Plato Was Not White

PlatoAnother teaching semester is about to ramp up, and as is often the case, I have some Platonic dialogues lined up to teach.  I’ve taught at least one dialogue in  almost every semester since about 2005, and on the campus of Emmanuel College, where I’ve taught since 2009, people who know about me at all know about me as “that Plato guy.”  My sense is that the relatively few people who know about me on the Internet regard me likewise.

Perhaps that professional investment in Plato (personally, I’m more of a postmodern Augustinian with leanings towards MacIntyre’s brand of neo-Thomism) has made me more irritable than I should be when the old Athenian ends up in the crosshairs of well-meaning folks who wish to set right the balance of power and take away the overlordship (I prefer that Anglo-Saxon compound word to the Hellenism “hegemony,” and I grant the irony) from “dead white males.”  I think the political questions there are fascinating, but a matter of some historical import gets in the way of the politics, if one isn’t careful: Plato wasn’t White.

Whiteness, as sociologists will tell you if you ask, isn’t merely a matter of skin pigmentation: it’s a much more complex and more historical phenomenon. The stories of “light-skinned” Black people in the twentieth-century United States show some of this complexity.  Because they’re part of a narrative that involves centuries of institutional slavery, being “light-skinned” does not confer membership in the social group of political power. There might be social benefit relative to White people or even among other Black people, but also possible is a betrayal-anxiety renders such a Black person subject to different sorts of injustice, perhaps even suspicion that they’re masquerading as white by their own choice or betraying “their people” because they “look white.” 

Likewise, human beings born into the former (or current) European Empires with lighter-than-average pigmentation don’t get treated as “white” so much as exotic specimens of “those people” who “look like us.” Pigmentation figures in but only pigmentation as one variable in a complex, multi-variable system.

Where did Plato go in all of this?  My brief answer is that the name “Plato” has become a token in a game that the historical man Plato would not have recognized.  The fact of the matter is that Athens, though a significant regional power in the fifth and fourth centuries, was not the sort of global empire that the British and French and Germans and Dutch grabbed and maintained a couple thousand years after he wrote his rightly-famous dialogues.  In fact, reading around in the actual texts of Plato and his contemporaries reveals a fascination not with “white” empires (there weren’t any yet) but with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and other, more far-reaching powers who have become, in the age of European empires, the colonies of the new world powers.  And that’s the point: “White” names a very recent development in the grand human story, not one that’s perpetual or inevitable.  And that means we’re free to imagine other possibilities.

That’s what’s insidious about declaring Plato “White” too easily: such a move threatens to obscure the contingency of history, in which the man Plato was not “White” because that term takes its twenty-first-century meaning not from skin-coloring but from a centuries-long (but not THAT many centuries!) narrative of Capitalist-formed human slavery, nationalist-based empire-building, and–I grant this point–attempts to co-opt texts like those of Homer and Euripides and Plato as parts of a “Western Canon,” a movement that claims them as part of a project of “civilization” undeniably tied up in the story of how northern and western Europeans became “White” as opposed to the Asian and African and American tribes over whom they won military supremacy.

Or, to put it another way, I fear that when we 21st-century folks point at Plato and shout “White!” we forget the contingency and thus the mutability of the story of “White” and grant “White” a historical longevity that it just doesn’t have.  My hunch is that we might actually find more political grain to glean when we grant the historical contingency of the era of European overlordship, and I eagerly note that Washington, D.C. in the twentieth century is something analogous to Baghdad in the ninth or Rome in the first or Babylon centuries before that without being identical to any of the above.  But to insist on the “Whiteness” and thus the moral badness of someone who wasn’t around long enough to see that part of the human story strikes me as a reductionist move that ultimately cuts off conversations that are worth having.

Is Nathan Gilmour, twenty-first-century English professor and blogger, White?  Yes.  And there are better ways and worse ways for him to be so.  May he always be aware enough of his place in complex historical stories to strive towards better ways of living with his neighbor as the contingent, historical being that Dasein finds itself being.

Was Plato White?  No.  And my hunch is that the best way of reading him is not as a forerunner and pioneer of the British Empire but as someone alien to our own experiences precisely because he was a Greek and thus not a beneficiary of Empire the way that Nathan Gilmour is.

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