Surviving as a POC in Classics

Almost one year since my very first post about Being a POC in Classics, I am back to reflect on what I’ve learned in the last year: about being a POC and a woman in Classics.

Last year’s post was prompted by a poignant blog post that brought attention to the fact that, at an annual conference meeting for the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies, there was a sheer lack of diversity among the scholars in attendance. Although I had borne witness to this phenomenon myself, one hell of a winter storm (#BOMBCYCLONE anyone?) kept me from attending this year’s meeting in Boston.

But even as I find myself sitting in my mom’s living room, plans to participate thwarted like so many others, I still can’t shake the feeling that the scene this year is just as dire as the one last year. Not that I’d ever want to – that disparity is a significant one; one that weighs heavily on the minds of many scholars, though not always for the right reasons.

Last year, I made a point to call out the things we shouldn’t be doing – trying to coerce students of color into joining classics departments so as to ease our own minds about the lack of diversity in our classes – and suggest some things that would actually make a different – like hiring more people of color as professors and archaeologists to serve as actual role models for students to learn from; and having more people of color writing about topics concerning people of color – not just classicists from the white majority, like Sarah Bond and Mary Beard (though I’m sure they’re lovely people).

I have found myself becoming more and more inspired by the female scholars I have had the pleasure of working with in the last year and a half, and I can only imagine how much more inspiring it would be to work with a woman of color who did what I did. But, alas, women of color in classics – and archaeology – are hard to find, unless you know where to look (I honestly don’t).

However, not every female scholar I have come into contact with has been as inspiring as the rest. It’s incredible how the brain can block out a terrible incident, a moment that rubbed you the wrong way, until something much later triggers that memory once again. As I was reading the Preface of Reno Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Our Shared Shelf’s pick for Jan/Feb 2018!), I found myself agreeing with almost every word I read, especially:

I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.

Why, oh why, would something like this trigger me? What incident could it have possibly recalled for someone who, apparently, has only ever once experienced a direct, verbal, racist assault in her life (Did I not post about that? It was a pretty traumatic – non-academic-related day…)? Well, let me set the scene: Colleague A gives a presentation on her experience at a school abroad (no to be named) that is known for its institutionalized racism. Someone makes a racist joke, blatantly neglects to learn the names of two girls who are, actually, two different people, but happen to be of the same or similar race, and no one bats an eye. What’s worse is the fact that everyone’s together 24/7 and there’s no way, at all, to get any reprieve from the situation.

As a deeply introverted, socially anxious person of color, you can see where my concerns lie. However, Colleague B did not see it my way. Instead of sympathizing, she shot down my legitimate concerns, saying that it was only one person’s perspective and that it’s probably not always like that and that the experience would be worth it. To her credit, it was only one person’s POV, but who knows how long the atmosphere had been that way? How else would the people there have become so comfortable with saying such things or being so negligent if there weren’t people around them perpetuating the behavior? Who’s to say that it has or will stop?

Speaking with Colleague B was so psychologically damaging that I refused to bring it up with anyone else again afterwards. I had a meeting with a professor about my future plans and, when the program was mentioned, I expressed uncertainty about wanting to attend, but let him ramble on about the merits of the program without speaking about the concerns I had. Why? Why wouldn’t I say anything? Well, because I felt like he, a white male tenured professor, would never understand.

I think that all of this – the surge of racist incidents both towards myself and towards others, the current political climate, and my anxieties – has made things a little clearer than they were a year ago. Back then, I was wide-eyed and hopeful, urging for a change not in the curriculum but in the people teaching that curriculum, the face of classics, but with no plan for the forseeable future.

Now, I find that I was grasping in the dark for something I couldn’t see, couldn’t fully understand. In that first blog post almost a year ago, I quoted statistics about minorities in the Classics, but they are long outdated, and don’t really tell us much of anything. Last year, my blog post gained over 400 notes on Tumblr and here on WordPress, 8 likes. I know that you are out there – I remember reading so many moving responses to the post on Tumblr – and I want this to be the first step for us to come together, to lean on each other, and to find some way to make our voices louder in a discipline that still, to this day, forces us down even when it tries to lift us up.

Minorities in Classics Poll

Minorities in Classics Poll Results

Please vote if you can! It would be really great to see how many of us are out there, but obviously don’t feel pressured to do so. This is just a random social experiment that I thought of while spending Too Many hours at home (is it time to go back to school yet??).

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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.