Reflections: Against the denial of racism in classics

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.

This week saw the publication of an article in the Spectator which denies the existence of racism and injustice in classics, and rejects the idea that there is any need to improve our discipline. I doubt that I am alone in being extremely upset by this piece. It is written by an Oxbridge classicist, someone who lectured me as an undergraduate and who sat on the faculty board when I was an elected student representative, and who is, moreover, currently (inexplicably) an access and outreach officer for the faculty, who has a responsibility to represent the department to potential students. I think it is fair to say that, considering my connection to the department (I regularly visit my alma mater to use its library), this piece hit me harder than other, similarly ignorant and harmful, statements.

I will not be naming the lecturer in question in this blog post, although his identity will be obvious to anyone who cares to find the article, and I hope readers will respect this anonymity in their responses to my words. This isn’t really about him; it certainly isn’t a call for cancellation. To be completely clear: I have no desire for him to lose his job or face abuse, no interest in debating whether or not he is racist, and no wish for him to feel, should he read my words, the alarm and distress which I have felt at reading his. The article in question, and perhaps the scholar in question, may be a particularly egregious example of the ways in which classics can often feel unwelcoming, but it is not unique. Classics continues to exclude many marginalised students and scholars – including those whose identities and experiences are very different from my own, such as trans and non-binary students and those with disabilities – who will all have their own lists of individuals and incidents that made them feel unwelcome. Moreover, this problem is exacerbated by the many scholars who remain silent in the face of such distressing discourse, and it is to those silent scholars that I am primarily addressing this blog post.

The upsetting Spectator article responds to an open letter led by students and scholars of colour which argues for urgent changes to classics at Oxford, and which shows the strength of feeling on this issue from a large number of supporters. Its author argues in bad faith to demonise the students pushing for change, and the malice or wilful ignorance behind this piece (is he actively trying to harm his students, or is he merely failing to engage any critical faculties?) is why I am not bothering to debunk it in detail. He is not worth my time, he is not going to change his mind, and he does not deserve my labour. Nevertheless, I wish to unpack some of the arguments and assumptions which I found particularly disturbing. I will then focus on how this piece made me feel, as a person of colour who is marginalised within the discipline. I believe this is a useful way to think about its wider harmful impact, and how other potential students and current scholars who read the piece might feel unwelcome in classics as a result.

This scholar starts with the suggestion that charges of racism against the discipline are new in 2020: they are not, it is merely the first time that the public mood around racism has left universities unable to ignore these charges. He claims that he has been unable to find any evidence of racism in classics – did his “lit review” not expose him to Eidolon, or Pharos, or any accounts of the 2019 SCS débâcle or the 2020 SCS anti-racism roundtable, or this recent widely-shared article from an Oxford undergraduate? He dismisses a tendency which he calls “fashionable” to be equally respectful of societies from around the world, by arguing that “Greco-Roman civilisation” have had a special dominant role in shaping western culture: has he paid any thought to the Phoenicians from whom our alphabet derives, the Arab scholars whose numbers and scientific vocabulary we use and without whom we would have significantly fewer classical texts to study? I would further contend that modern western society is far more profoundly shaped by the invasion and brutal exploitation of non-European countries – although not, I suppose, if your attention is focused on the education of the oppressor rather than the experiences of the oppressed. He grossly mischaracterises a proposal to remove or contextualise uncomfortable material from language exercises and pedagogy as a wish to erase such material from the texts we study, and argues, on the basis of nothing, that this is motivated by fear that encountering these materials might taint the morality of those who study them. Nobody is claiming that studying classics automatically makes you a white supremacist; but the discipline as it currently exists is still a place where white supremacy is often safe, and people whose white supremacist beliefs draw them to classics may well inculcate those values in their students and colleagues. He seems completely unaware of the existence of not only reception studies but even social history as a core component of the discipline. He claims that there cannot be a diversity problem because the proportion of BAME undergraduates studying classics at Oxbridge is in line with the national average, which does not match any department I have seen (have any of my readers taught or participated in a cohort in which one in every five British students was from an ethnic minority background?), and which is dismissive of other departments across the country for no reason other than snobbery. He makes barely the briefest nod to the well-known problem of retention rates and the leaky pipeline.

