When is an “Appropriation” Appropriation?

This other day I read a dialogue between Craig Jenkins and Frank Guan on Vulture about accusations of cultural appropriation against Bruno Mars. I won’t go into the details as one can read the article themselves, but the focus is on how one talks about appropriation between people of color — “Can there be cultural exchange between two minority cultures that exists without offense? Does ‘appropriation’ have any place in this debate?”

I’m not thinking about this because I’m a big Bruno Mars fan (I am actually not all that aware of him because I pretty much just listen to movie scores these days), but because I just spent the weekend at a conference called “Racing the Classics” at which the issue of appropriation came up numerous times, typically, in the context of white supremacism and classics. It also came up as a suggestion that to talk about “race” in antiquity is a type of appropriation — “race” understood as an important and uniquely modern phenomenon premised on blackness and whiteness, driven by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and underscored by science, has no place in the pre-Modern world and to talk of it is to, perhaps, either render “race” a safe or less challenging idea or serves to make Classics (and the predominantly white people who study it) relevant in a way that diminishes the lived experiences of those oppressed by systemic racism. In other words, it appropriates the experience of race and theorizes it away.

It’s also something students in my Ancient Identities class struggled with last semester as they looked at Greece and Rome adopting and adapting ideas, cults, art/architecture, etc. from Egypt, the Near East, and each other — cultural appropriation was a term thrown around by them a lot. The idea of hybridity was largely rendered impossible by them.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and thought I’d write out the thoughts. I want to start with the first kind of appropriation (in support of white supremacy) and then consider the latter. But let’s start with the definition of cultural appropriation from the Jenkins/Guan article:

If cultural appropriation is thought of as the theft of a minority culture by an oppressor, usually with malicious intent, how do we loosen the definition when people of color take from each other?

The language of appropriation when applied to the use of classics since the late 18th century in the service of white supremacism in the US and Europe presupposes that the texts and material remains of the Greeks and Romans were stolen by an oppressor, that the ancients themselves were racialized as “white,” and done with intent to cause harm. This notion of appropriation is driving a series of initiatives about “who owns the Classics,” has spawned a website that documents appropriations by hate groups in the US, and more general conversations about diversity in the field in the US. What is at stake when we talk of ownership and appropriation (and misappropriation) with respect to the Classics?

  1. As Emily Greenwood reminded us at the conference, all uses of Classics are technically appropriations — not just the uses made of it by white supremacism (which is arguable any use of it in the US by a white person in any institutional context — so, the field of Classics, for example). Thus the language of mis-appropriation is appealing for those classical scholars discussing the so-called Alt-Right — but doesn’t mis-appropriation imply that the ancient texts and images are free from the prejudices their user is putting them to? Or rather, that we are in a position to make value judgments about what is and what isn’t a “proper” appropriation? Do we give antiquity a pass by claiming that they didn’’t express versions of the ideas that they are being used to support (like Juvenal being used to support misogyny and xenophobia) The malicious intent of appropriation seems clear in these cases, but the idea that the modern Euro-American is oppressing ancient Greeks and Romans is not as clear. It also pretends that ancient Rome was not a foundation for modern Euro-American education and culture in many ways. When we speak of white nationalist and fascist mis-appropriation, do we mean the appropriation of classics away from its proper “academic” sphere? As if academic classics has never been a party to white supremacy?
  2. While classicists (including myself) have been arguing that Classics is not the singular heritage of white, Europeans and Americans (on the grounds that the Classics isn’t just about ancient Europeans, they weren’t “white”, etc.), it is important to acknowledge the continual interactions with certain strands of Classics in Europe throughout late antiquity, the middle ages, and through the modern era (for example, Roman law, environmental determinism theory, Hippocratic/Galenic medicine, Aristotle’s philosophy, Christianity); these strands suggest not “ownership” of classics (which is the language of appropriation), but continuity with. And all of these strands have been used to create race science or argue for slavery.
Craig Jenkins: I feel like the answer to this question sits at the dawn of hip-hop, which was set in motion by a Jamaican immigrant in a community of black and Latin Americans and patronized early on by artsy downtown white folk. It was always a multiracial enterprise by nature of the lay of the land here, and I think that speaking of hip-hop as though it was historically an exclusively black art is not only a misunderstanding of how the culture worked from day one, it’s a disingenuous flattening of several conversations about racial identity and cultural exchange.

And while this is only one strand of continuity in a very singular way, it suggests that the Greeks and Romans in these particular contexts are not appropriations, but are the undergirding for the entire enterprise of race science and white supremacism — these things are built upon ancient ideas, the ancient ideas weren’t stolen from an oppressed people — malicious intent though there was. But, what about the fact that the classical world itself was a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial endeavor?

