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‘Whiteness’ and the Humanities

Recently, the Princeton classics department announced that proficiency in Greek and Latin would no longer be required for majors. As you might expect, the announcement caused disquiet, especially among conservatives. The response was all the more intense because it was understood that the decision had been made partly to combat white supremacy. When the department announced the move, its own website made no mention of a racial aspect. But the Princeton Alumni Weekly reported that the step was urgent because of protests over racism and police violence, and the department’s website elsewhere acknowledged the discipline’s role in “the long arc of systematic racism.”

As it happened, the department’s concerns about its relation to white supremacy had already been publicized by The New York Times. Late in April, The New York Times Magazine featured a moving story about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a professor in the department. Peralta’s trajectory is remarkable. He was born into a poor family in the Dominican Republic (where, as he reminds us, the classical heritage is widely respected) and had, against all odds, become a Princeton professor. The piece, titled, “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” told of Peralta’s conversion from celebrating Greek and Roman civilizations as sources of modern reason to wanting classicists (as the Times put it) “to knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline” because of their role in legitimating white supremacy.

Such announcements are not uncommon. Over the past year or so the medieval English program at the University of Leicester, in Britain, was axed, apparently because of medievalism’s long appeal to white racists. The University of Chicago’s English department temporarily suspended entry into its graduate program this year except for Black-studies students as a riposte to what it saw as English’s “long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction and anti-Blackness.” And away from media glare, there’s a steady trickle of rumor about, for instance, programs banning authors — Conrad, Nietzsche, Locke, Hume, J.S. Mill and so on — deemed racist or imperialist.

It’s easy, not least for someone of my generation and background (white baby boomer, heterosexual, upper-middle class) to feel threatened by all this. What about the immense richness in the humanities that have been transmitted to us? Aren’t they at risk? Don’t the reformers know that, as recent research in global history and empire has re-emphasized (I’m thinking of the work presented in, say, John Darwin’s After Tamerlane), white people monopolized power only for a shortish historical period (between about 1815 and 1945)? And that they were able to do so for reasons other than their interest (such as it was) in the classics or literary history? How are curriculum changes in elite humanities programs going to help end racism in broader society, anyway?

On the other hand, it’s clear that racism is a crippling and recalcitrant problem, especially in the U.S. It is also clear that the traditional high humanities’ prestige has indeed played a role in the white West’s domination of others. This being the case, shouldn’t we do our bit to end white hegemony? In that context, is it so important that Latin and Greek are mandated or that medieval English is still widely taught?

So an impasse. Where to go?

On closer inspection two features of this impasse stand out. It is clear that, in fact, resistance to white supremacy is not the most immediate motive for the Princeton, Leicester, and Chicago decisions. Such moves are primarily responses to the shrinking of the humanities for other reasons. Princeton, for instance, is abandoning proficiency in Greek and Latin as a prerequisite for the classics track because enrollments in that major have declined in recent years and faculty members hope to attract more students. Not dissimilar reasons drove Chicago and Leicester’s decisions.

In this light, it may be that the fight against white supremacy at the level of curricula is not so much a cause of the humanities’ diminishment as its effect. Antiracism may in part be a cover for a restructuring of curricula required by other pressures. This would at least stave off worries that the politics of race lie behind the humanities’ current plight.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education