Reflections: A call to action

This week’s reflections come in two parts, both focusing on some specific individual feelings of being marginalised as a classicist of colour. Part one offers a response to a recent article which denies the existence of racism in classics, while part two is a call to action to combat some specific types of marginalisation.

Part one of this week’s reflections focused on ways that certain classicists resist attempts – either wilfully, or through inaction – to make the discipline more inclusive. Although I have had an eye on potential undergraduates who might be discouraged from applying, I write from a postgraduate perspective, so I want you to think now about how marginalisation drives scholars out of the field at this stage.

Consider how difficult it is to commit to three or more years of a PhD which, even if the financial costs are supported by research council funding, comes with a mental toll and a significant opportunity cost, at a time when academic precarity is at an all-time high, potentially in a new university away from previous support networks. Now add the fear of marginalised students that they might unwittingly align themselves with a supervisor who is dismissive, rather than respectful, of their ethnic background, gender identity or accessibility requirements, and who will not empathise with or understand the structural and societal barriers they have faced to get to where they are already, and will continue to face across the course of their doctorate. Compound this problem by placing it within an academic discipline which is bound up in imperialism and white supremacy, and which seems reluctant to side against racism and other forms of oppression; a discipline where, perhaps, you cannot see (m)any senior scholars who have come from the same background as you and managed to thrive in their academic careers. The risks of pursuing a PhD and jobs in academia – which requires you to be able to move between departments, and hope that you do not find yourself in a place where your identity and advocacy are seen as a problem, and your research is dismissed as not being objective or universal enough – far, far outweigh the potential benefits. Is it any wonder that we have a leaky pipeline?

I have been very fortunate, across three universities, to be able to surround myself with supportive friends and supervisors who empathise with my experiences and help me to find a place in classics where I can exist and thrive. Nevertheless, when, last month, I felt the need to speak to my supervisors about the department’s failure to engage in anti-racism or solidarity (even to acknowledge that Black lives matter) in any meaningful way, I found myself preparing for the possibility that they would turn against me and close ranks. This feels like a serious risk in university settings where scholars worry that acknowledging the need for change might harm the reputation of their institution and dissuade potential students from applying. If my supervisors had refused to support me – and thankfully, they did not; again, I want to be clear that my supervisors have been strongly on my side – I would rather have quit my PhD, and I was fully prepared to do so, than continue to work with someone who thought so little of my experiences. Marginalised students can only survive and thrive in this discipline, and in wider society, with proper support and the confidence that someone is willing to fight your corner, but we rely on personal instinct and word of mouth to guess who might be supportive and who we should avoid. Even when we find someone we can trust, we know not to put too much faith in them, because most of us have experienced too many so-called “trapdoor moments” when someone you have considered a friend accidentally reveals how little they think of your community, or responds to a minor slight by withdrawing their solidarity. Allies can strive to make sure they don’t subject us to these moments, but I don’t think you can convince us to give you our complete trust when years of experience shows us how likely this is to backfire. This can create a constant level of uncertainty around who is really on your side and who you can rely on to have your back, and  is utterly exhausting for marginalised people.

I have written this series of blog posts from a place of pain, but also a place of optimism. I do not believe that the study of Ancient Greek and Latin, the study of the classical world and its reception, is inherently racist or exclusionary. I love this discipline, and I have met wonderful people through it, who conduct teaching and research that contribute to the knowledge of humanity and bring joy to the lives of many students and scholars. I believe that people around the world and from all different backgrounds can obtain a great deal of important skills and knowledge from studying both the texts and materials of the ancient world and the history and influence of their reception and of classics as an academic discipline. Properly taught, Latin and Ancient Greek can help with linguistic confidence and reasoning skills, and can empower students to dismantle the exclusionary elitism which pervades areas of British society. Students of ancient history can engage in important debates about enduring human values and enduring systems of oppression, and develop analytic skills which serve them equally well in other areas of modern life. Reading Catullus and Virgil and Lucan makes my heart sing and weep in almost equal measures: classical works of art continue to have speak to their audiences in powerful ways, just like texts and artworks from other periods and cultures. Attending the Inclusive Classics workshop last month was a recent affirmation of this extremely positive side of the discipline. There are individuals and organisations in the UK and beyond who are devoting hours of unpaid labour to making classics accessible and enjoyable for as many people as possible, and I am so grateful for them – but in almost all cases, it is only after entering my PhD programme, engaging with the academic side of Twitter and attending talks and conferences that I became aware of their existence. This is the side of classics which we need to foreground, and make accessible to students and scholars of all ages and levels of experience; this is what needs to become the norm.

