"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.