The Reeducation of Race
Jewishness and the Politics of Antiracism in Postcolonial Thought
Sonali Thakkar




In a short 1943 communication titled “How to Combat Racial Philosophy” published in the British anthropological journal Man, the Czech-Jewish physician Ignaz Zollschan decried anthropology’s role in the elevation of Nordic racial superiority from a “philosophy” to a “faith” that in turn had “formed an important part of the ideas which have led to the present world conflict.”1 Individual anthropologists, or those who claimed the name, may have irresponsibly propagated this baleful ideology, but it was now clearly too late—five years into a cataclysmic global race war—for even the most effective and best-willed scientists singly to undo the damage: “Anthropological pronouncements by individual scholars alone are not sufficient to prevent the further growth of this faith; science as a whole must undertake the task.”2

Zollschan’s communiqué—a summary of remarks delivered at a meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute—appears modestly among a series of such proceedings. Yet it has a certain pathos, for in the mid-1930s, Zollschan had urgently pursued exactly such an effort to impel “science” to speak as one and issue a decisive, wholesale refutation of Aryan racial theories and Nazi race science. In 1934, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Zollschan left Czechoslovakia for England to carry on what Elazar Barkan calls his “personal campaign to combat Nazi anti-Semitism” as well as to find supporters for his more ambitious plan to launch an “international inquiry into the question of race.”3 Zollschan was not the only one thinking along these lines, and efforts to organize systematic investigations of the race concept as an antidote to Nazi propaganda were pursued by others, including the anthropologist Franz Boas on the other side of the Atlantic.4 What distinguished Zollschan’s initiative, however, is that he routed it not just through professional scientific organizations such as the Royal Anthropological Institute but also through the League of Nations and its International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) in Paris. The IIIC was a direct predecessor of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which on its founding in 1946 absorbed the remnants of the IIIC. Zollschan thus sought sponsorship for his proposed inquiry from an organization whose focus anticipated, in embryonic form, UNESCO’s postwar mandate, “that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”5

In his 1943 communication to Man, Zollschan’s focus was fixed on this postwar moment still to come, and his thoughts were turned to the problem of education. His own efforts of the 1930s had collapsed amidst the outbreak of war in 1939. In issuing his wartime call to action, Zollschan was under no illusions that a scientific reappraisal would alter Germany’s pursuit of racial war and extermination. Instead, he was thinking ahead to the yet undefined and unknowable period after war’s end, urging his readers to begin preparing a concerted program for the reformation of racial ideologies that he was convinced would be required in war’s aftermath. Even the defeat and destruction of Nazi Germany would not guarantee the disappearance of its racial “superstition or pseudo-religion,” Zollschan warned his readers, unless its opponents had “prepared in good time” the instruments necessary “to make the peoples concerned desire re-education.”6

In fact, the early postwar era produced something very much like the program of racial reeducation Zollschan called for in 1943. World War II produced a fundamental shift in modern racial discourse, and in the late 1940s, UNESCO initiated a project on the race question that sought to fulfill the unfinished efforts of the interwar period. Publicly inaugurated in 1950 with UNESCO’s epochal Statement on Race, the project’s chief purpose was to develop a global antiracist educational campaign anchored by a rigorous scientific interrogation of the race concept. As such, it once again attempted to make “science as a whole” (in Zollschan’s words) an instrument of antiracism, now closely allied with the new human rights regime formulated at the UN in the same period. This postwar project of reeducation is the starting point for this book’s story.

The 1950 Statement on Race is at the heart of both my story and UNESCO’s race project. The statement was crafted by leading figures in the midcentury biological and especially social sciences, including the anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Claude Lévi-Strauss and the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. UNESCO’s ambitions for the statement were grand: the statement was to definitively establish, once and for all, the scientific facts about race and so transform the public’s relationship to the idea of race. In UNESCO’s vision, the statement would be a powerful instrument for the correction of racial prejudices and the reeducation of the pervasive race thinking that had saturated political life and driven the world to war. While UNESCO certainly did not achieve these aims, the 1950 statement and its 1951 revision, Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences, remade the race concept. Over the next decade, UNESCO published a series of supplementary educational booklets by prominent scientists associated with the project, which were designed to further educate a global public about race relations and various elements of the race and culture concepts. Although the project continued beyond the 1950s, these years represented the height of its influence. Alongside these statements and investigations, the project was also ideologically and practically entangled with UNESCO’s efforts in third world development during this era, particularly in the field of education. UNESCO’s race project was an extraordinary intervention into the making of antiracism and, in my view, the single most important site for the canonization of the liberal antiracism that continues to profoundly shape our racial present.

My central claim in The Reeducation of Race is that anticolonial thought and postcolonial literature deeply registered and critically recast the liberal scientific antiracism formulated at UNESCO in the late 1940s and 1950s. I recover the evidence of this engagement by reading seminal anticolonial and postcolonial works—Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism (1950, rev. ed. 1955), Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Our Sister Killjoy (1977), and Caryl Phillips’s essays and his novel The Nature of Blood (1997)—in contrapuntal dialogue with the rich archive and sprawling intellectual network of UNESCO’s race project, which has thus far received no sustained scholarly attention in postcolonial literary studies.

The crux of this engagement emerges from the ambivalence of UNESCO’s antiracism. UNESCO’s refashioning of the race concept was driven by an antiracist pedagogical imperative: the task was to produce a constitutively antiracist definition of race. This was science in the service of human rights. However, this imperative generated ideological frictions that the 1950 statement sought to address by advancing concepts that could resolve these tensions. Specifically, UNESCO had to somehow reconcile antiracism with the perpetuation of a colonial world order that the United Nations and its member states were in no hurry to dismantle. I argue that these conceptual and political contradictions are not just the race project’s context. Instead, the 1950 statement directly sought to manage and ameliorate them by defining race as plastic and changeable. Racial plasticity is a biopolitical and managerial concept at odds with a politics of antiracism that understood race and racism as questions of power and exploitation, embedded in colonial histories and relations. In the statement’s conception of race, it was easier to imagine an end to race than an end to racism.

My authors register UNESCO’s race project in various ways. In some cases, these engagements are explicit, such as in the 1955 edition of Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, which addresses UNESCO’s race project at a critical juncture in its argument. Indeed, the most significant changes Césaire made between the 1950 and 1955 editions of this essay were in response to public debates about the race project in postwar intellectual culture. In a striking way, then, Césaire was hailed by UNESCO’s antiracist pedagogy, even as he responded with what I describe as a counterpedagogical critique of UNESCO’s agenda of racial repair. While Césaire’s engagement with UNESCO is readily visible in Discourse on Colonialism’s footnotes and elsewhere in his writings, its implications have not been robustly remarked, nor have such encounters been emplotted as part of a larger story, as I do here. In other cases, these connections have gone unnoticed and require historical reconstruction and close reading; I reread Frantz Fanon’s 1952 Black Skin, White Masks in order to demonstrate how closely his work interrogates the ideas of racial plasticity, educability, and natality that were central to UNESCO’s renovated race concept.

UNESCO’s midcentury remaking of the race concept and anticolonialism’s radical antiracist humanisms are historically and conceptually intertwined in ways that expand how we understand anticolonialism’s engagement with the institutions of postwar worldmaking. In my telling, there are two antagonistic but overlapping scenes: the new institutions of a liberal global order, where real anguish about the political and spiritual dangers of racism coexisted with the colonial status quo, and insurgent anticolonialisms from below, which identified in the midcentury crisis of race an opportunity to further the fight for colonial self-determination and challenge racial inequality on a global scale. The book connects these scenes by adopting a contrapuntal method. As Edward Said theorizes it in Culture and Imperialism, contrapuntal reading describes a postcolonial interpretive method that draws together what might appear to be “experiences that are discrepant, each with its particular agenda and pace of development.” For Said, reading contrapuntally entails identifying the elisions, asymmetries, and even suppression that metropolitan or colonial discourse imposes on the reality and representation of the “other setting”—that is, the colonial setting.7 In turning to contrapuntal reading as a methodological frame for the kind of readings I pursue in this book, I am drawing less on Said’s characterization of contrapuntality as a mode of reading that restores to visibility experiences, perspectives, and voices that were “once forcibly excluded” and rather more on his exhortation to seek out the “knotted,” “overlapping,” and “interconnected” elements of apparently discrepant discourses and experiences.8 Insofar as the historical connection of postcolonial thought with these postwar institutions is still insufficiently explored in the field of postcolonial studies, this book reads across what are too often still treated as separate scenes.

However, there is more to this story: I triangulate these discourses with the prewar history and postwar afterlife of the Jewish question. UNESCO’s race project and the race concept it canonized in the 1950s were constitutively shaped by the Holocaust, as well as by long-standing debates in social scientific thought and Jewish politics about race, difference, and assimilation. Indeed, there are multiple and sometimes competing Jewish questions at stake in the midcentury reeducation of race, and these require some careful mapping.

At the broadest level, Nazism’s racial persecution of European Jews was a central element of the postwar crisis of race that compelled UNESCO’s race project and drove the ascension of liberal antiracism in the 1940s and 1950s. UNESCO’s race project would not have looked the same without this recent history; indeed, to my mind the project is inconceivable apart from it. The catastrophic consequences of European antisemitism functioned as the moral and rhetorical frame for the 1950 statement. An annotated edition of the statement for educators and students by the American anthropologist Ashley Montagu, the drafting committee’s rapporteur, opens with Montagu’s grave observation that “in the decade just passed more than six million human beings lost their lives because it was alleged they belonged to an inferior race.” It was this “barbarism,” he explained, that had galvanized “an agency of the United Nations” to convene a group of scientists to “clarify the whole concept of race.” Montagu notes that UNESCO’s offices were housed in the very building German military had taken as its headquarters during the occupation of Paris, and he movingly reflects that “except only if our deliberations had taken place at Auschwitz or Dachau, there could have been no more fitting environment to impress upon the Committee members the immense significance of their work.”9 Writing in the shadow of Jewish persecution, then, these scientists were fully aware of the urgency of formalizing antiracism as a moral universal.

More specifically, Jewish scientists and activists whose own lives had been deformed by antisemitism or who had addressed questions of Jewish identity and belonging in their work profoundly shaped UNESCO’s race project and especially the 1950 Statement on Race. Of the eight social scientists who drafted the statement, three were of Jewish background. These three members of the drafting committee—the anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the sociologist Morris Ginsberg—played especially decisive roles in the statement’s formulation. They had complicated relationships to their own Jewishness as well as dramatically different intellectual positions on debates in Jewish social science; their identity tells us very little in and of itself about their politics, as is also true for E. Franklin Frazier, the Black American sociologist who chaired the drafting committee. UNESCO’s race statement was by no means a politically radical document, and its limitations on the question of colonial racism are very much the focus of this book. Moreover, each of the statement’s authors was individually implicated in various projects of colonial ethnography and neocolonial modernization at UNESCO and beyond.10 Yet for all of this, the statement is nonetheless a document of damaged life, written in the main by authors whose involvement in this antiracist endeavor was shaped by their own experiences as minoritized subjects.

While these individuals’ biographies are less important than the concepts I will go on to describe, they help to situate the statement intellectually and historically, and we will encounter these figures again at multiple points throughout the book. The best-known member of the committee from our contemporary perspective, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, would relate in his 1955 work of memoir and ethnography, Tristes Tropiques, how he had fled France in 1941 after its capitulation to Germany, recognizing himself “to be potential fodder for the concentration camp.”11 Biographers and critics have noted the relatively minor role that Judaism or Jewish identity appear to have played in Lévi-Strauss’s formation, despite the fact that his grandfather, in whose home he was partly raised, was the rabbi of Versailles.12 Lévi-Strauss himself rather brusquely dispenses with the question when, in Tristes Tropiques, he declares that his attitude of unbelief dates to his early childhood and describes his grandfather’s home (which was attached to his synagogue) as a place “lacking precisely in the human warmth that was a necessary precondition to its being experienced as sacred,” with “worship within the family circle . . . no less arid.”13 Yet as David Damrosch has nicely observed, Lévi-Strauss nonetheless makes Judaism the “frame-tale” for Tristes Tropiques: “inverting chronology, [he] uses his flight from Nazi genocide to introduce his earlier transatlantic voyages, when he pursued his ethnographic research in Brazil. . . . Lévi-Strauss thus marks his Jewish background at the opening of his book.”14 Scholars have debated the question of what influence Lévi-Strauss’s Jewish background did or did not have on his political commitments or his anthropological work, but it materially shaped the circumstances that led to his involvement with UNESCO’s race project; his forced exile in the United States, from which he had only recently returned to France in 1947, brought him into close contact with scholars, including Boas and the French anthropologist Alfred Métraux, who in different ways would contribute to the transatlantic study of race and racism.15

Also on the committee was the English sociologist Morris Ginsberg. Born in Lithuania in 1889, he emigrated to England and began his studies at University College London in 1910, despite knowing little English.16 A professor of sociology at the London School of Economics from 1929 to 1954, he is best known for extending the work of his teacher L. T. Hobhouse. In his 1935 Hobhouse Memorial Trust Lecture, titled “The Unity of Mankind,” Ginsberg observed that his mentor’s faith in humanity’s achievement of self-realization and the self-conscious development of civilization would be sorely tested by “recent events,” including “the glorification of race” and “the bitter attacks on the central ideas of humanitarian ethics.”17 The principles he goes on to elaborate in the lecture about the biological and moral unity of mankind echo other popular works of interwar liberalism, such as We Europeans: A Survey of “Racial” Problems, co-authored by the biologist and future first director-general of UNESCO Julian Huxley and the ethnologist A. C. Haddon.18 However, Ginsberg also brought sociological methods to Jewish studies, contributing to the sociological study of antisemitism and founding the Jewish Journal of Sociology in 1958; Pierre Birnbaum observes that he had “two parallel careers, one devoted to general sociology, the other to research on Judaism.”19