Nevertheless, there is clearly something about the discipline as it currently exists which makes it unwelcoming to students and scholars of colour – and, although I lack the expertise to talk about it myself, students with disabilities, students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds, and trans and non-binary students, amongst others. I use the term “marginalised” throughout this piece and beyond, rather than terms such as “non-traditional” or “underrepresented”, because of the agency that it implies. For a group to be marginalised, another group must be enacting and profiting from that marginalisation. There are a few scholars who seem to revel in actively making the discipline unwelcoming – or, if I were to be my most charitable, who have not used the faculties of reasoning with which they earn their living to consider how they might unwittingly be enacting harm – but they cannot be held solely responsible. Every community has its regressive outliers.

The problem, as I see it, lies in the passivity of a wider part of the community: that part which realises that there are problems but is reluctant to dwell on them; which sees inequity in the discipline as an issue for outreach officers and committees rather than every single member of our departments; which allows, through its silence and inaction, the evils of racism, classism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia and queerphobia to go unchecked, and refuses to make the meaningful structural changes which are necessary to make classics a discipline in which everyone can thrive, not in spite of, but because of the unique perspectives which their individual identities might bring to bear on ancient material. It is very easy to make promises to improve, and then drag your heels until the people pushing for change have moved elsewhere. Unless university departments take active and visible measures to become anti-racist, not only marginalised students, but also those students from privileged backgrounds who believe in fighting oppression, will continue to feel that they have no place in classics, and our discipline will become further entrenched in misogyny and white supremacy. If classics is to be hostile to anyone, it should be to those who refuse to move with the times, and who seek to make our academic spaces uncomfortable for anyone who does not approach the discipline from a position of extreme privilege. We cannot hope for progress to occur organically; we must work hard to create cultures of equity and inclusivity.

So, readers, if you agree with me that classics has a problem and empathise with my experiences – and I am very aware that many, many students have experienced this marginalisation in more extreme ways; I am only speaking to my own most recent experiences – what do I need from you? I need you to be vocal. My voice will probably be dismissed by racist scholars as that of an over-sensitive snowflake with personal grievances, and when I am pushed out by academia due to my refusal to prop-up its harmful practices, the same scholars will be able to ignore my points entirely. I need those of you with privilege in the discipline – whether that is based on your gender and ethnicity, or your status as a permanent member of staff – to challenge the harmful words and behaviours from your colleagues, both in private conversations, and in public responses to problematic claims and arguments. For every senior scholar who dismisses student concerns and our attempts to improve the discipline, who presents classics as only suitable for a specific kind of scholar, who ignores perspectives other than their own as lacking objectivity and universality, I need two other equally senior scholars to speak in defence of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Rather than worrying about the students you might dissuade by being honest about the state of your discipline and the ways that your own department can improve, I need you to think about all those students who are harmed and dissuaded by refusals to acknowledge the problems within classics and hostility to criticism or movements for change. Rather than tip-toeing around the feelings of those whose colleagues who don’t want to improve their teaching practices, I need you think about all those students who will be failed by their poor pedagogy if you do not force those colleagues to change. I need you to interrogate the ways in which you might unwittingly and unwilling contribute to a culture of marginalisation, in academia and beyond, and to actively engage in anti-racism work and other displays of solidarity. I need you to push for change and social justice as a non-optional part of your engagement with the discipline, and I need you to make sure that potential students and colleagues know that you take this seriously. I need you to support and uplift marginalised students within classics by ensuring that they have mentoring opportunities, access to financial support if necessary, and communities which are respectful and representative of their identities, and I need you to make space for marginalised scholars in your departments, postdocs and hiring practices.

This is, of course, a very partial list of requirements if we are to turn classics into an inclusive and welcoming discipline. I hesitate to even call it “the bare minimum”: I haven’t even touched on the need for institutions to pay POC, and especially Black, educators for our anti-racist advocacy. (If only we had a word to describe it when overwhelmingly-white institutions profit from the unpaid labour of people of colour!) It isn’t hard to find proper resources on what decolonising and diversifying classics actually entails, including scholars and organisations who deserve your financial support. Nevertheless, being vocal is something which you as an individual can start doing immediately, without much need to spend time or money or work through systems of bureaucracy. Being vocal about the need for anti-racism in classics and your willingness to commit to change is the first step in showing marginalised scholars that they can trust you just a little bit. From there, you might be able to ask those people how you can offer better support their communities and improve your teaching and research – but you must first show that it is worth our time to engage with you.

