It is essential that students of Greco-Roman Antiquity understand that Classics has deep connections with white supremacy if we are to avoid reproducing and strengthening this connection in our classrooms. Pharos’ documentations of contemporary white supremacist appropriations of ancient history, including our thematically organized curated collections, are one tool instructors can use to help students begin to recognize this connection and reflect on how they can disrupt it.
This material must, however, be approached with care. The sites that Pharos documents openly and explicitly proclaim the inferiority of non-white people to white people and in some cases call for their expulsion and extermination. They promote the racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that “anti-white” governments and “media elites” seek to bring about the extinction of the white race through mass immigration. They portray homosexuality as a sign of degeneracy and feminism as a threat to order. Bringing white supremacist literature into your classroom carries with it the risk of reinforcing rather than destabilizing the claim that Greco-Roman antiquity provides confirmation of hateful beliefs. There is also the danger of inflicting curricular violence on students, especially those against whom the hateful rhetoric of these sites is directed.
We have designed our surveys of appropriations in a way that attempts to balance these risks with the value of awareness of, and critical engagement with, this material. To assist instructors in making productive use of this material we have collected the following best practices for teaching about white supremacist movements from Learning for Justice and the ADL.
General Principles for Teaching about Contemporary White Supremacist Movements
- Use your authority to assert that the white supremacist worldview depends on lies and pseudoscience. For some of your students this will be the first time they see these racist ideas stated explicitly. That first encounter should be one of condemnation. For example, genetic science has refuted the white supremacists belief that genetic differences justify discrimination. Sociologists have demonstrated that poverty and biased policing and sentencing explain crime rates that white supremacists attribute to racial differences. And there is no empirical evidence for the white supremacist conspiracy theory that white people are in danger of “extinction” as a result of immigration and government policies (each of these examples is linked to Wikipedia entries that include citations of research refuting these views).
- Point out how white supremacist arguments ignore, minimize, or deny the effects of structural racism on non-white people in the United States.
- Explain how apparently “neutral” writing about history conceals political content.
- Avoid euphemistic terminology such as “Alt-Right” that white supremacists have used to disguise their hateful politics. Describe these groups, viewpoints, and ideas as “White Supremacist.” (Many of the resources linked here use the term “Alt Right” but they do so in recognition of how common that terminology is, not in endorsement of its use)
- Teach students to evaluate the biases of content available on the web, but keep in mind that plenty of white supremacist sites documented by Pharos fulfill many of the requirements of respectability listed in guides to information literacy (correct grammar/editing, .com suffix, frequent publication). All of them, however, feature blatantly racist material if one takes the time to evaluate the breadth of their content.
- Allow students to opt out of this assignment, or complete an alternative assignment, without requiring an explanation. One component of white privilege is the ability to treat these articles simply as examples of Classical reception; for others, they are potential sources of race-based traumatic stress.
Instructors should not:
- Call on students of color to explain what it feels like to encounter this material.
- Worry about appearing partisan. As Learning for Justice’s materials note, “Experts are clear that being affiliated with [these movements] is in no way the equivalent of being right-of-center.”
- Present the arguments found on these sites as good-faith contributions to contemporary debates. The major goal of most influential white-supremacist sites is to make their ideas seem worthy of discussion.
Some instructors may find Learning for Justice’s “toolkit” describing many features of contemporary white supremacist movements useful, either for their own discussion or as a component of an assignment.
Sample Discussion Questions for Analysis and Reflection
It is tempting to dismiss white supremacist interpretations of Greco-Roman antiquity as “abuse,” “misappropriation,” or pseudo-history. Certainly they often distort ancient evidence, employ flawed methodologies, and ignore or suppress aspects of the ancient world that do not confirm their hateful politics. Such dismissals, however, prevent us from reflecting on any similarities between how we, or those who trained us, assign value to the Classical past. As Dani Bostick has written for Learning for Justice, “the glorification of classics and its artificial linkage to whiteness is a toxic combination.” Overtly hateful interpretations of the Greco-Roman world bring us face to face with the fruits of such uncritical admiration for antiquity.
Perhaps the most straightforward way to use Pharos’ curated collections is to invite students to read a survey page and choose two or three examples to read in more depth. Then, through writing or class discussion, the following discussion questions may lead students through a critique of the historical methods employed on these sites to reflection on how the attitudes toward antiquity that inform their invocations of it may be similar to more mainstream attitudes, including their own.
- How do the essays you examined say or imply that the Classical world supports their positions?
- Why do they believe the Classical world lends credibility to their positions?
- How do these appropriations distort or misrepresent the ancient world and its remains? What aspects have they left out?
- What aspects of the ancient world do these appropriations represent accurately?
- What assumptions about the value of the Greco-Roman past can you identify in these uses of that past?
- What assumptions do they make about whom the Classical past belongs to or is relevant to?
- Where else have you encountered similar assumptions about Classics (its value, who “owns” it, whom it’s relevant to)? How do these assumptions line up with your perception of the discipline/major/area of study? Where/How do you think you got these assumptions? Does anything at your institution contributes to those assumptions?
- Do you think it is important for students and scholars of Classics to know about these appropriations? Why?
- How can you actively resist the version of Classical Antiquity that these present?
Many of the intersections between white supremacist interpretations of Greco-Roman antiquity and traditional Classics curricula lie in the way the discipline “still elevate[s] whiteness and devalue[s] contributions to American culture that originate outside of Europe,” as Dani Bostick writes for Learning for Justice. Her article on “The Classical Roots of White Supremacy” provides one framework for discussing this historical complicity and could be assigned in connection with Pharos’ survey.
Do not feel the need to conclude the conversations that these questions may provoke within the space of one class period or assignment. The purpose of studying overtly white supremacist appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity is to provoke self-reflection about the ways we talk about, value, and promote the study of the past throughout our classes and programs. Students and instructors are encouraged to remain alert to echoes of the overtly white supremacist ideas they have encountered in this exercise in both the ancient material they are studying and the interpretations of it they encounter.