by Alys Eve Weinbaum

About Alys Eve Weinbaum

Alys Eve Weinbaum is Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington-Seattle. She is the author of Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought and is completing a book titled The Afterlife of Slavery: Human Reproduction in Biocapitalism.


“Nation” has been in use in the English language since the fourteenth century, when it was first deployed to designate groups and populations. Although the concept of “race” was not well defined in this period, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) retrospectively refers to such groups and populations as “racial” in character. In the modern period, the OED continues, the meaning of “nation” came to refer to large aggregates of people closely associated through a combination of additional factors, including common language, politics, culture, history, and occupation of the same territory. Though it appears that an initial racial connection among nationals was later supplanted by a widened range of associating factors, the early understanding of “nation” as based in race and “common descent” remains central to discussions of the term to this day, either as a retrospective imposition of the sort orchestrated by the OED or as a “natural” grounding. An important contribution of American studies and cultural studies has been to interrogate race as a description and sometimes a synecdoche for nation and to insist that an uncritical conflation of race and nation constitutes a pressing political and theoretical problem. Indeed, as numerous scholars argue, ideas of race and racist ideologies continue to subtend the expression of nationalism in the United States, which is unsurprising given that the founding and consolidation of the nation was pursued as a project of racial nationalism that arrogated full belonging (if not citizenship) to whites or, in nineteenth-century parlance, to people of Anglo-Saxon descent.