82 Be Not Afraid of the Dark


Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies

by Shelley P. Haley

Critical race theory had its beginnings in the scholarship of jurisprudence and in the sociological theory of social construction that developed in the 1970s as a response to the backlash and rollbacks of civil rights legislation. To me, as a Classical Studies scholar who is simultaneously a woman of African descent, critical race theory is appealing because of its oppositional stance and its use of storytelling to challenge negative portrayals of all people of color, but particularly people of African descent.

Critical race theory has found its way into the academy with the publication of Ladson-Billings and Tate’s article, “Towards a Critical Theory of Education.”[1] In addition, critical race theory has nurtured critical race feminism, which centers on the experiential knowledge of women of color and challenges white liberal feminism and essentialist feminism. I would argue that critical race theory has also found its way into literary criticism, most notably in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.[2]

Admittedly, this all sounds very twentieth and twenty-first century. How can a classicist justify using a theory so closely aligned with modern phenomena like “race,” “racism,” and “systemic oppression” to analyze the vanished societies of ancient Greece and ancient Rome? I hope to show in this chapter that my justification abides in the fact that the interpreters of these ancient societies were or are intellectuals of the nineteenth through twentieth-first centuries, and so have internalized (consciously or not) the values, structures, and behaviors that foster the need for critical race theory.

It is important to remember that critical race theory challenges the experience of whites as the norm while at the same time it centers its conceptual framework in the experiences of people of color. In its broadest possible framing, critical race theory demonstrates that there are multiple levels of meaning of race and difference and that these levels are experienced simultaneously. [28]

According to George J. Sefa Dei, “There is a social, political, cultural, and intellectual meaning of race and difference. . . . Race and racisms also work differently for groups depending on history, geography, culture, class, and gender.”[3]  Before we can even attempt an integrated analysis of these factors on the ancient construction of race, we must interrogate the extent to which we bring our modern “social, political, cultural, and intellectual meaning of race and difference”4 to our analyses of the ancient world. Only by acknowledging the presence of this meaning can we begin to pull back the layers in order to arrive at the ancient construct of race. It certainly is not easy. [29]


This excerpt comes from pages 28 – 29 [pages marked in square brackets] of:
Haley, Shelley. 2009. “Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies.” In Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies, edited by Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, 27–49. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

  1. G. Ladson-Billings and W. Tate, “Towards a Critical Theory of Education,” Teachers College Report 97 (1995): 4–68.
  2. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  3. George J. Sefa Dei, “Recasting Anti-Racism and the Axis of Difference: Beyond the Question of Theory,” Race, Class and Gender 7, no.2 (2000): 38–48. This particular quote is taken from the ProQuest version


Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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