Being a PoC in Classics: Some Thoughts

Ever since reading another blog post written by someone who had attended the Archaeological Institute of America/Society for Classical Studies joint annual meeting in Toronto, Canada, and realized that there needs to be more representation in Classics (see: Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white), I’ve been thinking a little bit more about being a person of color in Classics than usual.

Here’s my situation – I have been an avid fan of Classics since I sat down in the computer lab on my registration day the summer before my freshman year of college, almost five years ago. Then, of course, I didn’t think anything of the color of my skin in relation to my colleagues. However, the disparity was and has always been there: in most Classics-related classes I have taken since then, I have been one of maybe two PoCs (with the other one only being marginally interested in Classics or just taking the course to get a general education credit out of the way, cue eye roll), and those classes have always been taught by white men and women. The disconnect became more glaring when I went on my first excavation, at the Athenian Agora in Athens, Greece, a two month experience where I got to engage in Classical Archaeology first hand and which reinforced my absolute love for the field. Sure, I had noticed that there were less than a handful of PoCs on the excavation, including myself, but it was not until I started writing statements of purpose for graduate school, some two years later, that it really hit me.

The ratio of whites to non-whites in Classics is abysmal. But I don’t think that’s really anyone’s fault. The field was built up by rich white men who wanted to collect ‘cool old stuff’ (that’s a technical term) and show it off to their friends to make themselves appear more affluent and impressive.

A lot of people, including the person who wrote the above mentioned article, believe that the problem is the lack of discussions of representation and race in the classroom. But I don’t really think so. I don’t think that seeing PoC represented in ancient art, or reading about them in ancient literature, or discussing the differences between modern and ancient slavery are unimportant approaches to the issue of race, but I do think that it can be incredibly discouraging to not see many people who look like you working in your field.

This quote from a Ted Talk by Dena Simmons on imposter syndrome spoke volumes to me:

I have eternal imposter syndrome. Either I’ve been invited because I’m a token, which really isn’t about me, but rather, about a box someone needed to check off. Or, I am exceptional, which means I’ve had to leave the people I love behind. It’s the price that I and so many others pay for learning while black.

In fact, it made me realize the real reason why I was doing all of this – sure, I’m pretty deep into my field (I’m getting my PhD, aren’t I?) so I don’t feel the burning need or desire to be force-fed seminars on representation in the ancient world since I know it all well enough. However, my ultimate goal is to become a professor and conduct my own research, and I think that those things are important for students of color who are marginally interested in Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences majors because I think that if they could only see people who look like them doing what they love, then maybe they would be inspired to pursue their interests as well. I know I would have.

I get it. Parents are often protective of their children, wanting the best for them or better-for-them-than-they-had and push them into jobs that will get them somewhere, like law or medicine. My own mother, when I was thinking about where to go for high school, since where I grew up had magnet schools, really wanted me to pursue an engineering magnet (I suspect because she’s an engineer herself). I think I’ve had an aversion to science since I came out of the womb, so I made a beeline for the arts magnet and never looked back.

I am grateful to have a mother who has supported me so much from day one, even when I have stumbled over myself trying to explain what I could possibly do with a Classics major (A Lot!).

I am very lucky to have not had to go through a terrible time in my youth or my college years, to not have been discriminated against, to have been supported every step of the way by my professors, and to have been accepted into my dream graduate program. But I know that not everyone has been so lucky, and that not everyone is so secure in their interests that they feel confident enough to truly pursue them.

I can only hope that more people will be inspired to do so, especially in Classics and in Classical Archaeology, whether it be on their own or be from seeing someone who looks like them doing what they want to do and being where they want to be.

Maybe then the ratio of whites to non-whites at annual meetings won’t be so striking.