Race and Racism in Classics

The Classical Association of the Atlantic States met in New York City this past weekend at the Marriott East Side. By all accounts, it was a massively successful conference, with exceptional papers on feminism and classics, the Ovidian episode of Baucis and Philemon via the lens of Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, and sixteenth century neo-Latin from Jesuit missionaries in the Latin classroom. Fortunately, I had the pleasure to attend the conference. For the first time in quite a while, I could disclose my passion for the ancient world amidst folks who share that same ardor. I left the conference rejuvenated and refreshed, armed with new ideas for my own Latin classes and independent scholarship.


The most powerful panel at the conference, however, may well have been “Racism and Language in Classics Today,” sponsored by the Multiculturalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Classics Consortium. It was certainly popular, with the breakout room nearly filled to capacity with classicists—mostly white, I must say—keen to address a series of interrelated and serious problems for our discipline with respect to race. These include the white-washed nature of classics, with so few people of color in Greek and Latin classrooms and as faculty (outlined by Jackie Murray); the pointed absence of committed outreach efforts by classics department at universities across the nation (researched by Kelly Dugan); the blatant racism of translators who inexplicably render words like Aethiops as “pickaninny” (discussed by Shelley Haley); and the appropriation of Greek and Roman culture by white supremacists to promote racism and xenophobia (touched on by all three presenters). We classicists have to face a whole host of race-related problems in our field. If we refuse to address such issues, we not only fail to act on what I consider a moral duty, we also risk the rapid depreciation of our discipline in a complicated multiracial, multiethnic world.


The presenters at the race and racism panel primarily focused on university-level issues, which makes sense. Most conference attendees, like the presenters, were classics faculty, and not secondary school Latin teachers. Yet the problems they raised and the conclusions they presented are just as applicable, and perhaps more imperative, at the secondary school-level.

BBC and Race in Classics
This image caused quite the stir on the internet. The BBC quite accurately depicted a dark-skinned family in Roman Britain.

University students expect classics to buttress the superiority of western civilization—and therefore, implicitly, white supremacism—because of what teachers have told them when they studied Caesar. They are almost exclusively white because so few students of color take Latin in American secondary schools. They know so little about race and racism in the ancient world—quite different, I should note, than modern racial constructs—because their teachers never broached the subject in class. And they enjoy the movie 300 because, at their previous institution, faculty used it as a recruitment tool to bolster numbers in their Latin classes.


This is not to condemn secondary school Latin teachers. I am one of them. I mean only to say that one can find the root of the problems addressed at the race and racism panel at the secondary school level, when well-intentioned teachers unaware of classics’ racist past perpetuate white supremacy in classes filled by impressionistic adolescents.


If we classicists really want to transform the face of our discipline and attract more students of color to the study of the ancient world, then Greek and Latin teachers like me need to make a committed effort on the front lines. We need to teach, or at least introduce, critical race theory, perhaps in collaboration with literature teachers at our schools. We need to call attention to classics’ white supremacist history and, in addition, stress recent efforts that promote social justice and multiculturalism in the field. We need to talk about race and racism in the ancient world with our students, and in order to do that, we should have them read scholarship from faculty who work in this area. And, in relation to other scholarly topics, we need to reference and distribute the work of black classicists to our students.


Some of this is easy. Some of it may be more difficult. All of it will require a separate effort on our parts to familiarize ourselves with scholarship we may never have encountered before. For starters, we can vow never to claim that Greek and Roman culture is the foundation of western civilization, and to use that erroneous claim to justify why students should study Greek or Latin. It should not be difficult for folks as passionate as we are to find other ways to recruit students. How about the beauty of Catullan poetry, which in turn promotes discussions about Roman masculinity? What about the revolutionary philosophical ideas of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, which may prompt conversations about sexuality, the political role of women, and even slavery? We simply do not need to rely on films such as 300, or in the words of Rebecca Futo Kennedy, on a “sanitized story” about our western foundation myth that we think appeals to everyone, while in truth it excludes people of color.


It is important to note that many Latin teachers out there have already demonstrated their commitment to anti-racism in secondary school classrooms. For quite a few Latin teachers, my exhortations are not new. Yet one need only peruse the websites of secondary schools with Latin courses to see how prevalent the white supremacist foundation narrative is (I need not name names, just use Google; moreover, to current teachers who may be offended by my claims, both on account of their substance and the fact that I am a new Latin teacher, please read this article from Eidolon). For my part, I plan to incorporate a dedicated unit on race and racism in antiquity, with an addendum on classics and white supremacy at the end, in my intermediate Latin curriculum this winter. I envision similarly focused discussions, lectures, and student presentations in my AP class, whose curriculum already requires that we talk about views of non-Romans in the Aeneid and de bello Gallico. Finally, I intend to help students use critical race theory as a lens to interpret those texts with assistance from a fellow teacher more familiar with literary criticism.


I may receive pushback. I may even have to speak with a few parents. From a much broader perspective, however, these uncomfortable conversations are trivial when compared to the future of our discipline and my moral responsibilities as a teacher. Once more, to cite Dr. Futo Kennedy, we condone classics’ complicity with white supremacy by our silence. Beyond this, to point out students’ mistaken ideas about the ancient world as it relates to race and ethnicity is not sufficient. Classics has been racist. It has been sexist. It has been used as a tool of oppression. I need to show my students that, and why it need not be the case anymore.

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