Racism in Classics: A Teach-In at UofM

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Monday January 16, 2017, in honor of the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Classical Studies department at the University of Michigan hosted a teach-in (or teach-out) entitled Racist Appropriations of the Classical World: Past and Present. In spite of some minor technical difficulties, the lack of seating to accommodate everyone (thanks to the AWESOME turnout), and a rather unfortunate member of the audience who seemed to be attempting to challenge everything the teach-in was trying to combat against (which I’m still fuming about internally, but won’t get into here), I’d say that the event was a success and sincerely hope that it will continue to be built upon in the future.

The teach-in was composed of four ten-minute presentations by professors from the university, David Potter, professor of Classical Studies; Heidi Morse, lecturer in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Classical Studies, and English Language and Literature; Ben Fortson, professor of Classical Studies; and Despina Margomenou, lecturer in Modern Greek, followed by a general discussion at the end. Overall, the research that was presented, the questions raised, and the discussions which followed were fruitful and informative.

Potter discussed early scholarship on racism and the end of the Roman empire, especially that of Otto Seeck, who apparently has been considered an ‘authoritative work’ in spite of his view that there was a direct link between the fall of the empire and the ‘invasion’ of a different race (i.e. an ‘extermination of the best’ by a ‘genetically worse’ population). Morse addressed fundamental issues with an organization called ‘Identity Evropa’ which claims a European identity and believes that whites are more superior than non-whites, perpetuating this belief through the appropriation of classical art, individuals, and ideas, both online and on flyers. Flyers associated with this organization appeared on the university’s campus this past fall, in addition to other flyers perpetuating white supremacy. Fortson examined the historical background of the term ‘Aryan’, from its Sanskrit origins, meaning ‘honorable’ or ‘noble’, to its appropriation by Indo-Europeans, becoming synonymous with ‘bringers of civilization’, imploring scholars, especially those in historical linguistics and classical philology, to denounce the misuse of findings to perpetuate prejudices. Finally, Margomenou, though explicitly stating that her talk was “not a story of how Greeks became racists,” presented an interesting history of how race has been conceptualized (and how that conception has changed) by modern Greeks in relation to their past, touching on their association between ‘stark white’ and classical Greece, the Gods in Color exhibition in Munich which sparked controversy about the vibrant colors used on models of sculpture, and the appropriation of media-created themes such as those in the 2006 movie ‘300’ by the neonazi group Golden Dawn.

However, while these talks and the discussion they inspired were interesting, I still felt somewhat uncertain about the implications of incorporating more discussions of race, racism, and the classics into future courses. Particularly problematic for me was the discussion, towards the end of the event, which revolved around the next steps for education relating to race/racism/classical reception in Classical Studies.

In my last post I touched briefly on what I thought the real problem with representation in Classical Studies was – to me, it isn’t about the courses we teach, but rather the people who teach them. Of course, I do not have a solution to this that is readily employable, and I do not think that there is an easy solution to the problem – you cannot just go up to PoC and force them to become Classics majors. It simply isn’t that easy. But the general consensus in the room today was that it might be.

One suggestion that was made was to offer subjects that are generally subject based – like sport and war – since they would be more accessible and applicable to all types of people. While the sentiment is sound on a number of levels, I have seen this backfire first hand, on numerous occasions. In particular, while these ‘general courses’ may attract lots of people who are not Classical Studies majors, and maybe even a few PoC, courses that are general often attract not people who are genuinely interested in Classics (though a small percentage of them are) but people who don’t really want to be there. These courses, at least at liberal arts colleges and universities, are often fulfilling a requirement – at my undergrad a course on Ancient Greek Athletics counted for an arts general education requirement and a course on Ancient Warfare counted for History major requirements – and attract people who are only marginally interested (i.e. athletes) or who would’ve taken anything else if something more relevant to their studies had been offered.

So, the way I see it, presenting general topics that are only marginally interesting to a wider audience will only attract more people who are only marginally interested, much less PoC (if that’s the ‘ultimate goal’). However, I don’t want to make it seem like I was against everything suggested in the discussion – in fact, I did like the suggestions to do away with this idea of ‘Classical Studies’ and to move to a more geographic qualifier like ‘Mediterranean Studies’, since it is true that what we who identify as part of a Classical Studies department don’t always study Greek or Roman things. Moreover, this change would be inherently more inclusive of Egypt in all of its eras, not just the Graeco-Roman period. Perhaps more inclusion of Egypt and the wider Mediterranean in this way would, in fact, attract more PoC who are interested in learning about ancient PoC – however, I do not personally know if the ratio of whites to non-whites is actually lower in, for example, Egyptian or Middle Eastern studies.

It is true that there needs to be more exposure to racism in Classics, and I think that this was a well executed starting point for it. I am very happy to have seen such a huge turnout, even if it did include a self-proclaimed white supremacist, and I learned a whole lot about things I wouldn’t have thought to consider before today. Again, I hope that this sort of thing will continue in future years (though hopefully with less instances of racism in our country… though with the current state of our government, who even knows), and perhaps more students and/or PoC might share their own experiences¬†with and perspectives of the scholarship.

If any other school has done anything cool like this please let me know!

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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.