Talking about Diversity Across Time and Space

A lot has happened since my last blog post including another round of commentary by N. Taleb and others of like mind on the ethnic/racial composition of north Africa (and Roman Britain) in classical antiquity. The commentary was directed at classicist Mary Beard, whom they have accused repeatedly of being racist.



Beard herself has asked a question that I think needs answering, or at least pondering:


because it is possible, as John Ma noted, to see how accusing her of racism within the context of British colonialist history in north Africa and the Near/Middle East might not be so crazy. It is odd, however, within the context of a debate over ancient diversity to those who study it.

I think the roots of the problem--namely, how it is possible for someone who is trying to show the racial and ethnic diversity of the ancient world to be accused of being racist for doing so--are 1. that the modern and ancient worlds constructed identities differently, 2. that there are different modern groups of peoples who lay claim to identities based on descent (real or imagined) from specific ancient groups, which results in 3. those people who identify through descent with an ancient identity feeling like they are being pushed out of or excluded from a modern identity when classicists and ancient historians point out that the ancient version is not the same as the modern one.

In other words, at dispute are the differences in what "diversity" means in ancient vs. modern contexts.

What diversity means in a modern context is governed by the realities of whiteness and the fact that 'diversity' for many white-identifying people = 'people of color', i.e. 'non-white diversity'. To wit, here is one such manifestation of this confusion:
Diversity = 'sub-saharan' = 'black' = something I addressed in the last blog on colorlines in ancient north Africa and the inaccurate assumptions that north Africa is and was historically 'whites only'.

But, it is also true that mentioning 'white ethnicity' (what one would call talking about Germans, Spaniards, Scyths, and Persians as 'diverse') is frequently viewed as a way to avoid hiring, engaging, or otherwise acknowledging the structural biases against people of color in our society. This puts many a classicist in a bind when talking about a diverse ancient world because there was, for all intents and purposes, no 'whiteness' in antiquity and so any diversity we talk about avoids distinctions between 'white people' and 'people of color' and focuses instead of the breadth of peoples from Europe, Africa, and Asia who interacted and lived together and even shared citizenship in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. This puts us in direct conflict with the contemporary discourse of race/ethnicity and diversity since many of the people who fall under the category of 'diverse' in antiquity count, in some (but not all) contexts, as 'white' in the modern world.

When classicists/ancient historians/archaeologists say that the ancient world was diverse, we are not talking about how many 'people of color' (in contemporary terms) were Roman citizens or lived in ancient Antioch--we aren't talking about a distinction between 'white' people and not. Rather, we are talking about diversity from the perspective of how the ancient Greeks and Romans considered ideas of foreignness in their multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environments--Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Ethiopians (both semitic Ethiopians and not), Libyans, Scyths, Indians, Jews, Arabians, Spaniards, etc. were all 'foreign'.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a category of 'whiteness' that equates with ours and, when they did use whiteness as an attribute of groups of people, it normally was associated with marginalized groups like women, people with certain diseases, and groups of peoples who lived at the far edges of the north. Most Greeks and Romans in antiquity who 'mattered' (i.e. men) would likely consider being called 'white' an insult. Reminding a Roman citizen originally from Dacia (modern Romania) of such marginal status would have been to highlight their borrowed Romanness.

So, this is a big cause of confusion--diversity in antiquity is not marked by the same 'color' categories that modern ones are. But the modern world is marked by its adherence to color concepts as definers for in and out groups. And 'whiteness' has demarcated the 'in crowd' since, roughly, the 17th century. And while it began as a way to distinguish 'Anglo-Saxons'--the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant--from African slaves, the 'Orient' or colonized peoples--by the mid-20th century, previously excluded groups like southern and eastern Europeans, some north Africans, Jews, Arabs, and other light-skinned peoples in the near and middle eastern portions of Asia were all incorporated in the legal category of 'white', at least in the US Census.

As a result, 'whiteness' has become an overarching category in the modern world that encapsulates numerous distinctive cultures and peoples who, in the United States, at least, frequently consider themselves or are treated in everyday life as 'people of color,' but who are 'white' in the government census and, at times, in their self-identification. This leads to some confusion when some members of a group consider themselves 'white' while others do not. This is further compounded by the fact that the division is not actually one of skin tone (i.e. "color") but of religion--Christian = white, Muslin = color. This can be traced, in part, to the use of the term 'Christendom' as an identity marker in opposition to Islam (most frequently linked to the Crusades, but the term persists).