He moves from a rhetorical question asking why there are so few non-white academic staff in classics departments to a claim that classics appeals to British (and other “western”) students because of “cultural proximity” to the Greeks and Romans who, incidentally, consistently characterise Britain as backwards, uncivilised and a horrible place to live. The proximate connection he establishes between staffing diversity and student interest implies an explanatory link, and suggests that people of colour who live in Britain do not become classics lecturers because they are not British enough (or European enough) to be interested in classical antiquity. In response to his suggestion that “students in the UK” and “British students” should feel more cultural proximity to Greece and Rome than to non-European cultures such as Tang China, I have to ask: does he think that only white Europeans can count as British? From an undergraduate think-piece, I might believe that this slip-up is accidental, a problem of structure and editing; from an established academic who specialises in the study of language and literature, I am less willing to believe it is not a conscious rhetorical device. On the more charitable reading of the piece, in which the lack of non-white academic staff and the particular interest of British students are completely separate issues, then he has nothing to say about the staffing issue other than to acknowledge its existence and deny that it is due to racism. He offers no other possible explanations. Clearly, and unsurprisingly, it is not something which seems to concern him in any way.

This scholar contends that the major problem for classics in the UK is not race, but the fact that Latin is increasingly taught only in private schools – a shift which, he complains, is hastened by accusations of elitism, and which universities cannot do anything to halt. I attended a selective state school which did not teach Latin and, with the support of his academic colleagues, learnt Latin to a high-enough standard to achieve a first class degree at undergraduate level and continue on to a PhD in Latin literature; the same can also be said of many colleagues who were not educated at Oxbridge. The problem of elitism is not one of schools, but one of gatekeeping from academics involved in admissions and hiring practices. If the primary benefit to a state-school Latinist is a slim chance to study at a university where they will be dismissed as a result of their financial or ethnic background – well, universities aren’t exactly making a great case for state school Latin. Finally, the scholar perpetuates the myth, which I (perhaps foolishly) thought was long dead, that his perspective as a middle-class white man is objective and universal, but that other perspectives from scholars of marginalised genders or ethnicities are partial and threaten the integrity of an academic discipline.

If he were actually interested in engaging with and improving the current state of the discipline, this academic could have done so in a forum directed at other classicists – the CUCD Bulletin, for instance, or the Classicists Listserv, or in discussions within his own institution. The choice to write instead in the Spectator suggests either a greater desire to glorify his own ego and public profile than to participate in constructive change, or an attempt to weaponise the power and outrage of older, wealthier, more privileged members of the public against the students who are fighting to change a system which continues to do them harm. If he were actually interested in attracting a more diverse student group to the subject, he would not have produced an article which is so dismissive of the ideas and experiences of marginalised classicists. Every time I think that the slow speed of progress in classics is due to bureaucracy and uncertainty about how exactly to change rather than a lack of goodwill, I am reminded that there are plenty of individuals in our field who actively fight against any attempts at inclusivity, and many more who believe it is more important to tolerate and debate that position than to fulfil a duty of care to marginalised students and scholars.

