"Fra-gee-lay. Must be Italian"


One of the biggest issues facing the academic discipline that calls itself "Classics" is the fact that so many people who spend their lives studying how languages work and what things mean if written in Greek and Latin are seemingly incredibly incapable of taking the same care when it comes to words and meaning in their own languages and everyday lives. Case in point: there is a difference fundamentally between saying that someone or something supports White supremacist systems and ideologies and saying that someone is a White supremacist. 

I have never been called a White supremacist for choosing to study and teach ancient Greece and Rome. I have been called fragile for not recognizing that White people have had lots of advantages in this world that are not afforded to our Black, Asian, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latino/a, Pacific Islander neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family. I have been guilty of thinking that my first gen, working class background and/or gender was the equivalent and set me at equal disadvantage and then getting huffy when the differences are pointed out. I've worked to be less fragile about it and just put my head down and do the work to try to reduce or eradicate the systems used to oppress and suppress and work to reduce and eliminate the disadvantages in whatever spaces I am in. Sometimes that means actually stepping out of those spaces or even dismantling them. Usually, there is plenty of room in the space so long as we don't whitespread. If I don't do these things, then I, too, am contributing to the system we call White supremacism. 

One can contribute to White supremacism in many ways while not being a White supremacist. This can be done, for example, by pushing the Western Exceptionalism narrative in our classrooms and scholarship. It can be done by pretending that colorblindness is effective in eradicating racism and supporting colorblind policies. We can support White supremacism by accusing our Black colleagues of always being political while pretending that our Whiteness is neutral. We can support White supremacism even if we aren't White or don't think of ourselves as White. None of this necessarily means one is a White supremacist. 

Certainly, choosing to study antiquity doesn't make one a White supremacist. But, one can choose how to teach, write about and study antiquity. And if the way one chooses to do so is in the knowledge that the traditional way of doing so has been used in the past in the service of empire, colonialism, and racial segregation in ways that continue to impact the present (the past, after all, does impact the present -- an argument we all always make for why it is important to study the past), then one is supporting a White supremacist system. But, one can choose again. 

One can choose not to support that system by learning how the system works and what changes they can make to the system through policy and practice to reduce harm and move towards equity and equality and a less racist system.  Some of that might mean recognizing that the Western exceptionalism narrative is just that, a narrative. And that it and the "Greek Miracle" are neither Truth™(in the sense of an accurate reflection of antiquity) nor necessary to loving and encouraging the study of antiquity. Some of that means recognizing that supporting the status quo will be perceived by our colleagues on campus in other disciplines as supporting that history of White supremacism and changing our programs to combat those perceptions.

These stories were part of a White supremacist system and continue to support it. We can choose to give up that particular story. We don't need it. There are more accurate and way more interesting ways to study and teach and write about the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Choosing to keep those particular narratives means choosing to continue supporting White supremacism. Does that make one a White supremacist? It depends. It certainly can look more like one is choosing White supremacism if they are made aware that what they are doing supports a White supremacist system and then still choose to do it. 

Rejecting that knowledge (that these stories support White supremacism) and deflecting away from it is a form of fragility -- it means not necessarily that one is a White supremacist, but it does certainly mean that one has wrapped their identity so tightly around a notion of the superiority of a very specific academic framing that they begin to break under the idea that maybe it is just a story after all and it doesn't make them better than others to study it. 

The truth is, White supremacism (like its bestie racism) are not about individuals. It isn't about who is and is not a White supremacist. It is about a system that allows for and promotes inequality based on excluding people who aren't categorized as White in the system from justice, fairness, privilege, participation, comfort, care, education, or any other wide range of basic things we pretend are universal human rights. But we have been taught and we are continuing to be taught (aggressively in many states in the US) that racism is a problem of individual behavior and not a system we live in or the actual fabric of our societies. It makes it so much easier to do nothing when we can say "I am not a racist" instead of seeing what is before our eyes everyday: the system is racist and we can and do all contribute to it even if we don't intend to. 

Same with its sibling White supremacism. If we reduce the conversation to "is this individual a White supremacist?" then it deflects away from the very real system in place that our individual actions contribute to that is White supremacism. Does contributing to this mean one is a White supremacist? It means that one is, whether they truly believe in the superiority of a White "race" or not, supporting a system of White supremacism. And we can supports White supremacist systems whether we believe we are racist or not. We can support White supremacist systems whether we are "White" or not. We can support White supremacist systems whether we are harmed by them or not. 

This isn't that difficult to understand. And it certainly shouldn't be difficult to understand by people who make a living by studying language and what it means and how it works. It is mistaking racism as a problem of individuals and not embedded within social, political and economic systems. I can only conclude that often this isn't a mistake, however, but an act of deflection to avoid responsibility for trying to do anything about the very real problems of White supremacism and racism in our world. 

What is an Identity?

