social inequalities is nothing new, his articulation of an “interactive approach” to the transmission of racial ideologies is very helpful. Benjamin Braude asks why racisms were widely accepted in Europe but not in the Islamic world, and suggests that a wide range of factors, including medieval and premodern notions of unfixed identities and Quranic universalism, as opposed to Biblical particularism in the Christian West, accounted for the different uses of racialized thought. Christian Geulen’s provocative exploration of the nexus of race/culture/nation in the twentieth century concludes that since the Cold War, racism has been free from any forthright notions of biological or even cultural “races.” Usage of the term has been replaced by an acceptance of multiple “cultures” that are often praised for their diversity and foundation of collective identity but are also problematic as stand-ins for more traditional exclusionary thinking. Boris Barth’s analysis of the intersection of racism and genocide is slightly out of place in this volume, but nonetheless presents a sound overview of debates about the racial and nonracial qualifiers for a contemporary international definition of mass murder.

Case studies abound in the rest of the volume and are divided into three sections on the fractured import and export of shifting racial ideas in the Americas, Asia, and South Africa and Australia. Nearly all of the essays pay close attention to the import and export of scientific racisms (particularly from Germany) in the late...


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