Montagu, who did more than anyone else to determine the final text of the 1950 statement, was born Israel Ehrenberg in London in 1905 to working-class Jewish immigrants. He experienced antisemitism as a child in London’s East End and as a student at University College London in the 1920s, prompting his name change. He immigrated to America in the late 1920s, and by 1934 he was a doctoral student in the anthropology program at Columbia University under Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas. Antiracism was the focus of Montagu’s long and celebrated but often controversial career. His 1942 book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (today in its sixth edition) cemented his reputation as a powerful public voice on race and antiracism. As the drafting committee’s rapporteur, animated by a strong vision of the principles UNESCO ought to affirm, Montagu did much to shape some of the most characteristic but also subsequently controversial elements of the 1950 statement, such as its rousing but questionable declaration that “biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood.”20 Montagu’s efforts on the 1950 statement were both lauded and resented at UNESCO and especially in the broader scientific community, where the resistance to the 1950 statement among some physical anthropologists, biologists, and geneticists compelled UNESCO to publish a revised 1951 statement that represented these perspectives more fully. Montagu’s political activism eventually led to the loss of his faculty position at Rutgers University during the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and professionally, he was attacked by “white scholars who wished to ‘out’ him as a Jew, presumably with the goal of revealing Montagu as a duplicitous activist who cloaked his fight against ‘race’ and racism in academic rigor.”21 Montagu’s biographer Susan Sperling has noted that “it is perhaps ironic that one who fought prejudice so heroically should have felt the need to efface his ethnic identity,” and while this may be true, the more interesting point is that Montagu (along with Huxley) was central to putting the category of the “ethnic group” into wide circulation as an alternative concept to race in, for instance, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth, where he interrogated ethnicity’s relevance to Jewishness.22

For all that these individuals’ biographies were shaped by antisemitism and the Holocaust, they do not on their own tell us much about how either the Nazi genocide or debates about Jewish difference and assimilation inflect the statement or UNESCO’s antiracist ethos. While the horrors of Nazi antisemitism rhetorically framed the project, the statement had little to say about Jews beyond averring that, like Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims, they were not a race. Instead, we can identify these connections at the conceptual level, since the concepts the statement advanced in service of its refashioning of race were drawn from early twentieth-century Jewish social science, by which I mean, following Mitchell Hart, “Jewish knowledge about contemporary Jewish [social] conditions.”23

The chief concept in question is racial plasticity, which was influentially theorized by the German Jewish, later American anthropologist Franz Boas. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Boas famously demonstrated the apparent plasticity of racial form among Jewish, Central European, and Southern European immigrants to the United States. Boas’s relationship to his own Jewishness was ambivalent. Antisemitism prompted his decision to emigrate to the United States, where it continued to limit his prospects. While he was a radical assimilationist, with little interest in the preservation of Jewish culture or community, he devoted great effort during the 1910s–1930s to combatting antisemitism and in the 1930s especially was the public face of anti-Nazi activism in the US and transatlantic scientific communities.24 His manifestly political research on plasticity was in service of these assimilationist positions, yet this work was shaped by the influence of close colleagues like the physician and ethnologist Maurice Fishberg, who sought to preserve Jewish specificity while emphasizing the importance of Jewish assimilability in the diaspora.

As I argue in this book, racial plasticity was the organizing concept of UNESCO’s 1950 race statement, and the statement’s most profound intervention was to redefine race as plastic. For Boas and others, plasticity was a capacity common to all humankind but was also paradigmatically Jewish. Its installation at the heart of UNESCO’s antiracism represents racial plasticity’s elevation to the status of an unmarked universal. Despite its formal universalization, plasticity was differentially distributed; not all peoples were equally subject to the imperative to be racially plastic. At the same time, Boas’s account of plasticity and UNESCO’s antiracism both suggested that some of the racial differences most urgently in need of transformation and amelioration, Blackness in particular, were insufficiently plastic and even resistant to plasticity. Moreover, in UNESCO’s discourse, plasticity was indissolubly linked to another quality the statement called “educability.” Plasticity thus came to recapitulate enduring patterns of colonial educability in a new register. This was true despite a changing dispensation that made racial reeducation an urgent priority in Europe, which had demonstrated its racial savagery and so figuratively changed places with the native subject. The consequences of this conjuncture are the subject of this book.

The anti- and postcolonial writers I examine critically engaged plasticity’s new centrality as a racial norm, as well as the broader project of racial reeducation in which it was embedded. I argue that their common preoccupation with Jewish difference and the history of the Jewish genocide emerges from this encounter, offering us a new frame for theorizing the relationship between Jewishness and postcolonial thought. Important recent literary and cultural scholarship has examined this interface, often with a focus on memory. I shift the focus from memory to race and propose that the concepts central to the new moral economy of liberal antiracism functioned as the very medium for this engagement.


UNESCO’s race project must be understood as a response to a midcentury crisis of race. This crisis had two overlapping aspects, both of which were urgently registered at UNESCO in its early years. The crisis was in part epistemological. Most obviously, it took the form of despairing wonderment at how much devastation had been wrought in the name of racial philosophies that scientists, liberals, and some educated laypeople had long confidently decried as myth, error, and pseudoscience. “Looking back now, moderns are horrified at all the blood that was shed for centuries in religious conflicts,” noted the American anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish in a 1943 educational booklet, The Races of Mankind. “The twenty-first century may well look back on our generation and be just as horrified. . . . Our era will seem a nightmare from which they have awakened.”25 One of UNESCO’s chief tasks was to bring about that awakening. In the words of its constitution, “the great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races.” Only the “unrestricted pursuit of objective truth” and its free and wide dissemination could correct what ignorance and prejudice had wrought.26

But there was more at stake than just reeducating the misled masses or debunking concepts that had little scientific currency but much popular purchase, such as the racial categories Aryan and Semite. A tectonic shift was also underway in the very status of race as an object of scientific knowledge production. There was a new sensitization to the place of scientific credos and pursuits that while not going unchallenged, nevertheless had still fallen comfortably within the bounds of legitimate scientific inquiry. Long-standing convictions about the racial determinants of individual intellectual ability, the differential cultural capacities of racial groups, the social and biological harm of race mixing, and the implacable hereditary transmission of racial forms and mentalities were met with heightened public skepticism as well as intensified scrutiny within the scientific establishment by biologists, geneticists, and anthropologists. While the statement sought nothing less than the enlightenment of a global public, it was also a highly controversial attempt to stabilize the race concept at a time when the protocols of scientific investigation into race—who could speak for and about race and what could be said—were in disarray and the very legitimacy of such endeavors was in question. As such, the statement was a project in the making of race’s ontology.27

This remaking of the race concept can be understood only in the context of the second dimension of that crisis of race, which was political. In the aftermath of World War II, racism was situated for the first time at the center of international political life. At the most general level, there was a widespread sense that race thinking had shattered the old political organization of the world and presented a grave threat to the new one being established in its place, so long as political conflicts continued to be naturalized as racial antagonisms.28 As the meaning of race and the morality of racism were challenged with new intensity, so too was the status of race as a technology for the organization and management of social and political relations, including imperial international relations constitutively structured, in Adom Getachew’s words, by “unequal integration and racial hierarchy.”29

The consequences—and contradictions—of these developments were nowhere more apparent than in the colonial question, as race’s status as a justification for colonial rule was challenged as never before. With the end of World War II and the birth of the new international institutions of liberal governance, a peculiar double vision set in. In the international setting of the United Nations, the pressure to formally renounce and reject racism was especially strong. At the same time, the UN Charter made generous provision for undisturbed continued imperial domination in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, thanks to the UN’s trusteeship system and its stringent policy of noninterference in the sovereign affairs of member nation-states. Enthusiasm for the colonial status quo was woven into the organization’s fabric, as W. E. B. Du Bois noted in his reflections on the UN’s founding, which he described as a “plan for world government designed especially to curb aggression, but also to preserve imperial power and even extend and fortify it.”30 So too was racism, and Du Bois scornfully noted the “twisted contradiction” of Jan Smuts, architect of South African apartheid, standing “before the assembled peoples of the world and plead[ing] for an article on ‘human rights’ in the United Nations Charter.”31

Although it would be some years before the ranks of UN member nations swelled with newly sovereign African and Asian nations and longer still till the right of self-determination articulated by these postcolonial states was established in international law, antiracist and anticolonial activists did not wait to make use of these new institutions to further their cause. Instead, they seized on the glaring contradiction between the avowal of human rights, antifascism, and antiracism on the one hand and the perpetuation of imperialism and racism on the other. Such public reckonings, which included Du Bois’s and the NAACP’s Appeal to the World and the Civil Rights Congress’s declaration We Charge Genocide, depended for their impact on new kinds of political shame about the presence of racism in international life.32 Shame converged with the calculations of realpolitik, which understood racism in the Western liberal democracies and especially the United States as a vulnerability in an emergent Cold War context, as the Soviet Union trumpeted its antiracist and anti-imperial bona fides to anticolonial and civil rights movements worldwide.33 While aspiration, exhaustion, and opportunism all played a role in these shifts, the indictment of racism came to reliably function as a wedge with which to pry open these questions of the global order and its injustice. Importantly, such rhetorical maneuvers also made their way into works I discuss in this book. As A. James Arnold notes of Aimé Césaire’s denunciation of racism in Discourse on Colonialism, “Césaire understood that in 1950 the forces supporting a colonial empire were not yet sufficiently vulnerable on their own ground. . . . At the time the efficacious tactical maneuver was to tie colonialism so tightly to racism as to undermine the stronger position by attacking the weaker.”34 While Césaire’s text was not in the first instance directed to the UN’s General Assembly or the offices of its Human Rights Division, it nonetheless engaged the UN’s projects on human rights, race, and racism.

The formal delegitimization of race ran ahead of any willingness actually to relinquish imperial spoils but eventually made the latter position more politically costly. Leaders of anticolonial movements in such places as India were able to press their demands for independence in light of World War II. This was not just because they had contributed to the war effort or because an exhausted Britain did not have the postwar resources to retain its unruliest colonies. It was also because of the political and rhetorical contradiction between Britain’s avowed fight against fascism and racism in Europe and the prospect of brutal repression against its brown subjects of empire. This is not to imply that such counterinsurgent brutalities did not take place throughout the British and French empires during the era of decolonization35 or that the racial hypocrisies and imperial contradictions of the British and French positions were not deeply felt by colonial subjects.36 But a new political configuration was emerging, and even where it seemed to entail little more than new euphemisms for old arrangements, it was driven in part by the untenability of the old racial order. Whether understood in terms of a new ethos or through the particulars of historically significant struggles at the United Nations, the politics of the early postwar period were as destabilized by the recent race war as the race concept was itself.

My narrative is consonant with this account but advances a specific claim about the status of race in this moment. The intersection of the crisis of race and the conflicts of empire prompted UNESCO’s race project. However, in my reading, the remaking of race at midcentury advanced concepts that not only reflected these conflicts but sought to resolve them. In the next two sections, I map the two related concepts, educability and plasticity, that enabled this work.


The reeducation of race has a number of nested meanings. In the postwar milieu, reeducation is most closely associated with Allied efforts at denazification in Germany and the territories it occupied by coercion or consent, as well as with the democratization of fascist political culture in other Axis countries. As Jaimey Fisher notes, in early postwar Germany, the debates about reeducation were so pervasive that it “became a catchall term, a synecdoche for the occupation in general.”37 The singular emphasis on German reeducation flowed from the conviction that democratization was not primarily an institutional project but a spiritual one. “Free elections, democratic constitutions, independent political parties, and local self-government were simply institutional features,” notes the historian James Tent in his study about American reeducation efforts in Germany; “they required an inner spirit to give them meaning.”38

In the postwar milieu, reeducation’s significance reached far beyond Germany’s borders, and this spiritual sense was uppermost. UNESCO’s own founding was an expression of this impetus for reeducation on a global scale. As histories of the organization narrate, UNESCO’s most proximate origin was the wartime Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME) in London, which officially began to meet in 1942.39 Much of the organization’s initial focus was on the educational reconstruction that would be required in fascist-occupied countries on the European continent after the war, which concerned not just rebuilding educational infrastructures (schools, higher-education programs, textbook development and publication, libraries, and so on) but also the more ineffable work of “‘revictualling . . . the mind’ of Europe.”40 As CAME’s membership continued to grow, including representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, there was growing support for a permanent organization that would be global in scope and tied to other international institutions, including the embryonic United Nations.41 As we will see in chapter 4, UNESCO’s project of reeducation entailed both efforts at the material rehabilitation of educational institutions and resources in Europe, as well as an abiding commitment to education as part of a strategy of third world development, and these institutional-infrastructural efforts are crucially connected to the spiritual dimension of UNESCO’s work. For now, let me simply stress that reeducation as it was articulated and pursued at UNESCO was oriented to the making of new kinds of subjectivities, and to what I describe in this study as “soul-making,” borrowing a term from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.42 In Spivak’s account, soul-making describes imperialism’s pedagogical project of civilizing savagery into humanity. In the wake of World War II and amidst the political and moral crisis of race, soul-making was now a global project, especially urgently required in Europe, and UNESCO was to be its agent.

However, UNESCO’s race project sought to wed this educative and spiritual project to claims about the biological unity of humankind, which racisms of many varieties had rejected and denied. The 1950 statement sought to retain the biological and scientific salience of race, while also conscripting race to do antiracist work. The statement’s definition of racial form as plastic subtended these operations, so that the very material nature of race ratified and indeed seemed to require the statement’s particular framing of racism and antiracism. The statement drew heavily on the methods and insights of population genetics to make the case for race’s fluctuating and malleable character. This field, which consolidated itself in the 1950s, was a product of the modern evolutionary synthesis that combined Darwinian evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics. In brief, the category of genetic population, which the 1950 UNESCO statement expressly suggested be substituted for the term race in scientific and popular discourse, afforded an explanation for diversity among groups that stressed the contingent, fluctuating, and changeable quality of these differences over time. Population genetics focuses on the frequency of specific gene alleles in a given population, and variations in the proportional distribution of particular alleles help define and demarcate a population. These frequencies are not permanent but rather change over time due to evolutionary processes such as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift. As such, the argument goes, populations themselves are relatively contingent and fluctuating. The determination of genetic frequency may ground propositions about the geographical distribution and historical development of a population, but populations, identifiable primarily at the molecular level, have no ontological fixity; they fluctuate as a result of both molecular changes, many of which are the result of random variations such as mutation, as well as historical pressures such as migration and contact, which remake populations through eminently human experiences but in non-deterministic ways.43 The discourse of population genetics then and now insists that race is only identifiable and meaningful at scales that confound easy recognition by the untutored eye or capture by the taxonomizer’s blunt distinctions; race is a molecular-level difference, and even when it is made through human history, this is on a timescale of countless generations that can be only imperfectly reconstructed through expert scientific investigation.