As some people know, I am trying to finish a book right now on ancient identity formation and the way modern identities get built from them. There is a lot of scholarship on trying to understand ethnicity and race in both the ancient and modern worlds but not necessarily the interactions between the two. Maybe that is why I have enjoyed reading Greenberg and Hamilakis' Archaeology, Nation and Race book -- it does just this (and has led me to a lot of other work that also does it). I've also been looking forward to finishing someday Berger's The Past as History. There are so many books I need to finish reading.  And so many books I need to finish writing. 

As I was writing a chapter in the book, I also decided to work through some of the confusion that even a story like that of my own family can cause. I am not including it in the chapter, but it was a good clarifying exercise because it reminded me that for every sweep of history concerning "Greeks" and "Romans" and 'White people" etc, there are the microhistories of the people we lump under these larger identities. In recent weeks, at least one person mislabeled me as "mixed race", in part because of the confusion my name causes (one should ALWAYS be cautious of using names to track ethnicity) and because, while I personally am not descended in any meaningful way from anyone Asian, my step family with whom I grew up is. It causes confusion to many. 

The point is, however, that all of us have in our family histories some of these elements of confusion. It may be one of the reasons why some White people cling to that White identity so fiercely--they don't like the confusion, the uncertainty, the multiplicities. They rail agains "multiculturalism" having invested in a monocultural myth. They fear their "replacement" by ethnic and racialized others because White people are mostly descended from people who have committed genocide all over the world. And even if we happen to be from somewhere that didn't, we only have home on this continent because others before our families did and because we were somehow allowed to immigrate and assimilate (eventually) to reap the benefits of that genocide. 

Anyway, these are just some thoughts on identities on a rainy morning after a day of racialized terrorism and violence while I try to work on finishing a book on the sometimes violent ways humans decide who is and isn't similar enough or worthy enough to be included in the category "human".  Here is the material I removed from the book on the confusions of even just my own family's identity over the last 100 or so years:


Here’s an example from my own life: my father’s grandparents (and some of his aunts and uncles then children) immigrated to the United States from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. They and their children identified as Hungarian-Americans.They were either born in the “Old Country” (as they called it) or were raised in houses where the language and culture were still strong. The first generation were naturalized citizens, the second were a mix of naturalized and natural-born. I am of the fourth generation. The hyphen indicated for my great-grandparents that they held two identities, one cultural and by birth (Hungarian) and one by citizenship (American). For my grandparents, it held similar connotations, but slightly reversed; they were Americans by birth, but Hungarians and Americans by cultural practices. 

For my father and myself, we are basically Americans, but with a memory of cultural traditions from our childhoods practiced by our older family members, that we don’t much adhere to and certainly don’t consider our own. We are Americans by birth, cultural habit, and citizenship. Our name (Futo) is the only real marker of Hungarian descent – but even here, our name is often confused for being Asian (Japanese, precisely). Adding to the confusion, my step-mother is Japanese-American; born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father on a US military base. There is no hyphen in my identity, however. I might make a great goulash or paprikas, but that doesn’t make me Hungarian anymore. And, the fact that we ate more Japanese food growing up and immersed ourselves in Japanese culture more often (and still do), doesn’t make me Japanese either.

Citizenship, culture, and geography have all become American. Only the knowledge that my great-grandparents immigrated from a place other than where I am now remains of the Hungarian. And that memory isn’t enough to grant me the hyphen. Why? because in the world we inhabit today, we could become American and, perhaps more importantly, my family could become White. In tension here are my modern ethnic and racial identities. Culturally, I am American; this is my ethnicity; racially, I am White as “white” is the box I check on US Census forms. My great-grandparents were not White because they were Hungarian; I, however, am White because they were Hungarian. What a difference 100 years makes. Now imagine the difference 2000 years makes.

What made my family’s transition from Hungarian to White happen? Genetically, we didn’t change. Sure, my grandfather married a Croatian woman, but Croatians weren’t White either at that time. What changed were attitudes about what and who counted. What changed was how those with social, political, and economic power defined their opposition and who they needed to co-opt to maintain their power. That is what race is -- race uses ethnicity (mostly) and crafts hierarchies of degrees of difference from the dominant group. Sometimes it even offers access to formerly racialized others if it serves the purposes of maintaining its power.

Reflections on "the West"

 Just last week, I finished a chapter for an edited volume on history and authority that, although good, may never get published. I say this not because the editors rejected it -- they did not. But because I am uncertain it will make it past peer review. I do not think it is a bad article; in fact, parts of it are excellent. But it is "political". I took on one of the most authoritative stories in history -- Western civilization -- and subjected contemporary classics and ancient history writers who promote "the West" and Western exceptionalism to the same type of scrutiny I was trained to apply to ancient texts.  "Western civilization" is a political concept, so any attempt to understand its history and continued power is de facto political as well. As far as those who treat it as a neutral category are concerned, to try to understand it is to violate some sort of academic objectivity, because to truly understand it means to see it as a history of violence and exploitation. For some people, those are good things. If you think they are bad, you are "political."

