Decolonizing the dark academia aesthetic

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Despite the recent popularity of the “dark academia aesthetic” as seen across social media platforms, it takes minimal research to find out how classicality has functioned in academia and in American history along with the non-critical consumption and reproduction of the aesthetic. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran/The Daily Campus

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a growth in popularity of the “dark academia aesthetic” in fashion and decor across social media. If you haven’t yet seen the many dark academia Pinterest boards, YouTube and TikTik lookbooks or Spotify playlists, the dark academia aesthetic is inspired by classic literature and ancient Greek and Roman figures, revering images of reading and learning. To be clear, I have no problem with someone wearing blazers or plaid pants and decorating their rooms with Roman-style head busts. I do, however, find issue with the non-critical consumption and reproduction of the dark academia aesthetic.  

It takes minimal research to find out, for example, how classicality has functioned in academia and American history. The idolization of classical art and philosophy is ancient, arguably beginning in the United States with the installation of Harvard University and other colonial colleges. In Ibram X. Kendi’s book “Stamped from the Beginning,” he talks about how these universities continued British traditions of regarding “ancient Greek and Latin literature as universal truths worthy of memorization and unworthy of critique.” They focused specifically on Aristotle, for example, because they could apply his ideas on the existence of human hierarchies to the newly formed concepts of race, defending a racial hierarchy and systems of slavery.  

Selected classics have been enshrined as the epitome of Western civilization and made inaccessible as cultural capital to people of color in a more implicitly oppressive manner. This is and has always been an intentional practice. Later in his book, Kendi mentions how Egyptologists like George R. Gliddon attempted to rewrite the history of ancient Egypt, claiming that it was not an African civilization but a Caucasian civilization that, like America, enslaved Black people to dually deprive enslaved Black Americans of their claim to “classical” heritage and validate American atrocities. Cultural and academic fascination with the “classics,” then, have long functioned to maintain racially-determined hierarchies.  

Given its shared glorification of classicality, the dark academia aesthetic is a direct descendant of these oppressive practices and their racist evolutions in the centuries since. But this is only one side of dark academia. What about the exclusive nature of the Western literary canon, venerated by dark academics? The classist history of blazers and pants as the “intelligent” or “professional” way to dress? The false sense that academia is a product of Western culture? And, of course, the many, many barriers for Black, Indigenous and other segregated people of color from becoming “academics” at any level? 

I imagine some responses now to be along the lines of: “I like the aesthetic, not the ideology!” To which I would respond: “Well, I would hope so!”  

My second critique is not of the aesthetic itself, but of the way that the aesthetic has been artificially divorced from its ideology. “Aesthetics” are colloquially used to describe a particular style, but they are and have always been more than simply a style. Historically, for example, the Black Arts Movement was described as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept.” Leaders of the Black Arts and Power movements recognized the contribution of White aesthetics (think: classics and canons) to White supremacist ideology, and responded accordingly, reclaiming their connections to ancient Africa and creating a distinct Black aesthetic.  

To my earlier imagined responder: What has changed about White aesthetics in the past 50 or so years since the Black Arts Movement that allows us to separate White aesthetics from White supremacist ideology now? In my eyes, unfortunately very little. I don’t intend for this to be a conclusive piece but the beginning of a dialogue. Decolonization is difficult and complex, and the conversation should begin by asking: Can dark academia even be decolonized?  

Here’s my take: I think that if the dark academia aesthetic can center reading and learning beyond the Western world, then perhaps it can be decolonized. This would, however, require an intense reversal of its values and of its images, and I, unfortunately, have no delusions that such a reckoning will come anytime soon. That would require collective rejection of internalized assimilationist ideologies. 

But can you imagine? 

11 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very poorly though about article on the nature of an internet subculture.

    This article is a prime example of the ineffective nature of using ideological lenses to draw comparisons between concepts where there are none, and their further tendency to attribute shared characteristics to these concepts simply because the concept or idea existed in the same time period as what initial idea was being compared.

    An abysmal allegory, nonetheless.

  2. I imagine the author of this article and “Ibram X. Kendi” have not seen the most recent DNA studies we have been done on Egyptian mummies clearly showing they have even less Sub-Saharan African admixture than modern Egyptians? They were a West Eurasian population with little to no affinity to Sub Saharan (“Black”) Africans.

  3. Found this to be a great critique! I really don’t think the roots of Dark Academia are at all concealed… even when viewed superficially as purely an aesthetic. Seems to be darker an aesthetic than some would like to consider.

  4. Good write-up. As you can see by the comments, people HATE being taught anything outside of their Eurocentric/White-supremacist world-view and take learning as if it’s some kind of insult…bewildering.
    In the 90s they said “Uh Egyptians couldn’t build those pyramids! It was Aliens!” but now it’s “Actually DNA says they were white so maybe it was possible!”. The lack of racist self awareness is crazy. And we don’t need to use Egyptians to talk about Black/African prosperity or intelligence.
    Many of you consider wealth to be the most incredible ‘tell’ of intellect and power so we can just talk about Mansa Musa for a while if you’d like.