Population genetics at midcentury was held to be constitutively antiracist. It retains much of that luster even today,44 though important scholarship has demonstrated both the field’s midcentury imbrication with the “old” idea of race it supposedly superseded,45 as well as the manifold political ambiguities of population genetics in the present.46 Some of the field’s most important researchers (and popularizers) were closely involved with the UNESCO statements, including the biologist Julian Huxley, who served as UNESCO’s first director-general; the American geneticist L. C. Dunn, who was the rapporteur of the 1951 statement; and the geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who helped to review the first statement and draft the second. These scientists, who in some cases had been active in interwar antifascist and antiracist activism in the scientific community, were seen at UNESCO as natural allies of any antiracist program undertaken with the imprimatur of “science.”47 Population genetics thus played an especially felicitous role in UNESCO’s scientific antiracism; the emergent scientific consensus displacing race with population seemed both to impel and to conform to the antiracist ethical imperative organizing UNESCO’s discourse.

While this is an important source for the statement’s turn to racial plasticity, it is not the only one. The historian of science Sebastián Gil-Riaño has argued that studies of the 1950 statement have overstressed the centrality of population genetics at the expense of attending to its affinities with “southern currents of racial science,” which “conceptualized race through the prism of historical and socio-economic processes such as modernization, urbanization, acculturation and assimilation.”48 I am wholly in agreement with Gil-Riaño’s call to resituate the UNESCO statements “within a genealogy that encompasses late colonial, post-colonial and Cold War theories of socio-economic development,” and chapter 4 pays particular attention to the race project’s context and afterlife in third world development discourse.49 However, it seems to me that the concept of racial plasticity, which Gil-Riaño notes in passing as one of the characteristic emphases of these “southern conceptions of race,” spans and draws together both these racial-conceptual registers.50

Indeed, these two registers in which the plastic might be articulated—the molecular and the environmental—are closely connected in the 1950 statement. I argue that the hinge for this connection is education and specifically something the statement calls “educability,” or the capacity for directed growth, development, and learning. When we look for the statement’s formulation of plasticity, we find the term educability indissolubly paired with it, so that reeducation is embedded in the very definition of race; in my reading, the statement’s key intervention is its declaration that “the one trait which above all others has been at a premium in the evolution of men’s mental characters has been educability, plasticity. This is a trait which all human beings possess. It is indeed, a species character of homo sapiens.”51 On its face, this is a claim about the mental makeup of human beings. However, the statement’s rhetorical presentation, its historical and ideological context, and the genealogy of the concept of racial plasticity all suggest that this is equally a claim about the nature of racial form. I argue that the statement’s conception of race, racism, and antiracism alike all depend on this conjoined assertion of “educability, plasticity.” Let me explain what I mean.

These sentences appear midway through the statement, in a paragraph rejecting the supposition that inherited genetic differences play any major role in group-level differences of culture and cultural achievement; these differences are rather explained by the “history of the cultural experience” of a people. At its most literal, the statement’s affirmation of “educability, plasticity” as the paradigmatic human quality is a claim about the priority of culture over nature in the making of human communities. Metonymically, this assertion also encodes the statement’s pedagogical aspirations and its pedagogical wager. This wager was that racism—which had demonstrated an intractability rivaling that ascribed to racial form itself—was changeable and reeducable owing to the essential educability of the human. Confronted with the scientific truth about race, in a rhetorical register foregrounding the moral solidarity of humanity, people could be induced to exert their plastic natures and move beyond the racial ideologies which had miseducated them to apprehend cultural difference as racial and racial difference as unchangeable.

UNESCO’s affirmations of human plasticity and racism’s reeducability were exhortatory and aspirational. Despite the statement’s confident assertion that these were constitutively human qualities, UNESCO’s interventions on race in the 1940s and 1950s were haunted by the question, Just how plastic was the human, really? As I show in chapter 1, UNESCO’s early discourse was preoccupied with the extent to which the given and the inherited limited the promise of the new, as well as reeducation’s potential to reform what already existed. Among these limiting inheritances was race itself, which hardly lost its associations with permanence and intractability. As such, racial plasticity was both a promise and a hedge. Race would change thanks to its inherent mutability, but this process might itself require development and direction—that is, education. This brings us to two questions: First, what is the precise relationship between educability and plasticity, those two terms that the statement curiously described as “one trait”? And second, how does plasticity’s own educability or susceptibility to management direct us to the biopolitical dimensions of the concept and so complicate plasticity’s conceptual status and political associations in the present?


Plasticity is a contemporary keyword. In recent years, scholars in cultural, social scientific, and natural scientific fields of inquiry alike have devoted critical and creative energy to demonstrating the promise of plasticity. This promise lies in plasticity’s definition: a material malleability that allows for both the assumption and transformation of form. As such, plasticity describes a capacity for change that resists the fixity and especially determinism of given forms, both human and nonhuman.

In recent work by science studies scholars, feminist and queer theorists, philosophers, thing theorists, anthropologists, and some theorists of literary form, an attunement to plasticity allows us to encounter the world with a refreshed alertness to the unacknowledged capacities for change—and with it, adaptation, repair, responsiveness, and growth—of everything around us.52 These capacities inhere in the most seemingly inert or stolid aspects of the environment (rocks and metals, for instance) as well as in forms of life, including the human body, whose malleability is well established even if its full biological, political, and ontological implications have yet to be teased out. Assertions and ascriptions of the plastic character of one or another body or thing necessarily invoke related qualities, such as changeability, malleability, moldability, adaptability, and elasticity, all of which help describe that material unfixity that defines the plastic. But alongside these qualities, we find frequent reference to a set of related values, such as resilience, dynamism, and aliveness, that signal and amplify the excitement and even optimism that attaches to plasticity in our time. Plasticity extends the promise that bodies and things may be less fixed than they seem and so simultaneously more susceptible to dynamic change and environmental influence—and thus more capable of resilience and repair—than we may have imagined.

These plastic ontologies are often molecular in scale but their implications are social, for the changeability of bodies and things naturally extends to the social relations in which they are situated. In a world whose unjust political and economic arrangements seem increasingly intractable and unchanging, plasticity promises qualities and capacities we “cannot not want,” to use Spivak’s phrase.53 It is compelling to imagine that change is occurring all the time in ways we cannot determine or even always perceive but that nonetheless shape our genes, environment, and affects, especially when human efforts at radical transformation seem often to end in stasis and stagnation. Contemporary critics who engage eagerly with plasticity and its affordances insist that matter does not simply await the ascription of meaning through discursive representation and figuration; it is not “the passive background to social formations” but “an active force at work in the production of culture, identity, and agency.”54 As Catherine Malabou repeatedly remarks in her varied reflections on plasticity, the term’s etymology includes the capacity to assume or take on form as well as the capacity to endow form or even annihilate it.55 Plasticity describes matter’s agency, its capacity to do, make, and mean in ways not reducible to metaphor. As a result, there is a distinct tendency to assume a politics of plasticity that flows directly from this malleability and resistance to fixity.

Such a tendency is apparent, for instance, in Malabou’s own work on neuroplasticity. In the opening pages of What Should We Do with Our Brain?, she explains that she turns to plasticity as a concept because with it she can describe and theorize the brain’s simultaneously dynamic, structural, and organizational dimensions. But even as she situates plasticity as a concept that both emerges from and offers something compelling to contemporary neuroscientific discourse, she also finds it to be a material quality of the brain itself. In her account of the brain’s “developmental,” “modulational,” and “reparative” plasticities, it becomes clear that she is asserting its plastic ontology.56 Correspondingly, her argument about the political horizon of the neuroplastic and its freedoms—“resistance to neuronal ideology is what our brain wants”—depends on this prior assertion of the brain’s inherent plasticity.57 In contrast, I am arguing that the politics of plasticity cannot be read off of or derived directly from the materiality of any of the plastic bodies, objects, and substances that we now seem to find everywhere around us. Rather, the power ascribed to the plastic for the undoing or remaking of social arrangements is itself a political configuration that demands our scrutiny.

In The Reeducation of Race, I attempt to do exactly this by attending to the historical entanglement of race and plasticity, two concepts whose contemporary meanings are unthinkable without each other.58 Race is no footnote to the discourse on plasticity. Indeed, it is in the domain of twentieth-century racial anthropology that we find perhaps the most explicit and robust conscription of plasticity for the remaking of the individual and social body. As I have noted, in the early twentieth century, Boas and his collaborators formulated an instantly controversial and enduringly influential claim about the “plasticity of human races.”59 A German Jewish émigré, Boas settled in the United States in 1887, and his focus eventually expanded from fieldwork in indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest to America’s large cities and their growing population of immigrants, many of them from Eastern and Southern Europe. Enlisted for his anthropological expertise by the United States Immigration Commission, Boas in 1908 began a study of Eastern European Jews (and eventually other Eastern and Southern European migrants) in New York City, especially schoolchildren. Boas’s object of study was “racial form”: the physical characteristics of a racial group, whose constancy among individual members and invariability over generations together defined the racial type and its permanence. Boas’s data, which included measurements of the cephalic index of schoolchildren, instead appeared to demonstrate that racial form could be altered within a single generation by the influence of environment. “We must speak,” he concluded, “of a plasticity (as opposed to permanence) of types.”60

Boas furnished the concept of racial plasticity as part of a sociopolitical intervention into a social problem. The United States Immigration Commission commissioned Boas’s study in order to determine whether the growing numbers of migrants to the United States from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe were socially and racially assimilable in light of the difference in their racial stock from that of US citizens of Western European and Nordic descent. For Boas, the resolution of this social question depended on the character and behavior of the human body, and it was the surprising plasticity of racial form—which demonstrated the unexpected responsiveness and malleability of the raced body to its environment—that promised to secure a solution to the problem of assimilation. In Boas’s influential account, the plasticity of matter could not but lead to the remaking of social arrangements. The discovery of racial plasticity promised the assimilability of raced bodies that were apparently more malleable than anyone had imagined, and it demonstrated the assimilative capacities of a society whose environment exerted powerful influence on these responsive bodies.

There are three things to note at this juncture. The first is that the theorization or “discovery” of racial plasticity had a social purpose and even a telos.61 Plasticity not only promised to solve a social problem but also to function as a technology of inclusion, assimilation, and social management. We see this in the interface between the malleable racial plasticity of immigrant bodies and the dynamic plasticity of a society that could both absorb and remake them with what Boas called its “marvelous powers of amalgamation.”62 The second thing to note is that this brings us squarely back to the question of educability. Boas was circumspect about which aspects of the American environment specifically brought about such rapid and marked changes in racial form: “I find myself unable to give an explanation of the phenomena,” he wrote in response to his detractors in 1912. “All I try to do is to prove that certain explanations are impossible.”63 But his insistence that physical plasticity guaranteed the mental plasticity necessary for cultural and political assimilation suggested that it was not only physical or infrastructural aspects of the American environment that were plausibly spurring these changes (climate and air, nutritional changes, housing arrangements) but also the nation’s social and institutional life. This was nowhere more so the case than in schools, where Boas conducted his study and where one finds that exemplarily plastic creature, the child.64 The assertion of plasticity in the context of the social management of race problems and the implication that plasticity itself required management in the form of education, or directed cultivation and development, together suggest the biopolitical dimension of racial plasticity. Crucially, plasticity does not mean infinite malleability but instead malleability within limits. The cultivation and management of plasticity—or what I am describing as the role of education in actualizing, augmenting, and directing the purported plasticity of matter—is one means of determining the shape and expanding the scope of those limits.