And if we add the additional layer of colonialism (and the recent discourse surrounding the Greek/Italian/Portuguese/Spanish debt issues) into the mix, particularly with the UK and northern European countries that used classical antiquity as a gatekeeper in their colonialist endeavors, we have a recipe for accusations of racism when one engages with people who identify themselves as 'white' (and who have been included in 'whiteness' for the last 50-100 years) and, who also view themselves as direct, genetic descendants of the ancient peoples from those regions who were categorized as 'foreign' by Greeks and Romans and whose presence in Greek and Roman societies are marks of diversity. They perceive the attempts by UK or white US scholars to once again restrict the classical Greeks and Romans to the property of 'Anglo-Saxon' peoples.

John Ma suggested (rightly) to me in a Twitter conversation that this colonialist backlash is real. And this colonialist backlash, particularly involving Greece (treated by their northern European neighbors for centuries as lesser than), north Africa, and the near/middle east of Asia, is percolating to the surface in the discussions of diversity in Roman Britain, in particular. So that when scholars from colonizing countries talk of peoples in the former colonized nations as 'diversity', i.e. not white, it is as if they are kicking them out of the privileges that whiteness provides and being recolonized. Their own claims to whiteness, however, seem to at times manifest in anti-black or anti-Arab sentiments. As Ma also commented:



The pushback sometimes manifests in ways that mirror the racism they are claiming to be experiencing.

The issue, therefore, seems to rest on a fundamental difference between ancient and modern ways of constructing identity--there is no whiteness in antiquity that defines cultural collectives (other than women) nor do blackness or browness or yellowness or redness constitute valid categories of peoples. There are no black or white races in antiquity nor any color in between or outside. So, when we talk about diversity in antiquity, we are talking about it with different measures. And, importantly, we are talking about it from the perspective of ancient Greeks and Romans themselves. Our modern categories do not hold. But, we need to be careful to articulate why and where the differences are because the reality of colonialism and classics' historical role in supporting it is not dead and in the past. And maybe, just maybe, Twitter's character limits and threading don't provide the best venue for doing that.


Colorlines in Classical North Africa

Last week, my Ancient Identities class discussed texts on ancient north Africa--Libya, Carthage, and Numidia. In the texts, one of the things that the students discovered is that north Africa seems to have a lot of different types of peoples living in it and that no one seemed to be all that interested in what color they were, though we know that these people were not all of the same skin tone. At one point in his description of Libya, Herodotus (4.197) tells us that the native populations of the continent were Ethiopians and Libyans (which included Marusians, aka Mauri, among others) and that the Phoenicians and Greeks were immigrants.

Typically, we read that Ethiopian is the term that the ancients used to refer to people with dark skin tones, those we would call black, and that these are often also referred to as sub-Saharan Africans. In a recent blog article, Dr. Caitlin Green sums up earlier scholarship and attempts to make sense of their arguments that the increase in 'sub-Saharan,' i.e. black Africans, in the Mediterranean in the Roman period by suggesting it was possibly a result of the slave trade by the Garamantes--she herself uses 'sub-Saharan' is quotes to indicate the inaccuracy of the term. Herodotus, however, clearly places black Africans in northwest and north central Africa and not as slaves but as indigenous and early. And according to Herodotus, they are living north of the Sahara, since the Sahara beyond its edges merges into the uninhabitable zone and then Ocean. He states that they live "south" of the Libyans, but "south" for Herodotus is still north of or in the Sahara.

As far as Herodotus and others well into the Roman period were concerned, 'sub-Saharan' either didn't exist or it was an uninhabitable zone in between them and the Antichthones, 'opposite-land' (as Pomponius Mela calls the mystical southern continent).  Strabo, too, writing in the the 1st century BCE-CE, writes of groups of black Africans living in north western Africa--the Pharusians and Nigritae, whom he places near the 'western Ethiopians' (17.3.7). How do we know they are likely black? Because they are said to be like the Ethiopians and the Pharusians, in particularly, are linked to southern Indians, whom many ancient authors think either were immigrants from Africa or migrated to Africa. The Mauri (later Moors) are also located in northwest Africa, but Mauri, like Berber, is not necessarily a clear term that associates with skin tone in antiquity--evidence links them more to geography and nomadic lifestyle and when skin colors are mentioned, they range from light to dark.

In other words, there were black Africans living north of and in the Sahara in antiquity. Herodotus never mentions their skin tone as warranting discussion, likely because he had placed them in the torrid zone on the map and environment dictated they would be dark skinned. The Phoenicians and Greeks came there with their lighter brown skin, more northern Libyans were environmentally browner than Greeks and Phoenicians, but lighter than the Ethiopians and others.