    • Naj– don’t be dumb. Eurocentrism and ONLY eurocentrism is a very narrow worldview.

      Eurocentrism is as bad as afrocentrism… both equally horrible historical viewpoints. History does not revolve around continents. History revolves around the world. No one is a eurocentrist here, but we aren’t seething about the fact that a certain group of people attained higher cultural, political, military success than others.

      That being said, I’m not a European. I am Asian (Vietnamese, to be specific) and proud to be one. However, I look at my fellow humans from Europe and just awe at their influence. It’s just crazy how much (historically speaking) Europeans have done. For example, the French influenced my country’s alphabet and cuisine.

      Furthermore, the fashion of my country was Westernized which is (in my opinion) a great thing since Western fashion is absolutely amazing.

      About the Egyptian thing… no one is saying that aliens made it. Well, not credible people anyways. The Egyptians ARE NOT the same as the Sub-Saharan Africans. They are African, just not the same as the Africans you might be thinking of. Don’t be dumb here. Africa is a diverse continent with large amounts of ethnic groups. Egyptians have a lighter skin complexion more closely related to the Middle-Eastern peoples.

      As for Mansa Musa, yeah. He’s cool.

  5. “The idolization of classical art and philosophy is ancient, arguably beginning in the United States with the installation of Harvard University and other colonial colleges.” <—- This is completely wrong.

    The obsession with and idolization of classical art and philosophy is FAR older than that. The Roman Empire, which conglomerated together many philosophers and schools of thought and artworks from all over the world (yes, a decent amount of it was theft and imperialist conquering…. Didn't you ever ask how they got so big?) spanned multiple centuries.
    The later Roman Empire was romanticizing and idealizing the earlier Roman Empire for their classical art and philosophy. The Early Roman empire idealized much of it from Ancient Greece. Further in the future, after the collapse of the empire, this is still seen as Western European monarchs titled a lot of things "The Holy Roman Empire ____", including themselves. They romanticized it too.

    So you could say that no matter how far back you go, romanticizing classical art and philosophy is romanticizing something from a colonizing, imperialist society. This is pretty much true, except that it literally makes no difference at all.
    Our modern day societies are inseparably melded with the Roman Empire. this is so true that some people argue that the Roman Empire never died, it just took over the entire world.

    Just let people be infatuated with philosophy and art and ancient times. You CANNOT stop them anyways. it's been happening since BEFORE Greek civilization. People will never stop wishing for the "good ole days". ALSO, people romanticizing the Roman Empire's classical art and philosophy aren't romanticizing imperialism and violence and colonization in itself. They're not. I promise.
    And even if they were, it'd be an equal-opportunity-offense: The Roman Empire violently took over, enslaved, oppressed, and culturally destroyed white people too. Ever heard of "Brittania?" Boudica the resistance warrior queen? The Picts? Hadrian's wall?? Those are the ancestors of the people in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, etc.. and Roman slavery and other forms of oppression weren't based on race. they were based on who was currently at war, who owed money, etc. There were people of all colors from all over the place running the highest and the lowest positions. People have always been mean to each other. The enslaved become oppressors just a century later. oppressors collapse and become the lowliest people.

    My point is this: This article is historically inaccurate and based on a number of assumptions, and even if it had a solid foundation, it's full of logical fallacy. And it's about something that really isn't hurting anyone.

    You know what would be fantastic? Direct all this energy and passion into something pressing and important, like modern-day slavery: in industrial settings, sex trafficking, and more. Or look into educating people about the value of nature, kindness, and compassion. Many problems would be greatly improved if people were driven to care about those sorts of things.
    Or, if you're SO concerned about… what exactly here? you didn't really define your terms or mention any actual problem happening with this, not did you propose a real solution. If you REALLY care about this issue, you could spread and develop resources to make things like classical musical education, books, instruments, and education in general more accessible to the people you are concerned about. 🙂

    • This. Absolutely this.

      Thank you Reeder for dismantling this stupid article and giving more accurate information. “Decolonization”? Really?

      I’ve had enough of the ‘wokeism’ plaguing humanity.

  6. I’m going to let previous commenters do the factual criticism. My question would be, what do you suggest white people who are into dark academia do? How exactly is this decolonization to take place? Should all white people involved just stop wearing the clothes they happen to currently like wearing, or start listening to lofi while studying, rather than to library soundtracks? Should we campaign for black people to replace them by encouraging them to dress up as Sherlock Holmes on a regular basis? The astounding lack of solutions presented here is unfortunately typical of this school of thought obsessed with race. Probably because there’s no real issue to solve in the first place.

  7. This article reminds me of a marxist essays on the pages of sowiet newspapers, that was written by the “scientists”, who was actually just ideologues, with no deep analysis and just endless quotes about how kapitalism is totaly evil from the begining and it can’t be chenged. And one more thing, in this article you talk about certain american interpretation of the classic literature. And just after that you call people eurocentristic, well, than you are USA-centristic

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