It is worth pausing a moment to observe that colonial history frequently prefigures the Boasian logic I have been describing. As I discuss in chapters 2 and 4 through readings of Fanon, Césaire, and Aidoo, colonial and postcolonial subjects did not view racial plasticity as a liberatory promise of change but rather as a recognizable reiteration of a long-standing colonial imperative. Deepika Bahri, writing from the perspective of postcolonial studies, has argued that “colonial investment in racial border patrol based in ideas of deterministic difference was complicated by imperial designs on impressionable, plastic body-minds at the level of ideology as well as the micromanagement of the subject’s bio-physiology.”65 In other words, it is not enough to disrupt the familiar story of colonial racism premised on irremediable racial difference with a by-now also familiar account of mimicry and hybridity as ambivalently assimilative cultural practices. “The invitation to colonial mimicry,” Bahri argues, depended on an “as-yet scientifically unverified but implicit belief in human bioplasticity and aesthetic reformation” and conscripted the colonized’s malleable biological being.66

The legitimacy of Boas’s formulation of racial plasticity as a potential theory of racial form depended on its demonstration as a scientific fact; his work in the first decade of the twentieth century thus constitutes one important moment in the apparent verification of the intuitive investment in human plasticity that Bahri identifies at work in colonial governmentality. What makes the midcentury moment so consequential, however, is that plasticity at this juncture is itself remade: no longer just a strategy of assimilation, plasticity emerges as a principle of antiracism. This brings me to the third thing I want us to note about Boas’s intervention. Boas was contending with not one but two social problems. His explicit focus in the 1908–1910 study for the US Immigration Commission was the racial plasticity of the immigrant, but humming away unmistakably in the background here—and moving to the foreground in the 1910s and 1920s—was Boas’s concern with the malleability of race prejudice, or racism. “Race antagonism may be considered from two points of view,” he observed in his 1921 essay “The Problem of the American Negro.” “It may be asked how much truth there is in the assumption of superiority of one race over another. . . . Or the sources of race antagonism, aside from the question of actual race differences, may be subjected to investigation.”67 How much did any scientific insights about race matter if prejudices were intractable and fixed, beyond the reach of modification by newer, better facts? In other words, how plastic was racism? As we will see in chapter 1, this question would similarly trouble the scientists who drafted UNESCO’s Statement on Race in late 1949. Boas’s answer in 1921 had been that racism was not very plastic at all:

Mankind has travelled a long road from the time when every stranger was an enemy. According to our modern theoretical standards, we maintain that justice should be given to the individual, that it should not be meted out to him as to a representative of his class. And still, how very far removed are we from the realization of this ideal! The natural habit of protecting ourselves against a supposedly hostile foreign group determines our life in great matters as well as in small details, and the life of nations as well as the life of the individual and of the family. For this reason there is no great hope that the negro problem will find even a half-way satisfactory solution in our day.68

Boas was writing in the shadow of World War I, which he described as having “called forth” and taken to new heights this “spirit that prevents us from recognizing individuals and compels us to see only representatives of a class endowed with imaginary qualities that we ascribe to the group as a whole.”69 He was also writing in the wake of the tremendous violence and racial reprisals directed at Black WWI veterans and others during the Red Summer of 1919 and beyond, which he did not mention but which lend historical urgency to his framing questions about the intransigence of racism and its insusceptibility to reason. His conclusion, striking in its political pessimism and even defeatism, was that racism is less malleable than race. In a “population that is so deeply saturated with class consciousness as our own,” every kind of education was bound to fail, even “the education of the young,” in whom it might be hoped racial prejudice had not yet fully calcified. No reeducation of racism, then, at least not on the Negro problem. Instead, Boas proposed that the remaking of racial form was the only plausible strategy for racism’s amelioration: “The greatest hope for the immediate future lies in a lessening of the contrast between negroes and whites which will bring about a lessening of class consciousness”—that is, race mixture or miscegenation, deliberately pursued as a strategy of amalgamation and assimilation.70 In the face of racism’s intransigence, race’s changeability was both a promise of an escape from race and an imperative that this responsibility be borne by the racialized themselves.

I want to map the consequential implications of this repeating structure I have been describing both in Boas’s work as well as in the midcentury remaking of race influenced in no small part by Boas’s ideas. First, questions about the fixity and inertness or, conversely, the changeability and responsiveness of matter are always racially situated and implicated. No axis of character or quality is more central to race thinking than that of fixity/changeability, whether in discourses of eugenic perfectibility, racial degeneration, hereditary transmission, climatic influence and adaptation, or racial-social assimilation. Nor are the racial dimensions of these qualities limited to the matter of human flesh, as Mel Chen has shown.71 Plasticity is a racial quality and quantity; at times it is by its excess and at other times by its absence that the racial body is identified, marked, and managed. For instance, in her reading of (neo)slave narratives, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson has argued that American chattel slavery depended on plasticity, demanding of enslaved Blacks a “seemingly infinite malleability” that precluded the “determinacy or resistance” of form and produced instead “coerced formlessness.”72 In contrast, in my reading of racial plasticity at midcentury—for instance as refracted in Frantz Fanon’s work—Blackness is both the target of plasticity’s imperative and that which frustrates and resists it, never plastic enough.73 In both cases, however, we see that plasticity, when read through the history of racial violence, represents not pure potential but rather the way that changeability of form, in Jackson’s words, “can be turned against itself by bonds of power.”74

By the same token, antiracist discourse that relies on the plasticity of racial form as the solution to racism is necessarily a position that has already assumed and naturalized the prevailing terms of race thinking. “Biology is a metaphor for the destiny imposed on the other,” observed Albert Memmi.75 Colonialism justifies itself, he means to suggest, through the imposition of racial taxonomies and hierarchies. But his aphorism might also serve as a rejoinder to the antiracist tradition I have been describing, which sought to promulgate plasticity as part of an emancipatory project that nonetheless insisted on the educability of race. Moreover, amidst what at times feels like an interdisciplinary romance with plasticity in our own contemporary critical moment, it is worth holding on to the recognition that plasticity is itself made plastic, put to work for political projects that draw recursively on its power. Plasticity has no inherent meaning, liberatory or otherwise, but it can nonetheless do political work.

Second, the itinerary of racial plasticity, from Boas’s early twentieth-century formulations to its midcentury redeployment in the 1950 Statement on Race, has some striking features. It is not news that Boas advanced the concept of racial plasticity, nor has it gone unremarked that UNESCO’s race project and its statements on race, particularly the 1950 statement, bore his influence and were shaped by scholars close to him.76 However, Boas explicitly articulated plasticity as a theory of racial form in the context of a racial (or physical) anthropology.77 In contrast, the 1950 statement invokes plasticity not in reference to racial form but as a characteristic of mental character, as I have noted. Let us refresh our memory of the exact wording: “The one trait which above all others has been at a premium in the evolution of men’s mental characters has been educability, plasticity. This is a trait which all human beings possess. It is indeed, a species character of homo sapiens.” There is something seemingly counterintuitive about a document that specifically defines race as changeable and that even enshrines plasticity as the exemplary capacity of the species yet withholds mention of racial plasticity per se.

However, this circumvention of racial plasticity and its transposition into a related register tells us a great deal. What occurs here is a transit whereby plasticity is shorn of its explicit relation to race and recast as the universal property of the human: “This is a trait which all human beings possess,” the statement reads. Plasticity becomes the deracialized universal that anchors the new racial regime erected in what Eric Porter has aptly called “the first postracial moment.”78 Of course, plasticity does not lose its associations with race nor, rhetorically, is it meant to. A reader unfamiliar with Boas’s racial plasticity will still register the metonymy of the statement’s assertion of race as changeable and its avowal of the human as plastic. It is this simultaneous silencing and reverberation of plasticity’s racial dimension that suggests its utility for a postracial politics. There is compelling textual evidence for my suggestion that plasticity is put to work as a universal norm; as I show in chapter 1 through a close reading of early drafts of the statement, the statement’s authors initially intended to make a forceful statement about the fact of human equality. Unable ultimately to commit themselves to such a claim, they replaced equality with “educability, plasticity”—an aspirational equality to come, contingent on the formation and reformation of some human beings.

This brings me to the third implication of plasticity as a strategy for managing both race and racism. Plasticity at midcentury may have emerged as a deracinated universal but the historical and contemporary life of racial plasticity demonstrates that its distribution is uneven in dramatic and consequential ways. Kyla Schuller and Jules Gill-Peterson, who similarly note the differential distribution of “the capacity of corporeal malleability,” have observed that “plasticity is equated with potential itself and assigned to whiteness.” They are careful to note that this plastic endowment “need not be restricted to groups socially or politically recognized as white” but is rather best defined by the fact that it is “routinely denied to the racialized.”79 However, I would complicate Schuller and Gill-Peterson’s account by suggesting that plasticity’s racial history is more varied and less stable than an equation with whiteness can capture. As I have noted, and as chapter 2 describes in detail, plasticity was theorized in the early twentieth century through Jewishness, but not in a way that made Jewishness reducible to or synonymous with whiteness. At the same time, the association between Jewishness and plasticity is not essential, exclusive, or fixed; plasticity’s ascription is historically variable and politically situated. In an illuminating recent analysis that examines postwar Asian American and transpacific racial formation in an era of environmental degradation and oceanic pollution, Michelle N. Huang has described plasticity as “an Asian American ‘racial form.’80 The contemporary stereotype of the plastic as an Asian and especially Chinese material solidifies the association between plasticity’s material qualities and Asian American ethnicity, so that “without a unique essence, plastic can be read as exhibiting the ‘weak ethnicity’ attributed to Asian Americans as a race.”81 It is the very weakness of this plastic racial form, Huang argues, that reveals the ambivalence of assimilation: “Plastic is the model minority substance: its superficial pliability and lack of resistance serve as both characteristic and function,” even as the “molecular recalcitrance to being digested” demonstrated by the long life of the plastics in our environment “suggests the ultimate failure of any superficial logic of assimilation.”82 When read alongside the historical associations of plasticity with Jewishness that I track in this book, Huang’s argument about postwar Asian Americanness helps demonstrate both the variability of plasticity’s racial distribution and the constancy of its racial associations. While one or another group may seem to represent or exemplify the racially plastic in a given conjuncture, it remains an assimilatory logic, much as in Boas’s early formulation. Moreover, while it seems to promise the changeability of form, this is always malleability within limits; as we will see, the characterization of Jews as paradigmatically plastic produced a series of questions and remainders about how then to conceive of or even acknowledge the specificity and survival of Jewish difference as an identity whose meaning was distributed across the overlapping domains of the cultural, national, religious, ethnic, and sometimes racial registers in liberal antiracist, antisemitic, and Jewish discourses alike.


This project contributes to scholarly conversations in postcolonial studies, human rights, race and ethnic studies, and Jewish studies/Holocaust studies. Here, I map the book’s interventions and trace the cross-cutting connections I see between these fields, which are too often still treated in relative isolation from one another.

The Reeducation of Race speaks first and foremost to postcolonial studies by demonstrating that UNESCO’s work on race exerted a consequential but understudied influence on the development of anticolonial thought, shaping the ways that anticolonial and postcolonial theory addressed key moments and concepts in the history of race-making. As such, it is aligned with an impetus in the field to systematically recover the extent to which midcentury anticolonial thinkers deeply engaged the new institutions of the postwar liberal order. As Gary Wilder notes, there has long been a tendency to read the postwar history of decolonization “as a series of dyadic encounters between imperial states and colonized peoples” in which the horizon of struggle was the achievement of a postcolonial nation-state. In this reading, anticolonialism’s engagement with an international order was largely limited to the aspiration of joining the “system of formally equivalent nation-states around which the postwar order was organized.” This “methodological nationalism,” Wilder observes, obscures a fuller recognition of decolonization as “an epochal process of global restructuring that unfolded on a vast political terrain inhabited by diverse actors and agencies.”83 These projects necessarily entailed efforts to make the new institutions of the liberal global order, especially the UN, a site for the articulation and achievement of anticolonial aspirations.

In many existing accounts of these historical entanglements, the emphasis falls around 1960, when a newly independent cohort of postcolonial nation-states set about “refashion[ing] the United Nations as the international forum for decolonization.”84 According to such accounts, only once “decolonization [had] virtually remade the UN, between the late 1950s and mid-1970s,” can we justifiably deem the institution a significant site for the pursuit of anticolonial and postcolonial politics.85 In this historical narrative, the 1960 passage of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which enshrined self-determination as a right, represents a historical inflection point when the United Nations was finally made to reflect the political demands of the decolonizing world.86 Undoubtedly, the belated inclusion of African, Caribbean, Asian, and Arab peoples means that anticolonial involvement in the UN in the 1940s and early 1950s was often a tale of insurgent efforts and alternative institution building. However, such exclusions make it all the more important to consider indirect cultural influence alongside official institutional history.

By beginning my story around 1950, I demonstrate that such engagements existed all along in places scholars have not yet robustly examined, such as UNESCO, and are visible when we look to cultural production and literary history. This is not a version of what Joseph Slaughter has described as the myth of the “multicultural making of human rights law,” in which we retrospectively look back to the documents of the 1940s to find evidence of cultural diversity in the formulation of these texts.87 Instead, as I have noted, the method is contrapuntal, and the authors I examine have a constitutively critical relationship to UNESCO’s race project, even as they are sometimes interpellated as its pedagogical subjects. Exclusion, intervention, and entanglement, then, all describe the dynamics at work. Postcolonial studies is especially attuned to such questions, and important works in the field have assessed how these new institutions mediated anticolonial imaginaries and generated new kinds of cultural politics.88 Yet while this work has produced fine-grained accounts of the cultural resonance of key human rights concepts, such as personhood and dignity, and has traced the imaginative and intertextual influence of human rights documents from the midcentury to the present, there has been strikingly little sustained attention to UNESCO.89 UNESCO may be relatively uninteresting to scholars of culture precisely because it is perceived as the kind of bloated bureaucracy where culture goes to die. Indeed, Sarah Brouillette’s recent book on UNESCO’s enduring efforts to arbitrate literary value in the postwar global literary economy, which is an important exception to the general inattention to UNESCO, highlights how UNESCO’s work may be most important for the ideologically and aesthetically constraining role that it has played over time.90

In this book, I suggest UNESCO’s rich but largely unassessed significance for the historical development of anticolonialism and the contemporary rereading of its archives. There are three points in particular I want to highlight. First, UNESCO is a key domain in which to examine how the international institutions of the postwar liberal order both transformed and retained the problem of colonial educability that has been such a central question for postcolonial literary studies.91 The midcentury reeducation of race, I argue, entailed a new global distribution of the problem of the native child’s plasticity and educability yet also recapitulated familiar colonial patterns in a new register. Second, this book sheds new light on another abiding preoccupation of postcolonial theory: the critique of anthropology and its role in the creation of imperial hierarchies and the legitimation of imperial rule. UNESCO’s race project focuses our attention on the historical conjuncture in which anthropology becomes the key discourse in the making of liberal antiracism, improbably resituating a discipline of colonial knowledge production at the antiracist vanguard.92 This disciplinary reorientation provokes a sustained dialogue between the new anthropology and anticolonial thought, as I show in my readings of Fanon and Césaire, for instance, by demonstrating their critiques of anthropology’s midcentury aspiration to anchor a new regime of racial repair.

Third, in focusing on UNESCO and anticolonial thought, this book aims to intervene in questions about racial periodization and the making of liberal antiracism that are more often addressed in an American studies context.93 Liberal antiracism has not just been a globally influential discourse but has been influentially (though of course not solely) formulated in the precincts of the postwar global institutions. This does not mean that the US racial context is not important. Indeed, concepts formulated in a US context, such as Boas’s racial plasticity, with which he sought to manage not just Jewish difference but also that of Black Americans, were internationalized and universalized. What I hope to show in this book is that the relay of these concepts through the new international institutions of the UN meant that anticolonial thinkers—whose conceptions of race and racism were certainly influenced by the United States but hardly determined by it—encountered them in newly inflected forms. Such international transpositions and transmissions suggest the artificiality of a strict division between postcolonial objects and methods and the questions of US race and ethnic studies. Moreover, in light of the centrality of Jewishness and the Jewish question to these debates, they also create an opening to think comparatively across these fields and Jewish studies.

