Genres of Universalism: Reading Race Into International Law, With Help From Sylvia Wynter

Taking note of the relatively limited accounts of race in contemporary international legal doctrine, this Article posits a thought experiment: What would international legal theorizing look like not from the place of the metropole or the colony, but rather from the journey of the enslaved, from the barracoon to the hold of the slave ship to the plantation? For one possible answer, this Article turns to the work of the Jamaican thinker Sylvia Wynter to consider race in relation to international law in order to argue for the utility of replacing a formalist and state-based notion of universalism with a more open-ended and contestation oriented approach. Such a move would reframe international law’s “origin myth” about 1492 from a dyadic account of Western colonizers versus the colonized to a triangular encounter between Europeans, Indigenous Americans, and enslaved Africans. It would also pivot away from understandings of race as a generic form of invidious social differentiation to be managed solely by states as an internal matter to instead theorize legal regimes of racialization in connection with political economy as both distinct and conjoined.

About the Author

Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Associate Member of the Law School, University of Chicago.