This article traces the emergence of racial plasticity in the discourse of midcentury liberal internationalism and antiracism, focusing on the 1950 Statement on Race by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The author argues that the statement is both an important precursor to contemporary celebrations of plasticity and an object lesson in the conceptual and political limitations of plasticity as a response to race and racism. Paying particular attention to the statement’s treatment of plasticity as synonymous with educability, the author argues that plasticity’s centrality to the race concept at midcentury was driven by a pedagogical aspiration to make not just racial ideologies but racial form itself subject to reeducation. In UNESCO’s discourse, plasticity, or the idea that race is changeable and malleable, represents both the promise of freedom from race and a biopolitical imperative. Even as UNESCO sought to dispel the scientific racism it associated most closely with Nazism, the statement’s privileging of plasticity accommodated and extended strategies of colonial racial management. While UNESCO’s antiracism found it easier to imagine an end to race than to imagine that racism could be contested in political terms, anticolonial politics challenged both the colonial ordering of the world and the biopolitical logic of racial plasticity.
The Reeducation of Race: From UNESCO’s 1950 Statement on Race to the Postcolonial Critique of Plasticity
Sonali Thakkar is assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is completing a book titled The Reeducation of Race: Jewishness and Plasticity in Postcolonial Politics. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, WSQ, and The Cambridge History of World Literature.
Sonali Thakkar; The Reeducation of Race: From UNESCO’s 1950 Statement on Race to the Postcolonial Critique of Plasticity. Social Text 1 June 2020; 38 (2 (143)): 73–96. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-8164764
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