This project intersects with urgent questions in Jewish studies and Holocaust studies in several respects. I aim to contribute to the growing body of work that seeks to establish connections between the Holocaust, colonial history, and postcolonial politics. Race, rather than memory, is my key term, and my questions concern both the “relational” or comparative dimensions of racialization, as well as the periodization of racial regimes.94 Part of the existing scholarship on postcolonial studies and Jewish studies/Holocaust studies—pursued in particular by historians as well as scholars of comparative genocide—has closely examined the claim that the genocidal logics and techniques practiced against Jews and other minority or stigmatized populations in Europe were in fact developed in the context of colonial genocide and imperial racism, particularly in Africa.95 Cumulatively, this work makes the case that the Holocaust was not an event sui generis, or without precedent, but rather needs to be understood as part of a longer history of racial and colonial modernity.

Another part of these efforts in which literary and cultural critics have had an especially strong hand focuses on memory. Literary scholars have shown how the representation and commemoration of the Holocaust as an event only emerged alongside the recollection or forgetting of colonial histories. These historical imbrications have been most influentially captured by Michael Rothberg’s formulation of “multidirectional memory.” Rothberg demonstrates that the postwar formation of Holocaust memory and the decolonization of former European colonies in the same era produced a long under-recognized “history of cross-referencing,” as intellectuals and writers who were critically engaged with France’s war with Algeria or with the legacies of Atlantic slavery drew comparative historical insight from Jewish experiences during and after the Holocaust in ways that reframed the parameters of group identities and expanded the limits of solidarity.96 In collective conversation organized around the field of cultural memory studies, other scholars have proposed complementary terms and approaches that contribute to the recovery and theorization of the political and aesthetic entanglement between Holocaust and postcolonial (or, more broadly, global) memory and history.97 Such historical excavations and literary readings have convincingly demonstrated just how thoroughgoing and also diverse these intersections are, assembling an archive of aesthetically distinct and politically dissensual works that raise questions of complicity, solidarity, and representation from Algeria to the Black Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.98

I initially articulated my own interest in these intersecting fields in terms of cultural memory yet became increasingly aware that it was easier for me to engage the question of racism than to analytically stabilize the operative concepts of race at work. While work in memory studies focuses on the shared experience of racial violence and the unfinished reckoning with racism’s traumas as the basis for its comparative or multidirectional approach, its central focus has not been on the concepts of race that subtended these experiences. But race itself has a history; as Stuart Hall writes, race, “because it is relational, and not essential, can never be finally fixed, but is subject to the constant process of redefinition and appropriation: to the losing of old meanings, and appropriation and collection and contracting of new ones.”99 As I considered this question, I was led backward to the midcentury period as a key moment in the accrual and divestment of racial meanings and so also in the formation of new racial regimes. Of course, this is also a key period in which early postwar theories about the relationship between antisemitism and imperialism crystallized in the work of thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Césaire, and Fanon, all of whom I discuss in this book. But the analytically incisive connections these thinkers established, I argue, were mediated by the new international institutions. Moreover, by focusing on UNESCO in particular, I show how the formation of what we might read as cultural memory was first and foremost a question about education and educability.

Indeed, memory does not suffice as a lens for this study because—despite everything I have said about the irreducible connection between UNESCO’s race project and Nazi antisemitism—the reeducation of race was neither a robust engagement with the Jewish genocide nor a project of Holocaust memory. Remarks such as Montagu’s solemn invocation of Auschwitz and Dachau (the latter of which despite imprisoning tens of thousands of Jewish inmates over its twelve-year existence was first a camp for political prisoners), of course do not tell us very much. Important historical scholarship has long argued that the Jewish genocide was neither fully acknowledged nor meaningfully commemorated in the early postwar period, much less that it occasioned a moral outrage that birthed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and a new era of human rights.100 Such revisionist histories have had an important corrective and demystifying effect, even as new scholarship has characterized the resulting narrative as a monolithic “myth of silence” itself in need of revision and complication.101

What UNESCO’s race project demonstrates instead is the extent to which the experience of Nazi antisemitism and exterminatory violence was formative for a postwar politics of race and antiracism, even if this history had not yet consolidated itself as the Holocaust.102 The race project foregrounded Nazi antisemitism and its catastrophic consequences; it did not seek to commemorate the Holocaust as a discrete event. This relative inchoateness of Holocaust consciousness in the project’s framework meant that antisemitism was one element of what the project understood to be the broader and more multifaceted race question. Precisely by looking beyond the Holocaust memory paradigm, we can see how other kinds of questions about Jewishness—its plasticity and particularism, the periodization of antisemitism, the relationship between antisemitism and racism, and the question of who Jews were if not a race—were encysted within the programmatic formation of liberal antiracism at midcentury.

These other questions, in turn, direct us to one of the organizing issues for comparative work today at the intersection of postcolonial studies and Jewish studies, concerning Zionism and the colonization of Palestine. Despite Said’s foundational status in postcolonial studies and the centrality of Palestine in his work, scholars have observed that Palestine has not always been taken up in postcolonial theory. At the same time, the settler-colonial status of Israel-Palestine is one reason that the engagement between postcolonial studies and Jewish and Holocaust studies has been deferred or intermittent, even though midcentury thinkers identified these connections early on.103

This book’s coordinates in the late 1940s and early 1950s coincide with the founding of the Israeli state and the Palestinian Nakba. In addition, its focus on the institutions of the UN, which has been responsible for the management of Palestinian refugee populations since 1948 and a crucial site for Palestinian claims and public victories, suggest potential connections between the race project and this unfolding history.104 While I address some of these questions in chapter 3 and the book’s coda, it is important to explain here at the outset that the versions of Jewishness and the formulations of Jewish difference that proved so central to UNESCO’s race project belonged squarely to what Mitchell Hart calls a “Diasporist” rather than “Zionist” strand of Jewish social scientific thought, as I discuss in chapter 2.105 For Zionists, in contrast, paradigms of Jewish plasticity were a threat to Jewish survival and national integrity.106

Indeed, we might say that at UNESCO, a Diasporist conception of Jewishness as plastic quite literally prevailed over competing Zionist mobilizations of Jewishness in the service of combating antisemitism. As I noted in the opening pages of this introduction, Ignaz Zollschan’s efforts were one important precursor to UNESCO’s 1950 Statement on Race. But Zollschan was also an ardent Zionist who in the 1910s had sought to define Jewishness in an explicitly racial way, and his writings unabashedly called for the colonization of Palestine.107 At the time when Boas and Zollschan were both engaged in efforts to produce a scientific statement against race on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Boas “viewed Zollschan as too extreme in his racial views to support him,” and when the two met in New York, “Boas, who was moving in an antiessentialist direction, rejected Zollschan because of his overly zealous Jewish nationalism.”108 On the occasion of the 1950 race statement’s publication, the anthropologist Alfred Métraux, who was then directing the race project for UNESCO, honored Zollschan as its progenitor, observing that UNESCO had taken up after fifteen years the project Zollschan had sought to initiate with the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, but which the IIIC had “let drop in compliance with the policy of capitulation and fear prevailing in those strange times.”109 Yet despite this nod to Zollschan, it was Boas’s quite different conception of Jewishness that is installed in the statement itself. This should in no way be taken as a triumphalist claim about the righteous victory of an antiessentialist definition of race. Instead, one argument of this book is that such a conception, despite resisting attempts to mobilize Jewish identity in exclusive terms, could nonetheless function to reinscribe racial inequality between Jews and Blacks, for instance. In the main, it is this story and these connections that this book establishes.

However, as I have noted, questions of Jewish particularism haunted the formulation of racial plasticity. The scientific antiracist discourse that crystallized at UNESCO sought to enshrine an argument about the racial diversity of Jews and followed Boas in deeming Jewishness especially plastic and susceptible to conversion, assimilation, and exogamy. At the same time, it also sought to explain, as a decidedly secondary question and with considerably less unanimity, the persistence of Jews as a people and tried to name the character of this difference. Were Jews, as Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon suggested, a cultural remnant, held together largely by the prejudices of those around them? Were they simply practitioners of a religion called Judaism, just one religion among others, as the 1950 statement declares? Or were they a race after all, in the newly authoritative sense of a genetic population, as the population geneticist L. C. Dunn (also the rapporteur of the 1951 UNESCO Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences) argued in his genetic studies of isolate Jewish populations in Venice?110 As Nadia Abu El-Haj has shown, such studies in the field of population genetics in the 1950s, directly in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, were pursued in Israel as part of a project to establish the integrity of the Jewish people as a genetic population and so legitimize the state-building project.111 These ambiguities suggest how this reeducation of race, for all that it centralized Jewishness, also marginalized it as a kind of remaindered difference that could not, in the end, be readily explained or managed. As Dunn’s example suggests, at the edges of the race project, questions continued to lurk about who Jews were and what would become of them. While works associated with UNESCO’s race project were circumspect on the question of Palestine, this sense of the perplexing persistence of Jewishness—which for all its assimilability continued to demonstrate its difference—suggests a connection to those operations that produced the figure of the minority that Aamir Mufti, for instance, has traced.112 I touch on these questions in chapter 3 when I discuss how the redefinition of the race concept affected the fate of culture, another overdetermined term under which the equally overdetermined meanings of Jewishness come to be clustered.

Finally, this book contributes to debates in human rights, which have often paid insufficient attention to race, racism, and antiracism. As I show in chapter 1, the 1950 statement was constitutively a human rights document, even as its drafters jettisoned the key concept of equality that would have most clearly manifested this connection. There has been spirited debate about the recency of human rights as a popular movement and its relative illegibility at midcentury.113 However, the history of the race statement’s production, which saw the UN’s Human Rights Division demand that UNESCO produce a constitutively antiracist account of race in the service of human rights, demonstrates the transposition of a human rights imperative to a document whose explicit connection to human rights is muted in its final form and whose historical connection to this discourse has not been centered by human rights scholars. In other words, our own purportedly postracial moment, which UNESCO’s statements did much to ideologically advance and discursively formalize, is itself a refraction of a midcentury human rights paradigm.


This project has a hub-and-spoke structure, with UNESCO’s race project at its center. The book’s first chapter accordingly focuses on UNESCO’s early postwar efforts to make education the medium for the reconstitution of universal humanity in the aftermath of racial war. Through close readings of archival materials, such as the records of UNESCO’s first general conference, I demonstrate that UNESCO’s founding discourse was saturated by anxieties about the likely contamination of the new humanist subject by the implacable inheritance of both racial forms and racist miseducation. This tension carried over into the organization’s race project, fundamentally determining the character of its antiracist pedagogy. Racial plasticity and educability emerged as the key elements of UNESCO’s retooled race concept because they both expressed and provisionally ameliorated the anxiety that neither race nor racism would ever be sufficiently malleable for real human or social transformation.

However, this development was not inevitable. Through reconstruction of early drafts of the 1950 statement, I show that equality was initially intended to be the central value of the statement, only to be eventually displaced by educability over the course of the drafting process. I draw several conclusions from this striking substitution. The 1950 Statement on Race, I argue, should be resituated as a human rights document. The initial emphasis on equality was explicitly framed as a human rights imperative, owing to the important institutional role the UN’s Human Rights Division played in the drafting process. Despite equality’s erasure in the finished document, important formal and rhetorical connections to the UDHR are still evident in the statement. At the same time, the eclipse of equality by “plasticity, educability” exposes the statement’s ideological investment in managing the pressures generated by anticolonial freedom struggles and insurgent antiracisms. I demonstrate this connection by reading the circumstances of the statement’s production in counterpoint to W. E. B. Du Bois’s and the NAACP’s Appeal to the World to show that these were historically related developments, expressive of two very different versions of antiracism in action.

Chapters 2 and 3 each take up a key racial logic that unfurls from the midcentury remaking of race. Chapter 2 examines race’s persistent association with epidermal difference in the era of racial plasticity and the tension between the relative plasticity and fixity of Blackness and Jewishness. I ask how one ought to read anticolonial thinkers who discerned that Nazi antisemitism and genocidal persecution in Europe were related to colonial racism yet nonetheless insisted that there was an unbridgeable difference between Jews, who, however persecuted, could lay claim to racial whiteness or at least unmarkedness, and Blacks, who were constricted by a seemingly irreducible epidermal difference. We find such reflections, for instance, in Fanon, whose forceful assertions that the Jew “is a white man” and the Holocaust just another squabble in a long family history I scrutinize at length. These writers grappled with their sense that while Jews and Blacks had both been racialized and subjected to racial violence, some were more properly the subjects of race than others and so were more fully the victims of an oppressive racism.114 How do we understand Fanon’s apparent naturalization of this difference?

I propose that we can read the furious force of Fanon’s reflections on Black fixity and Jewish whiteness as a critical engagement with the remaking of race then underway. I read Fanon alongside UNESCO’s race project and Franz Boas’s early twentieth-century writings on plasticity to make this case. I argue that as race was recast as plastic and its meanings divided across the domains of the genetic population on the one hand and the ethnic group on the other, the redefinition of race also produced what I call the racial residuum: the idea that, when all was said and done, one could not gainsay the racial common sense of “the man on the street,” who knew race when he saw it. Fanon perceives how Blackness is rendered residual in this way; at the same time, he engages with what Boas and later UNESCO described as the exemplary plasticity of Jews. His reflections on Jewish whiteness are thus better understood as reflections on Jewish plasticity. At the same time, Fanon is also attuned to Jewish particularism, and the chapter traces the subtle shifts in Fanon’s descriptions of Jews and Jewishness across his writings, arguing that for him, Jews have a claim to genealogical continuity and the status of a nation, or people, that the Black diaspora lacks. The chapter thus rehistoricizes Fanon, situating him among these midcentury social scientific debates in order to suggest how this frees us from certain impasses in the reading of his work.