This article engages in a specific kind of intellectual dishonesty which I find particularly disturbing coming from an established academic. The author weaponises his own classical education and apparent objectivity against the targets of his ire while distorting and misrepresenting what they have said. Whether this is a conscious device and act of manipulation, or a genuine failure to understand a simple argument by an author who has already decided he disagrees with it, it goes against all principles of intellectual honesty and academic rigour. I saw a very similar tactic used this week from someone in my current department. Readers might be aware of a Princeton classicist who has been widely criticised for labelling a Black student group as a “terrorist organisation” because it had called him a racist. I do not know this professor or his wider behaviour, but he is certainly willing to use racism as a weapon, if nothing else: the characterisation of the group as terrorists builds upon and helps to perpetuate racist stereotypes of Black people as violent, aggressive, a threat to Western society, and in need of either a paternalistic civilising influence or mass incarceration. An academic in my department shared a defence of this professor on Facebook (making sure to set his privacy settings so that people who aren’t friends with him could see it), and captioned the piece by saying that the attempt to “cancel a fellow scholar is shameful and pure fascism”. Is it ignorance of history, or a complete disregard for students (and anyone else that agrees with him), which has led him to conflate peaceful verbal criticism with political regimes that have murdered millions (especially those from minority groups)? Neither possibility is a good look.

I wouldn’t want to claim on the basis of a single article that the scholar who wrote (or shared) it is racist. However, I can say this: having read the Spectator piece, as a classicist of colour myself, I would not feel comfortable having its author as an interviewer, a supervisor, a director of studies, a thesis examiner, or a colleague. If I were 17 now, I would not feel comfortable applying to study at the university and department where I did in fact complete my undergraduate degree. If I were still attending that university, I would not feel comfortable encouraging other students of colour to apply to study there: in my experience, there is little benefit to outreach which brings marginalised students to university unless there is sufficient in-reach to support them once they arrive. Articles such as this Spectator piece, and silences from colleagues and departments (unwilling to commit to or even publicly acknowledge the need for change) which make them complicit in this, drive away talented scholars from marginalised backgrounds or communities and perpetuate the problems which permeate the discipline. I would hope that the scholar in question would be ashamed to think he might have this effect; but I am not naive enough to believe that anyone who could write such a piece has any empathy for marginalised students and scholars.

When marginalised students are looking for thesis supervisors or departments where they can pursue graduate study, and when those of us who hang on until the PhD level are looking for thesis examiners and potential postdocs, we have to do our own digging to find out who we can trust to support us, and who will be dismissive of how much harder we have to work (and how much problematic language and behaviour we have to silently endure) simply to get a seat at the table. One benefit of people who are vocal and transparent about how little they care is that it makes it easier to avoid them. But when many other scholars are silent or claim neutrality – and therefore, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “have chosen the side of the oppressor” – it is much harder to know who you can actually count on. This is made worse when articles such as the Spectator piece are published, or when prominent politicians weaponise their classical education to prop up blatantly racist and queerphobic statements and policies, and we see little outrage from a classical community which, too often, presents itself as neutral, apolitical and unwilling to engage in such issues. This problem will be explored further in part two of this post. Classicists, when it comes to issues of oppression, a reminder: your silence is violence.

2 thoughts on “Reflections: Against the denial of racism in classics”

  1. This is a very thoughtful and powerful piece. All of us in classics need to hear these perspectives, consider the structures that lie behind what we do, and ask ourselves are we really inclusive, welcoming and open as a field. Clearly we have a long way to go. To now see these issues being brought forth and laid out is a first step in the right direction.

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  2. Greece was never west and the Byzantines were east. Hellenes had no notion of colour – nor did Romans – in fact some of the most significant Roman Emperors were culturally African,
    I find it extraordinary that this debate goes on and yet no Hellene is included in a discussion of our heritage and culture.
    And even up to the 19th C so called pro Hellenic revolutionaries from Britain were concerned with our ‘orientalism’.
    Worse, this faux debate from BAM etc does what so called classists did in the past – ignore the culture bearers – us
    We have always recognised the contribution Phoenicians, Indians, Jews, Ethiopians, Egyptians have had on our culture – however it should not be denied that our contribution to their culture were of equal weight, from the drape on Hellenistic Indian statues, the impact and incorporation of Plato in later Judaism and much later in Islam all the way to Xi An.
    Again, this seems a very Anglosphere argument between Angloamericans regardless of colour. I speak as a Hellene.

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