This is where we might see appropriation: the theories of the Dorian invasion and attempts to make Greece and the broader Mediterranean (Egypt, the Near East, North Africa) the product of Germanic invaders. This appropriation was done as part of imperialist and colonialist projects that supported white “Anglo-Saxon” domination of ‘others’. We might also call the use of classical architectural forms to promote whiteness and white superiority in the US an appropriation. We see it in the architecture of the World’s Fairs and, as Dr. Lyra Monteiro argued at the Racing the Classics conference, in plantation architecture. By claiming the heritage of Africa and Asia, and southern Europe as the product of northern Europeans and eliding out these other peoples, this version of Classics has appropriated the Classical past (but this is, in fact, the foundation of the academic field of Classics).

Which brings us to the second kind of appropriation: that trying to find “race” in antiquity is to appropriate a modern phenomenon and to do so in a way that renders it safe and white and harmless.

Guan: If such a new vocabulary exists, it wouldn’t exist purely or even primarily within the cultural sphere. Most of the current discourse just assumes that the American situation is the only situation there is, which is to say a white majority with money and connections set against a black minority with artistic brilliance. Whereas most people in the world aren’t black or white, and have musical and other cultural traditions that simply don’t fit into the black-white binary…

I have suggested (and will argue to support) that race is a transhistorical category that modern US color-based race categories are one manifestation of it in a long history of attempts to categorize humans in the same way one categorizes plants and animals, that the foundation of modern race science is found in numerous ancient Greeks texts and contexts (particularly in Athens in its citizen/metic system). Anti-semitism is racism. Race and racism can be found in modern Israel, in ancient China, in ancient and modern India. It isn’t just about black and white.

Jenkins: … I do agree that the way the conversation about race unfolds here is 100 percent specific to the terrible history of this country, and that outlook doesn’t always translate well to or speak for people who exist outside of it.

Does it diminish the history of race in the US, does it make it “safe” to acknowledge that there are other ways “race” can be constituted? The term “race” as a scientific, biological category for humans is a relatively new (250? years) concept, but it has existed as a term for biological descent in animals since at least the 13th century (it’s a French word and was used in terms of dog breeding and then of French nobility — I strongly recommend Charles de Miramon’s “‘Noble Dogs, Noble Blood: The Invention of the Concept of Race in the late Middle Ages” in The Origins of Racism in the West).

Since the 18th century, the idea of race has been almost entirely subsumed into a scientific discourse that attempts to rationalize enslavement, irrational hatred and fear of non-whites by a white majority in the US. Something the popularization of genetics testing has given more life to. In between these two uses of race in the 13th and 18th centuries came the transatlantic slave trade and the identification of slavery with blackness and whiteness with free and superior. The history of race was changed in the US forever. But does that mean that race can and should now only be used in that context?

Jenkins…The closeness of these cultures is present in the rap from that era — stop and think of how many classic rap albums have a dancehall toast in ’em — and to pretend these cultures are not meaningfully intertwined and try to hand out roles to people by circumstance of birth just seems … I don’t know … young? But this is the same social-media sphere that doesn’t understand what an Afro-Latina is and accuses African-Americans of appropriating African culture for wearing dashikis to Black Panther. The conversation about race is flat, when the reality of identity is multidimensional.

Some scholars argue that we should only speak of ethnicity if we are talking about anything that is outside of that experience as a way to not diminish the history and lived experience of people of color in the US. Though then we leave out the rest of the world. And, with it, other peoples who have histories and experiences of anti-Semitism, colonialism, institutionalized oppression, and enslavement. Can the word “race” be exclusive to the modern US experience or the modern colonial experience or should scholars seek out the similarities in racist dynamics and institutions in other historical periods? Is it an appropriation by a bunch of mostly white people (Classicists) to talk about a bunch of dead white people (presumably the ancient Greeks and Romans)?

Perhaps more importantly, what does Classics gain by engaging the language of race? Does it appropriate modern discourses to make itself “relevant”? Does it erase the horrors of the history of race in America and do a disservice to our colleagues of color? It is a mis-appropriation? Or does it force classical scholars to see the ancient ideas at the root of modern racism and our field’s history of complicity? I’d like to think it will help us to engage the realities of the ancient world more thoroughly and accurately, and, hopefully, help us understand better how many of our institutions of higher education contribute to white supremacy and why modern race science became what it is and help us be part of the solution to undermining white supremacy in the US today instead of a continuing part of the problem.


Originally published at rfkclassics.blogspot.com on March 29, 2018.