I want to finish this blog post by addressing those who might wish to dismiss me, who side with the Spectator piece and agree that anyone who criticises racism is a fascist. In all honesty, and speaking personally rather than on behalf of any community: I don’t mind if you are vocal as well. I have no desire to curtain your free speech, or even what some individuals seem to consider a god-given right to have people listen to you. As much as your words will hurt marginalised students and contribute to our further marginalisation, it would be nice to know where you stand now, before we waste any more time and energy trying to get you on our side. Know this: no matter how much you might wish it were not the case, this discipline cannot survive without learning to include people from all backgrounds and identities, and if you don’t get with the times, you will be left behind and fade even further into irrelevance.

2 thoughts on “Reflections: A call to action”

  1. Regarding the teaching of Classics in particular, I agree with you that more needs to be done to make students from marginalized populations feel welcome and that racist or marginalizing ideas should not be allowed to influence teaching as they now do; I also agree that people should work to make themselves and their society less racist. However, your proposal seems to include a greater connection of academic Classics with politics. Possibly I am misinterpreting you, but these sections:
    “…the department’s failure to engage in anti-racism or solidarity (even to acknowledge that Black lives matter) in any meaningful way…”
    “I need you to interrogate the ways in which you might unwittingly and unwilling contribute to a culture of marginalisation, in academia and beyond, and to actively engage in anti-racism work and other displays of solidarity. I need you to push for change and social justice as a non-optional part of your engagement with the discipline…”
    seem to indicate that you think Classics teachers should actively be involved in social-justice politics and activism as part of their role in education. This idea is justified by the idea that, since marginalized students currently feel unwelcome, a visible positive display of non-racism is necessary to overcome that feeling, and that consideration of these topics will be useful in counteracting marginalization within Classics departments. However, it seems unlikely that an entire department will make such a display voluntarily: aside from conscious or subconscious racists, there are likely to be quite a few professors who disagree politically with the current social justice movement, or who dislike it because they associate it with ‘cancel culture’ or politicization of academic discourse, or who want to keep their professional lives and their politics separate. Therefore, if a display of antiracism is to be made by a department as a whole rather than by a few individual professors, the indifferent or hostile parts of the department must be incentivized to participate, whether through formal rules or through social pressure. Since change to both the (real or perceived) culture of Classics departments and the larger injustices in society will require sustained effort over a long period of time, the voluntary antiracists will need to continue to incentivize their colleagues long enough for both antiracism and punishment of nonparticipants therein to become a stable social norm.
    In many ways, that is likely to be a good thing — it will probably help reach the goal of attracting marginalized students — but I expect that it will also have some negative consequences. First, it goes against the usual idea of a department at a university being dedicated mostly or entirely to teaching and doing research on its subject, and while institutional support for one political faction would attract that faction’s members, it would also deter people who disagree with that faction or who just want to study the subject without significant political bias. Second, our understanding of human psychology and society is limited enough that we are far from understanding what the best way is to reduce bigotry in a society or in a person’s intuition, and a university department that enforces participation in one form of activism will probably have a harder time learning about or adopting more effective methods once those are discovered, especially if (as may happen) opposition to the popular form of antiracism is interpreted as opposition to antiracism in general. It is not clear from your essay that quickly making Classics more inclusive through institutionalization of antiracism outweighs these problems.
    As a mere undergraduate student, I have much less experience than you, and I’m guessing you already have responses to this criticism. However, if you want to persuade people who aren’t already on your side, you should respond to such counterarguments, or at least refer to someone else’s response.
    (The same, in my opinion, is true of the statement in your previous essay that scholars who “are silent or claim neutrality … “have chosen the side of the oppressor””, which is non-obvious enough that it should receive more explicit justification than it gets.)

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response to my post. As you say, it is important to consider counter arguments, and I appreciate you offering some possibilities. I fully agree that many departments will house conscious or subconscious racists (as I say in my post, classics is traditionally very welcoming of white supremacy) who will be resit to change, and that individuals and departments will need to put significant formal and social pressure on such individuals over a sustained period of time in order to effect change. However, I do not agree that the potential negative consequences which you have raised are valid objections to the wider project of making universities more inclusive.