In doing philological analysis of my colleagues instead of simply citing them as one opinion on an ancient topic, I may have crossed a line. Because no analysis of the Western civilization narrative can avoid the problems of imperialism, colonialism, and genocide that created it. The racism and White supremacism are always there, even when we pretend it isn't. Many of my colleagues want to preserve the language and the category of "West" by pretending it is historically neutral and values-free. It never is. It can't be. And scholars who spend their time arguing about the historically contextual meanings of words should know better.

There are perhaps people who are at this very moment thinking that "the West" is having a moment and is a force for good in the world and so critiquing the history of the label and its meaning is bad. But, if anything, the invasion of Ukraine and the language surrounding it should make clear that this history is very relevant and that we should be concerned  with how we understand "the West" historically. We should be particularly interested in how "West" and "Western" are used to stand in for "civilization" and "civilized".

Like my colleague Neville Morley, who speaks of his own scramble to finish his chapter for the same volume, I too wanted to include a section in my chapter on the current language surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We are awash in stories of "the West" standing against the evil tyranny of Russia. Except, of course, it isn't "the West" doing it. It is one of those spaces on the map that "the West" designated back in 1994 as a buffer zone between itself and Russia. There are numerous spots on the map of Eurasia that act as such buffer zones. Greece is one, as Yannis Hamilakis discusses in his new co-authored book Archaeology, Nation, and Race. Ukraine is a buffer zone. And the language used in the press and by pundits and analysts in Russia and Europe/US to discuss the war make clear that Ukraine is not "the West". 

Historically, Ukraine's region has always been both a geographic border region and a civilizational one for those who identify as Europeans. But even in antiquity, when no such identity existed, what is now Ukraine was thought to sit at what was considered the boundary between Europe and Asia since the days of Herodotus and Hippocrates. Both the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places and Herodotus set the boundary at the Don River, which is very near to the southwestern border of Russia and the eastern border of Ukraine. The territory in Ukraine that Russia is claiming for themselves and currently attempting to depopulate of Ukrainians is on that eastern border near the Don River (ancient Tanais). 

In antiquity, this area was inhabited, according to various ancient Greek texts, by a combination of various groups of "Scythians" and with Greek colonies.  In the Hippocratic Airs, the residents of the region were oddities in need of a medical explanation. The schematic nature of the environmental theory unpinning the Airs demands that the imagined wet and cold climate of the region create people who are bloated and round and can only look like the Scythians the author and other southern Greeks were familiar with through the application of technologies, specifically, hot irons to burn out the wet and damp from their bodies and turn them into the muscled and lithe horseback warriors they were known to be. 

Herodotus, however, provides a lot more detail and variety to his story of the Scythians. Hartog is still, perhaps, the best read for understanding the hold the nomadic horsemen of the Black Sea region held on southern Greeks, but Herodotus himself gives us the story that informs most of our modern imaginary about Steppe peoples, horse-warriors, nomads, and "primitives" on the prairies. They are the quintessential "Noble Savage".  The map below gives a reasonable interpretation of Herodotus' placement of the different Scythian groups and decades of archaeology have given us a picture of exquisite artisans, warriors, and horseman that doesn't conflict all that much with Herodotus' representation. 

Of course, this isn't the whole story. Everywhere along those coasts are Greeks, going all the way back to the 7th century BCE. And Olbia, of course, isn't too far from where Odessa is now, which is itself on top of a Greek colony. Not on the map above also are the group Herodotus calls the Helleno-Scyths and, of course, the Colchians, who may have been descended in part (again according to Herodotus) from an ancient Egyptian shipwreck, while the Sauromatae were said to have descended from a shipwrecked crew of Amazons. Regardless of how accurate Herodotus' origin stories are, what we do know is that Ukraine today is the result of millenia of rich cultural interactions that have formed into its own modern nation today. It doesn't belong to Russia anymore than Greece belongs to "the West" or Russia (despite their apparent grand imperial plans on the country). Also, despite the sentiments of some folks, Ukraine is Europe. But being in Europe doesn't make them "Western", at least not enough for some people. 

It came as a bit of a shock to many people to hear journalists reporting on the invasion using phrases like "relatively civilized" and "they look like us" to discuss the first waves of refugees coming from Ukraine. It was part of their explanation for why these refugees should be accepted into Europe as opposed to all the refugees whom various European states said they were "too full" to take who came from Syria and other war zones to their south (though, of course, Syria is another Russia vs "the West" war, just on someone else's turf). The argument had to be made, though, because Ukraine is only "relatively civilized" because it sits a a buffer between "East" and "West" and isn't "the West." 

