Classics & White Supremacy (again)
More than a few casual internet flâneurs, glancing at the title, have already rolled their eyes in a mixture of superior annoyance and boredom. “Oh dear, another dirty leftist trying to make me feel bad.” Well, put your top-hat back on, dear fellow, and continue your idle stroll.
In my own online flânerie, I still occasionally stumble upon misunderstandings about the scope and significance of the claim announced in my title, even among well-meaning people (for this reason, not documented). So, I decided to return to the topic.
Yes, I wrote about it before (here). With distance, I can admit that in the discussion following that piece, I overreacted (it was a tense time; it still is). My main goal was to remind people that it is necessary to understand what people mean by White Supremacy when they use the term. Honestly, scholars or “reasoned debaters” should not need the reminder. And yet… In any case, White Supremacy in general refers not only to invidious ideas about so-called races, but even more to social and institutional structures, formal and informal, that enforce the hierarchy of the so-called white race. Moving on.
In this piece, I want to explain, for those interested in reading, how I understand the claim that Classics and White Supremacy are mutually implicated and what that means for those who are part of the field. I speak here only in the most general way; I hope it can show in broad strokes what I understand the claims about Classics and White Supremacy to be and not to be.
A Historical Claim
It is difficult to date precisely the beginning of the discipline of Classics. With the bickering scholar-poets in the bird cage of the muses? The first recension of the Pentateuch? Ulrich’s review of Fred’s Birth of Tragedy? The study of the ancient mediterranean pre-dates White Supremacy and, therefore, cannot be in some essential way be white supremacist in itself. In other words, it is not claimed that all Classics is phrenology or a race science. It is not really an essentialist claim, but a historical one. I see this error frequently.
It is also hard to date precisely the birth of white people. In other words, the day and time when some people started thinking of themselves as constituting a racial group understood to be “white.” We can say, however, that the birth of white folk was also the birth of White Supremacy. They are twins. Back to birthdates: it is, as I said, hard to date precisely, but we can observe that the twins were a powerful social force by the 18th century. It seems also fair to say that the study of the ancient Mediterranean (including, of course, religious history) and White Supremacy immediately intwined and developed together.
Thus, the basis for the claim is historical. The issue will not simply resolve itself by turning away from history to abstract philosophical questions of what Classics “really’ is. Whom has Cambridge authorized to say what Classics really is? So, the first of my two main points: Classics and White Supremacy are historically implicated. It is a fascinating and deeply depressing area of intellectual and disciplinary history.
I must say that I’m somewhat surprised when people who love to talk about the influence of Classics will suddenly turn away when that influence was not benign. Oh, that’s not really Classics! That’s a misappropriation! I am reminded of science types who look at phrenology and say, no, that’s pseudo-science! Real science is only the “true” stuff and not the fucked-up stuff that happened on the way. How convenient! But it was science at the time, my guy. And racist Classics was not, is not, pseudo-Classics because I don’t like it or even if it is wrong about the texts it manipulates. And it isn’t always wrong! Yes, I could find some comfort, imagining that the “politically good” Classics takes are “real” Classics™, but the bad ones are “not us.” I don’t believe it.
So, let’s ask the fundamental question: is this history wrong? The field of Classics never participated in the racial, colonial, fascist, gender or class structures of the last few hundred years? I’ve not seen anyone make this argument, and I’d be skeptical of the denial. Or, perhaps you feel that racial, colonial, gender and class structures are a thing of the past, relics that have disappeared from society and classics. I am skeptical, both about society at large and the current state of the study of the ancient Mediterranean. Even if it were true, the deniers are in the awkward position of arguing that the past is irrelevant in this specific instance.
Anyway, because Classics is both international and national, the specific ways that White Supremacy and Classics intertwined will be to some degree distinct in different places. Again, these are historical questions and will respond to historical arguments. It won’t do to say, “oh, this is just a US problem.” The situations may be different in different national Classics, but we USians are not as exceptional as we like to claim.
The claim is not only historical, even if that is its factual basis. Yes, ancient texts, wrongly or correctly understood, continue to serve White Supremacy (or colonialism, fascism, etc) in various ways. The second point about the claim is not historical; it is practical. The claim that Classics and White Supremacy are intwined is a call, a demand, that those of us who study the ancient mediterranean must work to disentangle ourselves, our institutions and structures, from White Supremacy, colonialism, racism, classicism, e chi più ne ha…
This Old House
In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson deploys an extended metaphor to describe our situation as recent arrivals in a society (or a field) defined and structured by race.
Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now (Page 16)
Our Classics house, with its bizarrely winding staircases and missing windows, is in places strikingly beautiful, in places rotten and run down. Those of us who have undertaken the job of caring for this house cannot afford to ignore the problems with our property when pointed out. I do not mean to say that it must always be the focus, but it is a part of the house, arguably the part that requires the most care.
It doesn’t make sense to argue, as I’ve seen done, that Classics wasn’t unique in being implicated in White Supremacy. Sure, but pointing out our neighbors collapsing roof does not fix our own. Nor does pointing out that the house is not completely rotted out help. Yes, there are and have been, e.g. Black classicists, Korean classicists, Egyptians, Indigenous, Jewish classicists. It changes precious little about the current state of our house.
Appealing to the Top-Hats
If any top-hats are still reading, there are a few points to make clear. Enjoying and finding pleasure in classical texts does not make you a neocolonial white supremacist racist fascist sexist, even if the field is deeply implicated in White Supremacy, colonialism, fascism, both in the past and now. Do not listen to those seeking to sow division, as they so often do, by encouraging you to see yourself attacked in this discourse. Do not let yourself be manipulated into trembling before an existential crisis in the necessary home inspections our old house requires. Do not ignore the past or close your eyes to the present. This house is our house. We may not have built it, but we are bound to care for it. And we cannot care for it if we fail to see that it has, like all old houses, many problems.