"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 1. 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:

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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.