Sonali Thakkar is Assistant Professor of English at NYU, where she researches and teaches postcolonial literature and theory, critical human rights, race and ethnic studies, memory studies/Holocaust studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Her writing has appeared in Social Text, The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, WSQ, and The Cambridge History of World Literature, among other venues. Her first book, The Reeducation of Race: Jewishness and the Politics of Antiracism in Postcolonial Thought, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press in fall 2023.
“Rupture, Race, Repair: Jewishness, Anticolonialism, and the Politics of Liberal Antiracism”
This paper argues that UNESCO and the UN’s postwar redefinition of the race concept helped establish the terms for anticolonial thought and postcolonial literature’s abiding engagement with the Holocaust and questions of Jewish difference. In the early postwar period, galvanized by the conviction that racism had brought about a profound civilizational rupture, UNESCO launched a global antiracist campaign anchored by a rigorous scientific interrogation of the race concept. Anchored by the organization’s epochal 1950 Statement on Race, this project sought to redefine the racial human as both plastic and educable; at the same time, the commitment to the idea of race’s malleability worked as a strategy of biopolitical management that left unchallenged the colonial status quo. Anticolonial thought deeply registered and critically recast UNESCO’s liberal scientific antiracism, contesting the racial politics of plasticity and educability, as well as the limits of UNESCO’s vision of global repair. However, the race project’s concepts—and especially its redefinition of race as plastic—drew directly from debates in Jewish social science about assimilation and difference. Indeed, UNESCO’s 1950 Statement on Race can be read as a document of Jewish politics. As such, the paper argues that the central concepts of the new moral economy of liberal antiracism functioned as the very medium for postcolonial thought’s engagement with Jewishness. The paper discusses key scenes that demonstrate this engagement. It also addresses the resonance of this history for our present, at a time when the redefinition of racial concepts, particularly antisemitism, threatens to constrain the contours of antiracism and antiracist solidarities.