Confronting Whiteness in Ancient History

Students in my History of the Western World I course confront racial constructs in the idea of the West from the first day of classes. We consider the concepts of Europe, the West, and Western Civilization, critically throughout the semester, debating the shifting definitions and usages of these concepts in ancient and medieval history.

Students grapple with the costs of inclusion in “the West,” as they discover how societies have historically privileged, marginalized, enslaved, and excluded various population groups. They discover that “civilization” is a highly problematic concept that involves often brutal distinctions between peoples.

The ideas of Europe and of the West have been appropriated by Far-right and neo-Nazi groups, who claim to be preserving a Western heritage of “whiteness” in modern times. Far-right white nationalist militants have adopted certain figures from ancient, medieval, renaissance, early modern, and modern history to promote their racist versions of history.

Scholars are actively pushing back against racist appropriations and misinterpretations of the past by white nationalists.

In my own field of renaissance and early modern history, historians have broadened the history of race, racism, slavery, and violence. New publications and sessions at the Renaissance Society of America, Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, and other conferences have addressed the problem of confronting white nationalist appropriations of early modern history.

Over the past several years, ancient historians and Classicists have been furiously debating how to respond to claims of “whiteness” in ancient history.

The New York Times provides an introduction to this debate within ancient history: “In the world of classics, the exchange between Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Mary Frances Williams has become known simply as ‘the incident.’ Their back-and-forth took place at a Society of Classical Studies conference in January 2019 — the sort of academic gathering at which nothing tends to happen that would seem controversial or even interesting to those outside the discipline. But that year, the conference featured a panel on ‘The Future of Classics,’ which, the participants agreed, was far from secure. On top of the problems facing the humanities as a whole — vanishing class sizes caused by disinvestment, declining prominence and student debt — classics was also experiencing a crisis of identity. Long revered as the foundation of ‘Western civilization,’ the field was trying to shed its self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men. Recently the effort had gained a new sense of urgency: Classics had been embraced by the far right, whose members held up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture. Marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline ‘Every month is white history month.'”

Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Professor of History at Princeton University, has called for a sustained overhaul of the study and teaching of ancient history and the Classics. Padilla wants to “explode the canon” and to “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” according to The New York Times.

Padilla teaching at Princeton University (New York Times)

Padilla’s critique fits with broader criticisms of academic approaches to Western history that have been discussed over the past three decades, as post-structuralist, post-colonial, gender studies, critical race studies, and global history movements have transformed the study of world history. Yet, even as professors have been attempting (imperfectly) to confront the historical legacies of racism, slavery, and colonialism in academic research and higher education, significant work remains to be done.

The academic historians confronting racial structures have arguably had only limited impact on primary and secondary education, public history, and political culture. The magnitude of the work to be done was brought home to American citizens who viewed the recent Storming of the Capitol by far-right militants.

The New York Times reports: “On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw a man in a T-shirt bearing a golden eagle on a fasces — symbols of Roman law and governance — below the logo 6MWE, which stands for ‘Six Million Wasn’t Enough,’ a reference to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for ‘Come and take them,’ which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.”

Greek helmets worn by crowd members during the Storming of the Capitol (Pharos)

Students in HIST 110 History of the Western World I at Northern Illinois University will be interested in delving into this intellectual debate more fully, since we will continue to grapple with its implications throughout the semester.

The New York Times reports on the controversy in ancient history and the Classics. Pharos, a Classics blog, dissects ancient imagery used by members of the crowd that stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021.

For an introduction to the problematic concept of Western history, see:

Silvia Federici, ed., Enduring Western Civilization: The Construction of the Concept of Western Civilization and Its “Others” (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995).

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994).

Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982).

This entry was posted in Ancient History, Conferences, Cultural History, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, European History, Globalization, History in the Media, History of Race and Racism, History of the Western World, Humanities Education, Idea of Europe, Intellectual History, Medieval History, Renaissance Art and History, The Past Alive: Teaching History, World History. Bookmark the permalink.

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