Race and Resistance in the 21st Century: Covid-19

Over the last year, the Coronavirus crisis has exposed a number of underlying crises underway around the globe. In the context of the pandemic, and of pandemic management, it has become clear that access to healthcare, sanitation, education, secure employment and safe housing is not evenly dispersed on either a national or transnational scale. Similarly, as the virus has compounded the effects of climate change and violent conflict, it has revealed how these are disproportionately suffered by certain populations.

Newly visible, such inequalities have prompted renewed attention to the issue of race in both scholarly and popular debates. In nations across the Global North, Covid-19 is proving especially deadly among people of colour, while the formerly colonised regions of the South grapple with the pandemic in the context of limited infrastructure, overcrowding, and the high cost of commercial pharmaceuticals. These circumstances recall historical connections between colonization and disease represented infamously by the ‘Columbian Exchange’, but also extending beyond this encounter to other contexts in which invading Europeans brought with them deadly illness. At the same time, critics have reminded us that constructions of racial difference have – throughout colonial history – relied on and mobilised discourses of contagion. In the present, this entanglement is visible in the rise in North America, for example, of anti-Asian xenophobia, and in a demonization of cultural practices that centres on the pandemic’s origins in Wuhan. Such narratives are especially disturbing for the ease with which they might be appropriated to shore up geopolitical tensions in a world where the powers of the Global North are losing primacy to rising Asian economies.

As we discussed in the Fall instalment of this seminar series, social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter are currently calling for a critical understanding of race and resistance that moves beyond a politics of identity. Building on that conversation, this seminar addresses how the pandemic is exposing systemic racism, while at the same time engendering a renewal of racist narratives, which tack into the logic of a global system founded on the disposability of certain lives. We will ask questions around the history of racist discourse, colonization and disease, and around the origins of current racist narratives, inquiring in particular into how these function in the geopolitical context. Finally, we will explore what it means to resist under these conditions, discussing how emerging activist and scholarly work seeks to raise consciousness around institutionalised precarity, and with what effect.

Rebecca Duncan & Birgit Tremml-Werner, Linnaeus University.


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