As Fanon’s reflections on Jewish plasticity and particularism suggest, there are many terms at stake in light of the historical overdetermination of Jewish difference. In chapter 3, I argue that these debates converge around the question of culture and its varied meanings at midcentury and in the present. “In racial thought” through the early twentieth century, observes Nadia Abu El-Haj, “as we all know, there were no clear distinctions between cultural and physical elements, between social and biological heredity. . . . The size of one’s brain, the shape of one’s head, for example, all those measurements for which anthropologists became famous, did far more than classify groups. They simultaneously signified and explained racial-cultural distinctions.”115 One of the primary operations of the midcentury remaking of the race concept was to try to disaggregate culture from race.116 Nonetheless, our racial present is characterized by what critics have variously called cultural racism, neo-racism, racism without races, and anthropological racism. What brings about this development in which culture seems like nature? How is the very attempt to separate race from culture implicated? And how does this apparent regression of racial ideology confound the periodizing of race and the view that race is a strictly modern formation?

Chapter 3 takes up several seemingly distinct articulations of these questions, which I show can be productively read in counterpoint. I examine works associated with UNESCO’s race project to trace how culture paradoxically took on race’s associations with fixity: as race was recast as a plastic difference, culture in some respects appeared not as more but now as less plastic than race. We find in UNESCO’s own antiracist idiom not just a diagnosis but also a legitimization of the same philosophy of difference that undergirds the cultural racisms of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The most pressing question about the genealogy of cultural racism, however, concerns the tension between its “old” and “new” dimensions. In my analysis, I seek to pair a reading of the race-culture nexus as it is both dismantled and refashioned in UNESCO’s liberal antiracism with a reading of how postcolonial thought has contended with a postwar cultural racism whose antecedents are the long traditions of European anti-Judaism and Islamophobia. These formations are often treated as cultural, religious, or sometimes national or ethnic antagonisms that nonetheless cannot be explained as racism, since they are not properly modern and neither wholly conform to ideas about the raced biological body nor depend on supposedly modern epistemologies and technologies that make race proper an object of knowledge production.

Literature, I argue, can productively complicate these questions of racial periodization and comparative racialization. I examine Caryl Phillips’s 1997 novel The Nature of Blood and his related essays from the 1980s through the 2000s. I argue that Phillips’s theorization of race shifts from an initial concern with the fixity of epidermal difference to a preoccupation with cultural fidelity and religious conversion. This shift, I suggest, should be understood against the backdrop of cultural racism’s increasing centrality as a racial ideology in Britain and Europe over that same period—a development to which Phillips is attuned. I examine Phillips’s interest in the unstable periodization of race across the supposed divides of the premodern and the modern and pay particular attention to the figure of conversion as an analogue of racial plasticity and a site for the unmaking or persistence of race. Consequently, I show how Jewishness once again is figured at the juncture of the plastic and the particular in a postcolonial context in which the racial binary of Black/white is complicated by both Jewishness and Islam as differences that unsettle the boundaries of race and religion.

In chapter 4, I examine reeducation as a practice of repair. At UNESCO, there was an anguished sense that the war had degraded global humanity but had especially demonstrated the spiritual and political deficits of European culture. The reeducation of race was a project of global scope, yes, but it appeared to be required nowhere more urgently than in Europe. I argue that this reversal should be understood as a variation and extension of the return to Europe of its own colonial violence that Césaire theorized as a choc en retour (return or reverse shock) and Arendt as a boomerang effect. I show that we can find in the writing associated with UNESCO’s race project an early description of this same dynamic, understood now as a pedagogical problem with profound political consequences for Europe and the colonial world. In UNESCO’s view, the appropriate response to this return was not just soul-making in Europe but a reparative ethos that sought to ameliorate the harms Europe had historically inflicted in the colonies through a new commitment to third world development. These projects of development, technical assistance, and “equalization” threatened to reprise colonial relations, now in a neocolonial register.

In response, we find in the writings of Césaire and the Ghanian writer Ama Ata Aidoo critical counterpedagogies that challenge the developmental dimensions of the reeducation of race and resist repair. In their work, I argue, these critiques are not only staged on the terrain of education, they also emerge specifically through Césaire’s and Aidoo’s engagement with a postwar liberal antiracism that purports to teach lessons about European antisemitism and the history of the Jewish genocide. In Césaire’s consequential engagements with both UNESCO’s race project and its development work, we find the most striking and explicit instance of this book’s claim that anticolonial and postcolonial thought critically register and recast UNESCO’s race project and the versions of antiracism it sought to elevate to the status of liberal common sense. In Aidoo’s 1977 novel Our Sister Killjoy, meanwhile, her polemical representation of the lures of migration, the threat of deracination, and the dangers of diasporic life in Europe suggests a resemblance between her figure of the killjoy and Arendt’s figure of the Jewish pariah: in both cases, the threat of racial shame and the seduction of assimilation and upward mobility are to be resisted in favor of a communal but nonetheless critical solidarity with one’s people.

In the coda, I reflect on this book’s method and on the significance of the midcentury reeducation of race from the perspective of our present moment, when the liberal antiracist consensus it helped formalize appears to be waning. Amidst the resurgence of right-wing antisemitism and ongoing debates about the definition of antisemitism in the context of Palestinian activism and solidarity movements, I consider the lessons the authors I examine offer—and that they themselves learned—about the connection between antisemitism and racism.


1. Ignaz Zollschan, “How to Combat Racial Philosophy,” Man 43 (1943), 90.

2. Ibid.

3. Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 287, 320.

4. For the fullest consideration of Zollschan’s project in the context of these broader transatlantic efforts to mobilize scientists against racism, see the chapter “Confronting Racism: Scientists as Politicians” in Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism, 279–340.

5. UNESCO, Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, in Basic Texts: 2018 Edition including Texts and Amendments Adopted by the General Conference at Its 39th Session (Paris, 30 October–14 November 2017) (Paris: UNESCO, 2018), 5. UNESCO’s constitution was adopted on November 16, 1945 but the organization was not officially established until the constitution was ratified by the twentieth member state on November 4, 1946.

6. Zollschan, “How to Combat Racial Philosophy,” 90.

7. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1993), 32, 96.

8. Ibid., 67, 32.

9. Ashley Montagu, Statement on Race: An Extended Discussion in Plain Language of the UNESCO Statement by Experts on Race Problems (New York: Henry Schuman, 1951), ix, 6.

10. Sebastián Gil-Riaño, “Relocating Anti-Racist Science: The 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race and Economic Development in the Global South,” The British Journal for the History of Science 51, no. 2 (June 2018), 281–303.

11. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman (New York: Penguin, 2012), 24.

12. Emmanuelle Loyer’s recent biography describes his upbringing in “a large, warm and close-knit extended family, perfectly coherent in its secular and patriotic Judaism,” which had “enjoyed the classic French experience of upward mobility, from Alsace to Paris.” Loyer, Lévi-Strauss: A Biography (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 3.

13. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 231.

14. David Damrosch, “The Ethnic Ethnographer: Judaism in Tristes Tropiques,” Representations 50 (1995), 1. Damrosch goes on to offer a fascinating reading of the suppression of Judaism in Tristes Tropiques’ concluding reflections on religion and poses the question of what links might exist between Lévi-Strauss’s Jewishness and his formation as an ethnographer; he asks, for instance, how we might understand the relation between his sympathetic accounts of Brazilian ethnic minorities ravaged by historical violence and mistreatment and his apparent lack of interest in the role that antisemitism would have played in rendering his grandfather’s Versailles synagogue “empty” and “desolate,” in his own words. Damrosch, “The Ethnic Ethnographer,” 5; Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 231.

15. Lévi-Strauss’s invitation to join the New School for Social Research as a means of securing refuge in the United States was facilitated by Métraux, who would later serve as the director of UNESCO’s Department of Social Sciences at the time of the 1950 statement’s publication. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 23. On Métraux’s role in the postwar creation of a transatlantic network of scholars studying race and antiracism, see Alice Conklin, “‘Nothing Is Less Universal Than the Idea of Race’: Alfred Métraux, American Social Science and UNESCO’s Anti-Racist Campaign in 1950s Paris,” Durkheimian Studies 25 (2021), 107–32; on Boas’s interwar role, see Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism. Lévi-Strauss acknowledged his singular debt to Boas (who famously died beside him at a Columbia University luncheon) on questions of race and racism; see Kamala Visweswaran, Un/common Cultures: Racism and the Rearticulation of Cultural Difference (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010), 76.

16. Werner J. Cahnman, “Ginsberg, Morris,” in Encylopedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. 7, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik (Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2007), 610.

17. Morris Ginsberg, The Unity of Mankind (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1935), 4.

18. Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon, We Europeans: A Survey of “Racial” Problems (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936).

19. Morris Ginsberg, “Anti-Semitism,” The Sociological Review 35, nos. 1–2 (1943); Pierre Birnbaum, “The Absence of an Encounter: Sociology and Jewish Studies,” in Modern Judaism and Historical Consciousness: Identities, Encounters, Perspectives, ed. Christian Wiese and Andreas Gotzmann (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 266n129. Ginsberg also authored a wartime report reflecting on the ongoing catastrophe—whose “magnitude [was] unparalleled” in Jewish history, since “never before have the Jews been threatened with destruction or disintegration in so many different parts of the world at the same time”—and assessing various political solutions to the Jewish question, including assimilatiom, Zionism, and ethnic rights. Ginsberg, The Jewish Problem (London: British Section of the World Jewish Congress, 1943), 1.

20. UNESCO, Statement on Race, in Four Statements on the Race Question (Paris: UNESCO, 1969), 35. On Montagu’s leading but controversial role, see Elazar Barkan, “The Politics of the Science of Race: Ashley Montagu and UNESCO’s Anti-racist Declarations,” in Race and Other Misadventures: Essays in Honor of Ashley Montagu in His Ninetieth Year, ed. Larry T. Reynolds and Leonard Lieberman (Dix Hills, NY: General Hall, 1996), 96–105.

21. Anthony Q. Hazard, Boasians at War: Anthropology, Race, and World War II (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 62–63; on Montagu and McCarthyism, see Susan Sperling, “Ashley’s Ghost: McCarthyism, Science, and Human Nature,” in Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism and the CIA, ed. Dustin Wax (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 17–36.

22. Sperling’s published biography of Montagu is no longer available, but see Susan Sperling, “Ashley Montagu (1905–1999),” American Anthropologist 102, no. 3 (September 2000), 584.

23. Mitchell Hart, Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000), 222.

24. On Boas’s early experiences with antisemitism and his family’s relationship to Judaism, see Julia E. Liss, “German Culture and German Science in the Bildung of Franz Boas,” in Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition, ed. George W. Stocking (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 155–84. On Boas as a theorist of Jewish assimilation, see Amos Morris-Reich, The Quest for Jewish Assimilation in Modern Social Science (New York: Routledge, 2007). On the significance of Boas’s Jewishness for the character of American anthropology, see Gelya Frank, “Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 99, no. 4 (1997), 731–45. Lee D. Baker has traced how Boas has been an object of conspiracy theories on the antisemitic far right; see Baker, “The Cult of Franz Boas and His ‘Conspiracy’ to Destroy the White Race,” in Anthropology and the Racial Politics of Culture (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010), 156–219.

25. Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind, Public Affairs Pamphlet no. 85 (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1943), 25. This booklet caused considerable controversy in the United States among conservative and mainstream politicians and institutions, such as the United Service Organizations, which thought its conclusions went too far in the direction of egalitarianism. For an account of its reception, see Hazard, Boasians at War, 198–211.

26. UNESCO, Constitution, 5.

27. The following studies offer especially insightful and critical analysis of UNESCO’s race projects and the statement. These titles are cited again at various points throughout the book but it is useful to name them here collectively: Barkan, “The Politics of the Science of Race,” 96–105; Michelle Brattain, “Race, Racism, and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to the Postwar Public,” in The American Historical Review 112, no. 5 (Dec 2007), 1386–413; Sebastián Gil-Riaño, “Historicizing Anti-Racism: UNESCO’s Campaigns against Race Prejudice in the 1950s” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2014); Gil-Riaño, “Relocating Anti-Racist Science,” 281–303; Donna Haraway, “Race: Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture,” in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan_Meets_Onco-Mouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 213–65; Anthony Q. Hazard, Postwar Anti-Racism: The United States, UNESCO, and “Race,” 1945–1968 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Iain Morland, “Gender, Genitals, and the Meaning of Being Human,” in Fuckologies: Critical Essays on John Money’s Diagnostic Concepts, ed. Lisa Downing, Iain Morland, and Nikki Sullivan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 69–98; Staffan Müller-Wille, “Claude Lévi-Strauss on Race, History, and Genetics,” BioSocieties 5, no. 3 (2010), 330–47; Robert N. Proctor, “Three Roots of Human Recency: Molecular Anthropology, the Refigured Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz,” Current Anthropology 44, no. 2 (2003), 213–39; Jenny Reardon, “Decoding Race and Human Difference in a Genomic Age,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 2004), 38–65; Perrin Selcer, “Beyond the Cephalic Index: Negotiating Politics to Produce UNESCO’s Scientific Statements on Race,” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (April 2012), S173–84.

28. In his account of the changing relationship between race and imperialism in the thought and practice of American and British international relations, Frank Füredi describes this as a “shift from racial confidence to racial fear.” This shift, he shows, began in the interwar period when “Anglo-American foreign policy elites regarded racial thinking as having the potential to disrupt the world system”; after World War II, “racism was so discredited that Western diplomats were forced to devote considerable resources to eliminating it from international affairs altogether.” Füredi, The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998), 2, 1. On race and the discipline of international relations in the early twentieth century, see also Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2017). Vitalis demonstrates both that race was long unabashedly understood to constitute the “international” in “international relations” among mainstream American international relations theorists and that the Howard School of International Relations gave rise to a rich, understudied critical tradition produced by scholars of color.

