Racism in Classics: A Teach-In at UofM

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Monday January 16, 2017, in honor of the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Classical Studies department at the University of Michigan hosted a teach-in (or teach-out) entitled Racist Appropriations of the Classical World: Past and Present. In spite of some minor technical difficulties, the lack of seating to accommodate everyone (thanks to the AWESOME turnout), and a rather unfortunate member of the audience who seemed to be attempting to challenge everything the teach-in was trying to combat against (which I’m still fuming about internally, but won’t get into here), I’d say that the event was a success and sincerely hope that it will continue to be built upon in the future.

The teach-in was composed of four ten-minute presentations by professors from the university, David Potter, professor of Classical Studies; Heidi Morse, lecturer in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Classical Studies, and English Language and Literature; Ben Fortson, professor of Classical Studies; and Despina Margomenou, lecturer in Modern Greek, followed by a general discussion at the end. Overall, the research that was presented, the questions raised, and the discussions which followed were fruitful and informative.

Potter discussed early scholarship on racism and the end of the Roman empire, especially that of Otto Seeck, who apparently has been considered an ‘authoritative work’ in spite of his view that there was a direct link between the fall of the empire and the ‘invasion’ of a different race (i.e. an ‘extermination of the best’ by a ‘genetically worse’ population). Morse addressed fundamental issues with an organization called ‘Identity Evropa’ which claims a European identity and believes that whites are more superior than non-whites, perpetuating this belief through the appropriation of classical art, individuals, and ideas, both online and on flyers. Flyers associated with this organization appeared on the university’s campus this past fall, in addition to other flyers perpetuating white supremacy. Fortson examined the historical background of the term ‘Aryan’, from its Sanskrit origins, meaning ‘honorable’ or ‘noble’, to its appropriation by Indo-Europeans, becoming synonymous with ‘bringers of civilization’, imploring scholars, especially those in historical linguistics and classical philology, to denounce the misuse of findings to perpetuate prejudices. Finally, Margomenou, though explicitly stating that her talk was “not a story of how Greeks became racists,” presented an interesting history of how race has been conceptualized (and how that conception has changed) by modern Greeks in relation to their past, touching on their association between ‘stark white’ and classical Greece, the Gods in Color exhibition in Munich which sparked controversy about the vibrant colors used on models of sculpture, and the appropriation of media-created themes such as those in the 2006 movie ‘300’ by the neonazi group Golden Dawn.

However, while these talks and the discussion they inspired were interesting, I still felt somewhat uncertain about the implications of incorporating more discussions of race, racism, and the classics into future courses. Particularly problematic for me was the discussion, towards the end of the event, which revolved around the next steps for education relating to race/racism/classical reception in Classical Studies.

In my last post I touched briefly on what I thought the real problem with representation in Classical Studies was – to me, it isn’t about the courses we teach, but rather the people who teach them. Of course, I do not have a solution to this that is readily employable, and I do not think that there is an easy solution to the problem – you cannot just go up to PoC and force them to become Classics majors. It simply isn’t that easy. But the general consensus in the room today was that it might be.

One suggestion that was made was to offer subjects that are generally subject based – like sport and war – since they would be more accessible and applicable to all types of people. While the sentiment is sound on a number of levels, I have seen this backfire first hand, on numerous occasions. In particular, while these ‘general courses’ may attract lots of people who are not Classical Studies majors, and maybe even a few PoC, courses that are general often attract not people who are genuinely interested in Classics (though a small percentage of them are) but people who don’t really want to be there. These courses, at least at liberal arts colleges and universities, are often fulfilling a requirement – at my undergrad a course on Ancient Greek Athletics counted for an arts general education requirement and a course on Ancient Warfare counted for History major requirements – and attract people who are only marginally interested (i.e. athletes) or who would’ve taken anything else if something more relevant to their studies had been offered.

So, the way I see it, presenting general topics that are only marginally interesting to a wider audience will only attract more people who are only marginally interested, much less PoC (if that’s the ‘ultimate goal’). However, I don’t want to make it seem like I was against everything suggested in the discussion – in fact, I did like the suggestions to do away with this idea of ‘Classical Studies’ and to move to a more geographic qualifier like ‘Mediterranean Studies’, since it is true that what we who identify as part of a Classical Studies department don’t always study Greek or Roman things. Moreover, this change would be inherently more inclusive of Egypt in all of its eras, not just the Graeco-Roman period. Perhaps more inclusion of Egypt and the wider Mediterranean in this way would, in fact, attract more PoC who are interested in learning about ancient PoC – however, I do not personally know if the ratio of whites to non-whites is actually lower in, for example, Egyptian or Middle Eastern studies.

It is true that there needs to be more exposure to racism in Classics, and I think that this was a well executed starting point for it. I am very happy to have seen such a huge turnout, even if it did include a self-proclaimed white supremacist, and I learned a whole lot about things I wouldn’t have thought to consider before today. Again, I hope that this sort of thing will continue in future years (though hopefully with less instances of racism in our country… though with the current state of our government, who even knows), and perhaps more students and/or PoC might share their own experiences¬†with and perspectives of the scholarship.

If any other school has done anything cool like this please let me know!