Classics and White Supremacy

In an essay published a few days ago, James Kierstead responds to arguments by Rebecca Kennedy and Donna Zuckerberg that the discipline of classics is complicit in white supremacy. The problem of Kierstead’s critique lies in his failure, deliberate or not, to understand what Kennedy (K.) and Zuckerberg (Z.) mean by white supremacy.

The claim is that classics as a field is complicit in white supremacism, an ideology that holds that “the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races” (to use a standard definition that strikes me as reflecting most people’s understanding of the term).

It is telling, I think, that the link embedded in the article does not work well (it is only a link to Merriam-Webster). In the same way the appeal to “most people’s understanding” is disingenuous. To evaluate fairly the claims we need to know what K. and Z. mean by “white supremacy.” A far more nuanced discussion, which would have helped the author see what K. and Z. were talking about, can be found in the Atlantic. I quote from a quotation by David Gillborn found in that article

“By ‘white supremacy’ I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of white supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”

Understanding the implications of the systems of power that in large and small ways exclude people of color, just as they have and continue to exclude Jews and women, makes it easy to see why this article goes so far off the rails in its failure to deal with the real questions. Kierstead continues his odd insistence on controlling the terms of the discussion.

What kind of evidence would allow us to evaluate whether, or to what extent, this claim holds up? The kind of evidence that would convince me might include classics academics arguing that white people are inherently superior, organizing panels discussing how white people might gain control over people of other races, and so on. That may seem a pretty high bar, but that’s the bar that it seems appropriate to set in assessing the very ambitious claim that’s been made.

In fact, he only accepts explicit racist remarks from academic classicists as evidence for white supremacy. Of course, these exist, but they are not the point. The fact that explicitly sexist remarks are relatively infrequent in academic discussions does not mean that patriarchy is dead, that sexism does not exist. Antisemitism has not died because you have a Jewish friend. We have been discussing a system that allows Kierstead to deny the lived experience of people of color because the only evidence that will convince him is enough instances of explicit racism. And what will be enough?

If he were serious about understanding and evaluating the complicity of the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world in systems of whiteness, then he would have to do a bit more research and thinking. James Baldwin might be a good starting place (Dark Days, Esquire 1980). But there is much more to read. Do the necessary research about what critical race scholars mean by “white supremacy” and review the essays of K. and Z., then ask your question again: what kinds of evidence would allow us to evaluate whether the Western Civilization narrative is systematic privileging of whiteness?

Update: I published another post on this topic, looking at how I understand the claim Classics and White Supremacy are intwined: Classics and White Supremacy Again.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.