Füredi’s account of political anxiety in the ’20s and ’30s that comes to crisis in the postwar period is synchronous with what historians of science have argued about revisions to the race concept in the Anglo-American scientific and especially anthropological establishment: an “interwar period of doubt” (Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science) that culminates in the postwar crisis I am describing—a dual crisis, that is. On the interwar status of the race concept in Anglo-American sciences, particularly anthropology, see especially Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism; and Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800–1960 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1982), 140–69.

29. Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2019), 2.

30. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace,” in The World and Africa and Color and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014), 246.

31. Du Bois, The World and Africa, 27.

32. This was true too of India’s complaint to the UN General Assembly against South Africa for its discriminatory Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, which Mark Mazower describes as “the first act of assertion [at the UN] by the colonial world against the principles of racial hierarchy and European rule”; see Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009), 26. For a full account of this episode, see Mazower, “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Emergence of the Global United Nations,” in No Enchanted Palace, 149–89. For an account that centers the UN as the key site of postwar anticolonial and antiracist activism, see Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: The New Press, 2007).

33. A number of studies have reflected on this Cold War racial (and antiracist) history, such as Penny M. Von Eschen, Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997). For a recent analysis that also incorporates thoughtful consideration of the role of Europe’s recent fascist history in these dynamics, see Vaughn Rasberry, “Our Totalitarian Critics: Desegregation, Decolonization, and the Cold War,” in Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2016), 63–106. For a seminal expression of liberal antiracism as a bulwark against communism, see Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2017). Myrdal was peripherally involved with UNESCO’s race statements, and his frequent collaborator and spouse, Alva Reimer Myrdal, led UNESCO’s Department of Social Sciences—which housed its race project—in the early 1950s.

34. A. James Arnold, Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981), 177.

35. The historian Fabian Klose has shown that the extreme violence of British counterinsurgency in Kenya and French counterinsurgency in Algeria in the 1950s not only claimed what historian Frederick Cooper terms a “colonial exemption” from human rights norms but in fact drew on human rights language for legitimization. However, in a critical review, Cooper argues that Klose underestimates the role that public repugnance and political opposition in international venues such as the UN played in forcing an end to these conflicts and an acknowledgment of postcolonial independence. Klose, Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence: The Wars of Independence in Kenya and Algeria, trans. Dona Geyer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Cooper, “Review: Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence,” American Historical Review 119, no. 2 (April 2014), 650–51.

36. The experience of racial hypocrisy shaped the biographies of figures central to anticolonial and postcolonial thought, including Frantz Fanon, who has an important place in this book. Fanon’s biographer David Macey describes his experience in the Free French Forces, which he joined at great personal risk and where he encountered unvarnished French racism, as the great disillusionment of his life. Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography (London: Verso, 2012), 91–109. It is also represented in canonical works of postcolonial cultural production as well as recent postcolonial theory. For instance, Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow’s 1988 film Camp de Thiaroye depicts both the brutalities and the hypocrisies of the French treatment of Senegalese soldiers. Sembène and Sow, Camp de Thiaroye (Enaproc, 1988). And Leela Gandhi has recently elaborated an account of anticolonial practices of inconsequence and imperfection, in part through a reading of Indian naval mutinies around 1946, when Indian naval enlistees, animated by antifascist commitments and indignation at imperial Britain’s blatant contradictions, rebelled against both imperial domination and anticolonial nationalism’s foregone conclusions. Gandhi, “Inconsequence: Some Little Known Mutinies around 1946,” in The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 116-48.

37. Reeducation, Fisher notes, was “probably the Allies’ most resonant postwar policy.” Jaimey Fisher, Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2007), 15.

38. James Tent, Mission on the Rhine: Reeducation and Denazification in American-Occupied Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 1.

39. James P. Sewell, UNESCO and World Politics: Engaging in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1975), 33–70.

40. Ibid., 38. While CAME considered from its early days the extent to which any new postwar international educational organization should take on the responsibility of denazification in Germany (UNESCO would continue to ponder this question in its early years, as well as that of its possible role in Japan), this was not its focus.

41. Ibid., 63–65.

42. For a useful study that considers the philosophical background to UNESCO’s work in the field of global development and the influence of scientific humanism on the organization’s ideology, see Vincenzo Pavone, From the Labyrinth of the World to the Paradise of the Heart: Science and Humanism in UNESCO’s Approach to Globalization (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008). On the entangled and mutually reinforcing relationship of the developmental and the moral-spiritual dimensions of UNESCO’s work, see Sarah Brouilllette, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2019). Brouillette shows how UNESCO’s decades-long commitment to humanist education as a matter of not just literacy but also of the literary as an expression of human values tracks with three distinct phases in the global political economy of literary production, from liberal cosmopolitanism through decolonizing left-liberalism to neoliberalism. On soul-making, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999), 112–40.

43. I draw this short definition of population genetics from the useful introductory primer for nonspecialists in Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2018), 3–22.

44. Thus, Cavalli-Sforza, perhaps the best-known population geneticist of the last quarter century, and his co-authors affirm in 2018 the same central planks of the scientific antiracist thesis that population genetics elaborated at midcentury: “the classification of races has proved to be a futile exercise for reasons that were already clear to Darwin. Human races are still extremely unstable entities in the hands of modern taxonomists. . . . All populations or population clusters overlap when single genes are considered, and in almost all populations, all alleles are present but in different frequencies. . . . There is great genetic variation in all populations, even in small ones. . . . The difference between groups is therefore small when compared with that within the major groups, or even within a single population.” Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi, and Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes, 19. On the political ambiguities and implications of Cavalli-Sforza’s and others’ work on the Human Genome Diversity Project, see Jenny Reardon Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005).

45. See for instance Lisa Gannett, “Racism and Human Genome Diversity Research: The Ethical Limits of ‘Population Thinking,’Philosophy of Science 68, no. 3 (2001): S479–92; Donna Haraway, “Remodeling the Human Way of Life: Sherwood Washburn and the New Physical Anthropology, 1950–1980,” in Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology, ed. George W. Stocking (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 206–59; Veronika Lipphardt, “Isolates and Crosses in Human Population Genetics; or, a Contextualization of German Race Science,” Current Anthropology 53, supp. 5 (April 2012), S69–82; and Reardon, “Decoding Race and Human Difference in a Genomic Age.” Lipphardt nicely characterizes such revisionist accounts challenging the narrative of a clean midcentury break in racial epistemologies as “powerful critiques directed at the boundary work done to distinguish old from new race science” (S71).

46. The discourse of genetic populations continues to play a role in the design and interpretation of projects dedicated to tracing human genetic sameness and variation; it has helped give meaning both to the Human Genome Project and its assertion of the negligible genetic manifestation of perceived racial differences, as well as to the Human Genome Diversity Project, controversial precisely for its pursuit of the genetic differences among cultural, linguistic, and ethnic groups. See Reardon, Race to the Finish.

47. See Gannett, “Racism and Human Genome Diversity Research”; Lipphardt, “Isolates and Crosses in Human Population Genetics.”

48. Gil-Riaño, “Relocating Anti-Racist Science,” 283.

49. Ibid.

50. As I discuss in the next section, Franz Boas’s seminal argument about the plasticity of race emerged directly from his studies of environmental influence on racial form. Equally, genetic and now postgenomic developments have laid privileged claim to the biosocial terrain of the plastic; epigenetics, for instance, is now deemed “the science of plasticity.” See Becky Mansfield and Julie Guthman, “Epigenetic Life: Biological Plasticity, Abnormality, and New Configurations of Race and Reproduction,” Cultural Geographies 22, no. 1 (2013), 4.

51. UNESCO, Statement on Race, 32.

52. Influential accounts of plasticity include Catherine Malabou’s varied works on this topic, especially What Should We Do with Our Brain?, trans. Sebastian Rand (New York: Fordham UP, 2008); and Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, trans. Carolyn Shread (New York: Columbia UP, 2010); and Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994). See also Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010), for a closely related analysis not focused on the plasticity of the human but similarly attuned to the agency of matter.

53. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 110.

54. S. Pearl Brilmyer, “Plasticity, Form, and the Matter of Character in Middlemarch,” Representations 130, no. 1 (Spring 2015), 64.

55. Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, 5.

56. Ibid., 17.

57. Ibid., 77.

58. Scholars have recognized this entanglement, and there is a growing body of critical work that examines plasticity’s racialized history and so also challenges its apparently emancipatory politics. My project builds on and hopes to contribute to this body of critical scholarship. I take up key works in what follows, but see Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005), especially on “animatedness”; Donna V. Jones, The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (New York: Columbia UP, 2010); Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012); Monique Allewaert, Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Jayna Brown, “Being Cellular: Race, the Inhuman, and the Plasticity of Life,” GLQ 21, nos. 2–3 (2015), 321–41; Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Losing Manhood: Animality and Plasticity in the (Neo)Slave Narrative,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 25, nos. 1–2 (2016), 95–136; Michelle N. Huang, “Ecologies of Entanglement in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Journal of Asian American Studies 20, no. 1 (2017), 95–117; Deepika Bahri, Postcolonial Biology: Psyche and Flesh after Empire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2018); Kyla Schuller and Jules Gill-Peterson, “Introduction: Race, the State, and the Malleable Body,” Social Text 38, no. 2 (2020), 1–17; Neel Ahuja, “Reversible Human: Rectal Feeding, Gut Plasticity, and Racial Control in US Carceral Warfare,” Social Text 38, no. 2 (2020), 19–47; Kadji Amin, “Trans* Plasticity and the Ontology of Race and Species,” Social Text 38, no. 2 (2020), 49–71.

59. Franz Boas, “Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants,” American Anthropologist 14, no. 3 (July 1912), 556.

60. Ibid., 557. For an overview of Boas’s study and its historical context and significance in light of prevailing views about race in physical anthropology, see, for instance, George W. Stocking Jr., “The Critique of Racial Formalism,” in Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York: The Free Press, 1968), 161–94.

61. As Stocking notes, “Boas, like the eugenicists of the same period, was inclined to look for biological solutions to what we would today regard as social problems.” Stocking, “The Critique of Racial Formalism,” 179.

62. Quoted in Leonard B. Glick, “Types Distinct from Our Own: Franz Boas on Jewish Identity and Assimilation,” American Anthropologist 84, no. 3 (September 1982), 557. Many thanks to Itamar Francez for directing me to this piece.

63. Boas, “Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants,” 555.

64. As Stocking notes, Boas was interested in the question of child development and the influence of childhood environment before he turned to questions of race. This was thanks to his training under the German anthropologist Rudolf Virchow as well as due to the influence of colleagues at Clark University, where he held his first position at a US institution starting in 1889 and conducted empirical studies on schoolchildren. Stocking, “The Critique of Racial Formalism,” 165–71.

65. Bahri, Postcolonial Biology, 3.

66. Ibid. This book has many questions in common with Bahri’s Postcolonial Biology. Like Robert J. C. Young, who, in Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (London: Routledge, 1995), insists on postcolonial cultural hybridity’s entanglement with the concept’s racial history, Bahri takes up hybridity at the switch point of race/culture. Hybridity is “hybridity in the flesh,” she argues, operating on the body in its “retail particulars at the level of muscle, tongue, glottis, viscera, and myriad administrations of the sensorium and bodily expression” (18–19). It is in service of this argument about hybridity (her key term, in keeping with its centrality for postcolonial theory) that she invokes the plastic being of both the colonial subject and the contemporary subject (or consumer) of commodity culture. In The Reeducation of Race, in contrast, plasticity is the organizing term, owing to its centrality for both historical experiments in the modification of racial form as well as for liberal antiracism. However, plasticity/educability maps closely to the paired terms hybridity/mimicry as they are articulated in postcolonial theory.

67. Franz Boas, “The Problem of the American Negro,” Yale Review 10 (1921), 384.

68. Ibid., 394.

69. Ibid., 392.

70. Ibid., 393.

71. Chen, Animacies.

72. Jackson, “Losing Manhood,” 119, 118.

73. Jayna Brown has identified an association of Blackness with both “hypo- and hyper plasticity” in the fiction of the influential biologist Julian Huxley, who served as UNESCO’s first director-general and had a hand in UNESCO’s race project and who will be encountered in more detail in chapters 1 and 4. Brown, “Being Cellular.”

74. Jackson, “Losing Manhood,” 119.

75. Albert Memmi, Racism, trans. Steve Martinot (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 55.

76. See, for instance, Kamala Visweswaran on Boas’s (and Lévi-Strauss’s) roles in what she nicely calls “the internationalization of the race concept” in Un/common Cultures, 52–102, 149.

77. Glick has noted that the US Immigration Commission had been charged with collecting data on social and economic questions, and it was Boas who insisted on conducting a study of physical types. Glick, “Types Distinct from Our Own,” 557.

78. Eric Porter, “The Problem of the Future World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Race Concept at Midcentury (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010), 3.

79. Schuller and Gill-Peterson, “Introduction: Race, the State, and the Malleable Body,” 2.

80. Huang, “Ecologies of Entanglement in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” 105.

81. Ibid., 109.

82. Ibid., 110–11.

83. Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2015), 3–4. In Adom Getachew’s important analysis of this terrain, she demonstrates that twentieth-century anticolonial nationalists pursued their goals in a synoptic fashion: recognizing that the assertion of national sovereignty would afford new nations little in a stubbornly racially hierarchical international order, they “turned to projects of worldmaking that would secure the conditions of international nondomination.” Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire, 9–10.

84. Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 73.

85. Roland Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 2.

86. For instance, Steven L. B. Jensen argues that it was developments of the 1960s driven by the decolonizing world, including the 1960 establishment of the right to self-determination, that reinvigorated human rights discourse at a time when it otherwise had little broad significance. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (New York: Cambridge UP, 2016), 18–68.

87. Joseph R. Slaughter, “Hijacking Human Rights: Neoliberalism, the New Historiography, and the End of the Third World,” Human Rights Quarterly 40, no. 4 (2018), 739. Important, non-mythologizing accounts of such influence do also exist; see, for instance, Lydia H. Liu, “Shadows of Universalism: The Untold Story of Human Rights around 1948,” Critical Inquiry, 40, no. 4 (2014), 385–417.