Why do I care about this? Well, for a number of reasons. The first one is that I have frequently been told that individuals like Augustine of Hippo, whose father was a Berber, could not possibly have been black African. And because whenever the issue of blackness in northern African spaces is discussed, there is pushback (especially concerning Egypt) even though we have ample visual and literary evidence that north Africa and West Africa in antiquity were not singular in skin tone. But there is an investment in trying to keep it as 'white' as possible. I often recall to mind that, as the Roman historian Sallust reminds us, many ancients thought Africa was part of Europe (BJ 17.3). I'm sure many an anti-black African ignores or does't know this.

The other reason is because my class starts on ancient texts on Ethiopia tomorrow and I asked them to read an article by a Late Antiquity/Early Medieval religion scholar ("Racism, Color Symbolism, and Color Prejudice" by David Goldenberg) who argues that there was clear color prejudice in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in contrast to Frank Snowden's contention that antiquity was "Before Color Prejudice." Of course, all scholars pretty much see the problematics of Snowden's arguments, but Goldenberg's are also problematic. The first is that he has to hunt through about 4-5 definitions of racism (or, Ben Isaac's proto-racisms) before he lands on one that fits his needs. Second, he, like Snowden, basically finds evidence by looking for texts on Ethiopians or where 'blackness' is a specific point of discussion.

Many of the texts on Ethiopians are non-derogatory--they are praised and admired for various reasons. The texts on blackness, however, tend to carry negative connotations--it is clear that characters in Juvenal and Petronius, at least, do not find the physiology of black Africans attractive. They don't find people who are pale (i.e. anyone from northern Europe) attractive either. Their own somatic norm--a light brown--is preferred aesthetically. What Goldenberg and others miss, however, are all the texts that discuss people who are clearly black without ever mentioning their color at all. If you include those texts in the discussion and unskew the evidence, the number of ancient Greek and Roman texts that make clearly negative statements that see black skin as denoting both physical and mental or moral defectiveness is surprisingly small. It exists, but not as the norm.

We see clear racism (or proto-racism) in our ancient texts, but it is distinctively different, as Goldenberg states, from anti-black racism as it exists today and has existed for centuries. He isn't necessarily on point about the obviousness of color prejudice in Greek sources (he has a point that Juvenal clearly doesn't like dark skin, but Juvenal hates on everyone). What Goldenberg is really valuable for, though, is tracing the negative connotations of the color black--from associations with death, ill-omen, and evil--and its transference to people. Perhaps unsurprisingly to some and surprisingly to others, it is in the early Christian (really starting in Origen) and patristic literature that we see the prejudice against blackness truly become a 'thing.' As Goldenberg writes:
"The innovation of Christianity was not in the essential nature of the association of black and evil. It was, rather, in the degree of application of the association. In the church fathers, the theme of Ethiopian blackness became a crucial component of the Christian focus on the battle between good and evil, which pervades patristic writing."
Ethiopians in Christian writings are even associated with devils and demons. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the conversion of black slaves in the southern United States was resisted by many slave owners--not only might it mean that these slaves would need to be treated as their neighbors in God's eyes, but also that, legally, it might mean they would need to be freed. Many a colonial legislature passed laws declaring that Christianity didn't fundamentally change the nature or soul of the black slaves. If blackness is evil, the logic goes, then how could black peoples become otherwise without changing skin color? Christianity has this notion embedded from its early(though not earliest) phases.

The question of when black skin color became a target of group prejudice is one that my students come back to again and again and I am sure it will come up this week as we read texts about and look at representations of ancient Ethiopians through Greek and Roman eyes. Not everyone agrees on how neutral the descriptions are--there are scholars who argue that Herodotus was clearly prejudiced against the blackness--but he doesn't even bother to remark on blackness on many occasions when discussing peoples who are most definitely balck and his assumption that Indian and Ethiopian semen must be black (3.101.2; an easily refutable hypothesis that Aristotle bluntly refutes at Hist. Anim. 523a17-8) may be more an attempt to understand how it is that Indians and Ethiopians gave birth to dark skinned children even when outside of the heat of their native territories--the heat was thought to burn the skin (or the semen) thus making people darker.

I can't say exactly how any of the ancients understood skin color as an environmentally, and yet heritable trait precisely; they are clearly puzzled themselves. What we can say, however, is that black Africans lived throughout the continent as it was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, including in Egypt and western and central Libya at least as early as the 5th century BCE. Their territories skirted on the Sahara or they were thought to have lived as Nomads within it; in other words, they weren't strictly 'sub-Saharan.' But, is prejudice against blackness coincident with their appearance in the historical imagination of the Greeks and Romans? I would argue no. And the racist desires of some people to keep them out of north Africa altogether in Classical antiquity should not make us overlook the fact that they were there, not as merchants, not as slaves, but as indigenous, permanent residents according to our Greek and Roman sources.