Some background: the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, a group that encompasses most of the academics who study pre-Conquest England from a variety of fields (history, literature, archaeology, etc.) is at this moment conducting a vote on whether or not to change its name. This field itself rose out of and in concert with nineteenth-century ideas of scientific racism that asserted the superiority of the Germanic race, and the early development of the academic field was explicitly to establish an intellectual basis for this supremacy and to further nationalist ideals. While scholars today do not have this as an aim, vestiges of these early racist ideas still permeate our methodologies and establish the scope of what we study.
There are also other issues at play: the organization has traditionally been unfriendly to early-career scholars and those without institutional support (independent researchers, adjunct faculty, etc.); its membership has been unwelcoming, or even hostile, to scholars of color and the field is overwhelmingly white; it is the only academic medieval organization without a sexual harassment policy, and it nominated a particular senior and “distinguished” scholar who is a serial sexual harasser to its governing board. This vote on the name change is being accompanied by much sturm and drang, as one might expect, and much more seriously, one of the medievalists of color who participated in the online conversation has received a death threat. Those arguing for the name change recognize that the change will not solve these problems, but it is the lowest bar, a first step toward doing so.
I have been working on a paper on the history and current use of Anglo-Saxon for two years that has passed through multiple rounds of peer review and is currently awaiting publication. One member of the governing board opposed to the name change circulated a paper that contained misinformation about the term’s use. I wrote this summary of my longer paper to counter that. The editor and I have asked the publisher if there is a way to get an early release of the full paper. (Academic publishing is not geared for quick responses.)
As to the data, it comes from the corpora listed in the summary. I examined each appearance of Anglo-Saxon and the acronym WASP (several thousand instances) and categorized them as one of three senses:
1) if the use is in reference to pre-Conquest England or is reference to present-day language that is plain or profane, I categorized it as historical
2) if the use is in reference to an individual, physiognomic features, heritage or genetics, or used in contrast with another ethnic group, I categorized it as explicitly ethno-racial
3) if the use is in reference to contemporary politics, economics, or culture without explicit reference to the factors in #2, I categorized it as socio-cultural. (Many of the socio-cultural uses can legitimately be viewed as ethno-racial, but they aren’t explicitly so.)
The data is all from mainstream media. It doesn’t contain the rhetoric of white supremacists (except insofar as that is quoted in news articles, which is pretty rare.) Ethno-racial doesn’t necessarily mean racist, and it certainly doesn’t mean white supremacist. The author of the cosmetic surgery piece, for example, obviously did not intend to make a racist statement, but she used the term in a racial context by equating Anglo-Saxon with physical appearance of a 21st century individual. While it was not her intent, many can legitimately take the statement as racist (as in judging whether or not a term is offensive, whether or not a term is racist depends on its reception, not the intent of the speaker).
As an Englishwoman with a degree in the archaeology of early medieval Britain, inevitably my apprehension and usage of the term are weighted.
Exactly. When evaluating the use of Anglo-Saxon (or any word, for that matter), all of us are subject to our particular biases. Those of us who work in the field will inevitably encounter the term more often in the historical sense than the general public. Those of us who are white will often glide past the racial implications of the term that are obvious to people of color. And as I pointed out, the historical use is much more common in Britain than the rest of the world, so those who are British are going to be less likely to see the racial implications that others in the rest of the world do. That’s why I focused on data and used precise definitions in my categorization.
But can’t we use the same argument for African-American, Hispanic or Latino?
No. Unlike Anglo-Saxon, these terms have never been used to frame a specific historical period. Furthermore, these terms are not generally used to assert the supremacy of a particular race or ethnic group, as Anglo-Saxon has throughout its history and into the present-day.