88. Indeed, authors in this book have featured in such analyses; Anne W. Gulick has recently shown how Césaire’s long poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal formally and conceptually engages the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gulick, Literature, Law, and Rhetorical Performance in the Anticolonial Atlantic (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2016), 77–120.

89. On personhood and human personality, see Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (New York: Columbia UP, 2007). On dignity, see Elizabeth S. Anker, Fictions of Dignity: Embodying Human Rights in World Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2012). On the cultural influence of multiple human rights documents, see Crystal Parikh, Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

90. Brouillette, UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary. Similarly, Joseph R. Slaughter has discussed UNESCO’s role in policing intellectual property laws in the global literary sphere. Slaughter, “World Literature as Property,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 34 (2014), 39–73.

91. For key works on this question, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (Autumn 1985), 243–61; Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia UP, 1989); Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2009); Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.; Ben Conisbee Baer, Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism (New York: Columbia UP, 2019).

92. For analyses of this shift, see Visweswaran, Un/common Cultures, 52–73; and Haraway, “Remodeling the Human Way of Life,” 206–59.

93. For an important study of racial periodization and liberal antiracism focused on the US context, see Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). On liberal antiracism, see Joseph Darda, The Strange Career of Racial Liberalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2022). For important recent studies that examine US racial formation in international perspective, see Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Erica R. Edwards, The Other Side of Terror: Black Women and the Culture of US Empire (New York: NYU Press, 2021). Robert Stam and Ella Shohat offer a robustly comparative account of race and racism in an Atlantic context in Race in Translation: Culture Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic (New York: NYU Press, 2012). Howard Winant emphasizes the global importance of what he calls the global rupture of race at midcentury but pays little attention to the international institutions that mediated it. See Winant, The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

94. On relational racism, see David Theo Goldberg, “Racial Comparisons, Relational Racisms: Some Thoughts on Method,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 32, no. 7 (2009), 1271–82. For an analysis of antisemitism in an imperial frame that draws on relational methods, see Dorian Bell, Globalizing Race: Antisemitism and Empire in French and European Culture (Chicago: Northwestern UP, 2018). While Goldberg makes the case for the relational over the comparative, I am less convinced of the utility of one term over the other. For an analysis of comparative racialization as a method attuned both to the global (rather than nation-state centered) frame of reference and to the significance of past racial formations for the present, see for instance Shu-Mei Shih, “Comparative Racialization: An Introduction,” PMLA 123, no. 5 (2008), 1347–62.

95. This is a large and growing field, but see especially Volker Langbehn and Mohammad Salama, eds., German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust and Postwar Germany (New York: Columbia UP, 2011); A. Dirk Moses, “Conceptual Blockages and Definitional Dilemmas in the ‘Racial Century’: Genocides of Indigenous Peoples and the Holocaust,” Patterns of Prejudice 36, no. 4 (2002), 7–36; Richard H. King and Dan Stone, eds., Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History: Imperialism, Nation, Race, and Genocide (New York: Berghahn, 2007), which builds on Arendt’s status as an early (though ambiguous) theorist of these connections, to name just a few. In very recent German public discourse, these scholarly approaches to comparative genocide have been invoked in heated debates about the legitimacy of such comparisons. The historian Jürgen Zimmerer and the cultural critic Michael Rothberg, whose work has been central to these debates, explain the contours of the controversy and assess the limitations of the anti-comparative critique. Jürgen Zimmerer and Michael Rothberg, “Enttabuisiert den Vergleich!,” Die Zeit (April 4, 2021),; Michael Rothberg, “We Need to Re-center the New Historikerstreit,” Die Zeit (July 24, 2021),

96. Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009), 7.

97. Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003); Michael Rothberg, Debarati Sanyal, and Max Silverman, eds. “Noeuds de mémoire: Multidirectional Memory in Postwar French and Francophone Culture,” Yale French Studies, 118–19 (2010); François Lionnet, “Dire exactement’: Remembering the Interwoven Lives of Jewish Deportees and Coolie Descendants in 1940s Mauritius,” Yale French Studies, 118–119 (2010), 111–35; Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory (New York: Columbia UP, 2012); Max Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York: Berghahn, 2013); Debarati Sanyal, Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (New York: Fordham UP, 2015). In some cases, the kinds of comparative or multidirectional borrowings at work in these engagements are metaphorical and analogical, so that not just the history but also the subsequent figuration and representation of the Holocaust seem prismatically to illuminate other geopolitically distant national or transnational experiences or be concerned with the transit of particular concepts, such as trauma. On such a prismatic status for Holocaust memory in late twentieth-century global cultural memory, see especially Huyssen, Present Pasts, 14 and passim. Somewhat similarly, Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider have argued for a cosmopolitan Holocaust memory. However, while Huyssen suggests that the metaphorical and analogical uses of the Holocaust depend on its status as a “universal trope” while necessarily also “decentering” it (14), Levy and Sznaider treat the Holocaust as a kind of master discourse through which other histories become legible. Levy and Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, trans. Assenka Oksiloff (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2006). For valuable studies that take up key concepts prominently theorized in Holocaust memory studies, such as the categories of “trauma” and “testimony,” and assess the status of Holocaust as lens and limit, treating it alongside other histories and genealogies, see, for instance, Stef Craps, Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (London: Palgrave, 2013); and Jill Jarvis, Decolonizing Memory: Algeria and the Politics of Testimony (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2021). The final chapter of Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993), 187–204, is an enduringly important intervention in this vein, attuned to overlapping questions about suffering and the limits of representation in Black diasporic and Jewish writing.

98. Other recent works not comfortably housed under the category of memory studies have also contributed to this broader comparative intellectual project. For instance, Aamir Mufti and Bryan Cheyette have demonstrated that the history of particular concepts—minority and diaspora, respectively—necessarily draw together postcolonial and Jewish thought and histories. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007); Cheyette, Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2014). Sarah Phillips Casteel has shown that such connections are especially profoundly registered in Caribbean literature and has traced the historical and cultural conditions that have generated these engagements. Casteel, Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination (New York: Columbia UP, 2016). Paul Gilroy and Dorian Bell have traced the conjoined histories of antisemitism, anti-Blackness, and colonial racism in a global context. Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000); Bell, Globalizing Race.

99. Stuart Hall, “Race, the Floating Signifier: What More Is There to Say about Race?”, in Stuart Hall, Selected Writings on Race and Difference, ed. Paul Gilroy and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2021), 362. This semantic and ideological changeability speaks to the highly variable ways in which racial meaning is made and racial value assigned in specific conflicts of power and exploitation or in relation to other socially differentiating concepts such as caste, for instance, which put pressure on the meaning of race. Lisa Lowe maps the variability of race in the context of “the ‘coloniality’ of modern world history,” demonstrating the “precisely spatialized and temporalized processes of both differentiation and connection.” Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke UP), 8.

100. These arguments have often been elaborated in one or another national historical context. See, inter alia, Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994); Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, trans. Jared Stark, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006); Samuel Moyn, A Holocaust Controversy: The Treblinka Affair in Postwar France; (Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2005); Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000); Tom Segev, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, trans. Haim Watzman (New York: Henry Holt, 2000). Of the widespread notion that the UDHR was a direct response to the Holocaust, Samuel Moyn observes that while this may be “the most universally repeated myth about their origins,” in fact “there was no widespread Holocaust consciousness in the postwar era, so human rights could not have been a response to it.” Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010), 6–7; see also Marco Duranti, “The Holocaust, the Legacy of 1789 and the Birth of International Human Rights Law: Revisiting the Foundation Myth,” Journal of Genocide Research 14, no. 2 (June 2012): 159–86; Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2013), 53. Scholars have made a similar case for the relative minimization of the specificity of Jewish suffering at the Nuremberg trials, for instance in the form of witness testimony. See Lawrence Douglas, The Memory of Judgment: Making Law and History in the Trials of the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001), 11–94; Donald Bloxham, Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001).

101. This work has variously challenged the assertions of early postwar silence, offered new accounts of the relationship between the formation of postwar human rights institutions and Jewish politics, and complicated the timeline and sphere in which we conceive of Holocaust memory. See for instance David Cesarani and Eric J. Sundquist, eds., After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence (London: Routledge, 2012); Laura Jockusch, “Justice at Nuremberg?: Jewish Responses to Nazi War-Crime Trials in Allied-Occupied Germany,” Jewish Social Studies 19, no. 1 (2012): 107–47; James Loeffler, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2018); Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Holocaust: An Endangered Connection (Washington, DC: Georgetown UP, 2019). As Moyn has acknowledged in a review-essay of some of this work, the categorical assertion of postwar silence does not hold. While still holding to a timeline weighted toward the late 1960s, he nuances his own earlier position and suggests that we relinquish the view that “the Holocaust was either entirely absent or integrally present from the start” and focus instead on “the changing forms of Holocaust memory” and the work they do, including for “international politics as a whole.” Samuel Moyn, “Silence and the Shoah,” Times Literary Supplement, August 7, 2013. I’m grateful to Lauren Berlant for sending me this essay.

102. For a different view, see Shirli Gilbert’s and Avril Alba’s introduction to their edited collection on Holocaust memory and racism, which “challenges the notion that there is an unproblematic connection between Holocaust memory and the discourse of anti-racism.” Gilbert and Alba observe that the scholarship on UNESCO’s race statements demonstrates that postwar science struggled to find consensus on the status of race, indicating that “the presumed anti-racist lessons of the Holocaust have been written back to the postwar years themselves.” This glosses over how significantly the statement was shaped by the context of Nazi antisemitism. UNESCO’s race project did not succeed in solving the race question (and in fact perpetuated it in new forms), but this only makes its historical connection to the Holocaust more complex and not less meaningful. Gilbert and Alba, “Introduction,” in Holocaust Memory and Racism in the Postwar World (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2019), 1, 3–4.

103. Said’s own work gestured to these engagements—for instance, his 1979 essay “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” in The Selected Works of Edward Said, 1966-2006, ed. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin (New York: Vintage, 2019), 115–69; and Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso, 2003).

104. On the role of the UN and the institutions of international justice in the perpetuation of Palestinian dispossession, see Noura Erakat, Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2019).

105. Hart, Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity, 140.

106. Ibid., 139–68; Amos Morris-Reich, “Circumventions and Confrontations: Georg Simmel, Franz Boas and Arthur Ruppin and Their Responses to Antisemitism,” Patterns of Prejudice 44, no. 2 (2010), 195–215; Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 63–108.

107. For a sense of Zollschan’s views on Jewish racial purity and superiority, see Ignaz Zollschan, “The Significance of the Mixed Marriage,” in Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference, 1880-1940, ed. Mitchell B. Hart (Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2011), 175–84. See also Hart, Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity, 64–66, 77–78 and 74–95. For a fuller though less critical account of Zollschan’s thought, see John M. Efron, Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1994), 123–74.

108. Elazar Barkan, “Review—Defenders of the Race: Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe,” The American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (1996), 839; see also Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism, 284, 319.

109. Alfred Métraux, “UNESCO and the Racial Problem,” International Social Science Bulletin 2, no. 3 (1950), 385.

110. Leslie C. Dunn and Stephen P. Dunn, “The Jewish Community of Rome,” Scientific American 196, no. 3 (March 1957), 118–32.

111. Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science, 63–108.

112. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony.

113. Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia; for an important rejoinder, see Slaughter, “Hijacking Human Rights.” For a fascinating recent contribution to the historiography of human rights that centers UNESCO, see Letters to the Contrary: A Curated History of the UNESCO Human Rights Survey, ed. Mark Goodale (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2018).

114. The Tunisian-Jewish novelist and anticolonial critic Albert Memmi theorizes racism in a way that exemplifies this naturalization of the properly racial body. Racism, he writes, is “strictly speaking,” “a theory of biological differences” that organizes hierarchies among groups. But biology is both metaphor and metonymy: nonbiological differences can be biologized and the debased values ascribed to biological difference are transmitted “from biology to ethics, from ethics to politics, from politics to metaphysics,” as racism’s object is saturated with negative meaning. Memmi, “An Attempt at a Definition,” in Racism, trans. Steve Martinot (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 170, 174. Sylvia Wynter calls this process the “transumption of the principle of Sameness/Difference to a new bio-ontological form.” Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism,” boundary 2 12, no. 3 (1984), 36. And yet, biological difference in Memmi’s account is not just metaphor but matter. The dreadful success of biological racism is attributable in part to the undeniable materiality of the original referent in this chain of negative signification: the body and its “substratum,” “the flesh, the blood, and the genes of the victim” (174). In Memmi’s analysis, any difference can be biologized but some are more biological than others: “The Black is irremediably black, the woman is irremediably a woman. Thus, we encounter the undying efforts to biologically characterize the Jew and the colonized, even though biology is irrelevant.” The epidermal differences of Blackness and the sexual difference of women, Memmi suggests, threaten to obscure the tactical character of their negative valuation because they are properly biological, in contrast to Jews and the colonized, for whom a biology must be invented. Memmi’s characterization of Blackness as irremediable and inescapable treats epidermal difference as a self-evident truth of the racial body. Memmi, Racism, 55.

115. Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science, 45–46.

116. Visweswaran, “Race and the Culture of Anthropology,” in Un/Common Cultures, 52–73, demonstrates how the ascendence and internationalization of a Boasian race concept that treated race and culture as antonyms in turn facilitated the naturalization of culture characteristic of contemporary cultural racism. Such an attempted disaggregation began much earlier in Boas’s work, though it was only at midcentury that these efforts were formalized at international institutions such as UNESCO. George Stocking shows how Boas’s thought was indebted to Romantic and Herderian views about the organic forms that expressed the national or ethnic group’s character. But whereas some versions of this tradition tacked toward the racial taxonomies Boas seemed to throw into question, Boas sought to “define ‘the genius of a people’ in other terms than racial heredity. His answer, ultimately, was the anthropological idea of culture.” On Boas’s centrality for the development of the culture concept in twentieth-century anthropology and his role in the shift from the idea of culture as a single evolutionist category to a plural notion of culture necessary for a properly anthropological perspective, see George W. Stocking Jr., “Franz Boas and the Culture Concept,” in Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York: The Free Press, 1968), 214.