The UK is at least honest about this in their refusal to open their borders to refugees. Brexit was mostly aimed at getting eastern Europeans out of the UK, so at least they are consistent. Poland is taking in the most Ukrainian refugees, marking it also as a buffer, just as Greece and Italy were expected by their northern allies to take in and deal with all of the refugees driven out of Syria by war. "The West" builds concentric circles of Westernness around itself. Those concentric circles aren't just Westernness, though. Because "Western" is just a proxy for "civilization" in these discourses. Those circles are also about level of "civilization" -- from civilized to barbarian to savage. Ukraine is in the "relatively civilized" circle, along with much of eastern Europe and as such are deemed inferior locations of resource extraction and exploitation by the still colonizer mentality of western European countries. That hasn't changed in more than a century. 

The fact that Europe and the US are even mobilizing as much effort as they are to help Ukraine is amazing. When Hungary attempted to fight off the Soviets in 1954, they were abandoned, even after continual encouragement by Radio Free Europe and other propaganda mechanisms to resist the Soviets. One member of the British parliament made clear where he stood. He said in response to debate about supporting the revolution something to the effect of "Ever since Arpad and his Magyars entered into the Carpathian basin, they have been nothing but trouble for the rest of Europe." But the point is, those Magyars were not "Europe." They were not "the West". They were a buffer between "the West" and Russia (and in earlier centuries, between Christendom and barbarians) and so were sacrificed. 

NOTE: Viktor Orban is clearly an ally of Putin and is doing only now what he can do without drawing Putin's ire entirely.  Far right governments stick together. But in 1954, the Hungarian revolutionaries were abandoned. Just facts. 

Anyway, the point of this all this is that that story of "the West" is a powerful one that often obscures the realities that it is a story of "civilization" and is part of a narrative about "values" and not geography. It isn't that Ukraine isn't geographically "West" of those who supposedly embody the "East" (Russia off and on for about 300 years now), but that it is in an external concentric circle of civilization that situates it as only "relatively civilized." Their purpose in Europe is to be sacrificed to ensure the safety of their geographically western (and so more "civilized") neighbors. 

If Ukraine manages to push Russia back and survive this war with its country intact, it won't be because "the West" came to its aid (enough). It will be because they fought for their very existence and Russia wasn't as almighty as they present themselves. But the cost will be millions of Ukrainian lives destroyed -- people murdered, bombed, shot; children kidnapped and adopted into Russian families to try to erase their Ukrainianness; hospitals, schools, homes, museums, historic buildings, parks roads, bridges, businesses obliterated; millions displaced perhaps never to be able to return. An actual attempted genocide while we watch. A very "Western" result. 

Translating and Retranslating

 Today I had a conversation with a bright undergrad at University of Pittsburgh who is working on a research project and wanted to know about the translation of a passage from the sourcebook. Here it is, Manilius Astronomica 4.711-730:

For that reason, humankind is arranged by various standards and physical qualities, and peoples are fashioned with their own complexion, indicating through their physical appearance, as if by private treaty with nature, the shared society and similar substance of their people. Germany stands tall, with its towering offspring, all of it blonde, while Gaul is slightly dyed with a redness akin to Germans. Hardier Spain is an assemblage of compact, sturdy limbs. Romulus endows the Romans with the face of Mars and, through the union of Mars and Venus, well-balanced proportion of limbs, while clever Greece announces through its well-tanned people [720] their preference for athletics, especially manly wrestling. Curly hair at the temples reveals the Syrian.

The Ethiopians defile the earth and form a people drenched in shadows, while India bears people less burnt. Egypt, flooded by the Nile, darkens its people more gently because of the well-watered fields nearby and makes their complexions only moderately dark by its mild climate. Apollo, the sun god, dries out the people of Africa with dust in their desert sands, and Mauretania contains its name in the peoples’ faces, [730] the title “mauretania” being one with the color itself.

The part he was asking about is: "The Ethiopians defile the earth and form a people drenched in shadows..." and the question was about the translation of maculare as "defile". Welp, I am here to tell you that the translation is wrong. Given the context, it should be "darkens" or "marks". What we have is a gradation of colors: from the darkest to the lightest shades of black/brown. 

The word maculare has lots of figurative pejorative uses, which I imported into this translation, but I don't think it belongs. Instead, I assumed a prejudice by Manilius that he likely did not have and then put it in a translation, which will be read by lots of people who don't know Latin and will go around thinking that ancient Romans had the same sort of prejudice we do in the modern world. Some will think that justifies their own anti-blackness. Others will then be turned way from Latin authors thinking this is a norm for them, too. 

Anyway, this is just another reason to say no to any new projects and hit the ground running in the next couple of years on a revision and expansion of the Sourcebook. There are numerous things in it that I would no longer do today and we really need to update and fix the errors.