      I think a lot hinges on how we conceive of politics. Universities in the UK are inherently political spaces, strongly shaped by government policy and with a strong influence on elected officials and voters alike. They receive a huge proportion of both teaching and research income from the government, either directly or through government-backed student loans, and are significantly impacted by government policies deciding how much they can charge in tuition fees and how easily scholars from other countries can visit, collaborate with or migrate to the UK. They make a significant contribution to the British economy. Over 80% of current MPs are university graduates [1], and 50% of young people attend university [2] – most of whom will not vote in a General Election, and in many cases a local election, until after they have started their undergraduate degree. Whether or not someone has a university degree continues to shape all sorts of life prospects, including which professions are available to them. Moreover, I don’t believe that anyone is able to keep their political views separate from their teaching (especially in the arts and humanities), as politics shapes every aspect of our lives. The ideal which suggests that this is desirable, much like the ideal that all research is objective, is based on a pernicious error: the idea that existing systems of power which privilege a certain viewpoint and benefit certain social groups are a neutral position. The desire to conserve the status quo, and to pretend that politics is something which happens to other people, is itself political. Similarly, no subject, and certainly not a subject with such a long and problematic history as classics, can be studied without political bias: the material we study and the teaching methods we use are the product of centuries of political decisions and ideologies about what is considered worthy of knowledge and respect, and whose experiences have value and whose do not.

      I make no mention in my call to action of party or electoral politics or factionalism, and I’m not suggesting lecturers should tell students how to vote. I was very careful not to capitalise the phrase “Black lives matter”, so as to be clear that I was not speaking specifically about the broader movement, or the activist group of the same name in the UK, but the simple concept that Black lives have value, at a time when this is apparently up for debate in British and American society, during a global pandemic which seems to have had a particular impact on Black and other ethnic minority communities. I am aware that many people do not believe that people of colour or other marginalised groups should be respected and valued as much as the more privileged groups in society – whether they are willing to admit this belief, or disguise it with weak justifications – but I do not consider that to be a defensible political position. We may disagree about and debate the best way to effect changes that make our society more just – although such debates must be led by the marginalised parties, rather than those who benefit from maintaining systems of marginalisation – but we cannot debate the fundamental idea that justice and equity should be our goals.

      Wider social justice is necessary because universities do not exist in isolation. To ensure the highest quality of research, we need to make sure that our universities attract the brightest students and help them to flourish. This means removing the barriers to education which might prevent someone from either applying or being able to secure a place (including inequalities at the secondary level), and those which prevent them from making their best possible contributions to academia (including financial barriers stopping some students from engaging fully with their course, either due to lack of resources or because they must balance their studies against employment). Until we create a level playing field, we are not really assessing which students are the brightest and most dedicated.

      I don’t agree that commitment to (a certain method of) anti-racism will create a culture that is resistant to new methods of anti-racism, particularly in an academic institution which should be responsive to new ideas and research. This problem only arises when institutions look for quick fixes that look good and make for good PR – fixes which usually do not involve consulting the communities directly affected – but are not interested in effecting real change. There is a significant and growing body of sociological research into anti-racism, including generally accessible books such as “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad (which I am reviewing this week), which departments can look to for guidance. As new techniques develop, departments must move with the times and ensure their strategies are up to date, but this is the case in all areas of university life, including research priorities and financial management. If individual departments worry that they will not be able to keep on top of this, then universities need to hire specialists who will – just as they hire specialists to handle other areas of training and administration. (Note: anti-racism should be a part of pedagogical training and continuing professional development, and I am aware that many established academics believe that such training is beneath them. Such individuals are doing a great disservice to their students, who should not be paying such high tuition fees to be taught using methods which are twenty years out of date, whether this relates to anti-racism or issues such as the use of technology in teaching.)

      For your final query, about an explanation of how neutrality involves siding with the oppressor, I would refer you to the powerful words (or the body of scholarship which analyses them) of activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Elie Wiesel, or Desmond Tutu, whom I quoted – although admittedly without citation, as I thought the line was recognisable enough not to require it. I have offered a link to a basic summary of this position below [3].

      —–

      [1] – https://studee.com/media/mps-and-their-degrees-media/
      [2] – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/university-students-young-people-over-half-first-time-a9122321.html
      [3] – https://organizingchange.org/here-is-how-moral-leaders-approach-neutrality/

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