Community spaces and Listserv racism

Most Anglophone classicists at PhD level or higher will be aware of the Classicists list, also known as the Liverpool List (after the institution which provides web-hosting) or just as the Listserv. It is a mailing list to which anyone can subscribe and any subscriber can post, dedicated to announcements relevant to classicists about job postings, conferences or seminars, CfPs and new resources. It’s generally a very good way to stay informed about things that are going on in ancient world studies, and Dr Nick Lowe at Royal Holloway deserves some serious kudos for managing it (I believe singlehandedly) over the last 20 years.

Yet it is also seen by many as a necessary evil, both for the sheer volume of emails posted to it, and for occasional digressions from its announcement focus which some find tedious and distracting. In February 2021, for instance, there were 13 messages discussing a possible “money no object” birthday present for a someone about to start their undergraduate course in Classics; in April 2021, there were over 60 messages posted to the list about languages of preferred publication and which modern languages academics should be expected to learn; and in the summer of 2018 (before I joined the list) there was a sustained and, I believe, somewhat heated discussion about whether or not male-only panels should be permitted at conferences. As a mailing list open (and interesting) to everyone involved in Classics, it inevitably also contains some of the field’s more regressive and bigoted individuals, and sometimes this bubbles up into a public row. I was involved in one such racist exchange at the weekend. I’m going to describe it here, both for the benefit of anybody who is relying on second- or third-hand accounts from Twitter to piece together what happened, and for my own benefit in processing my emotional response to this.

As some readers may know, I’m involved with a mutual aid group and solidarity network in ancient world studies called Sportula Europe. (You can learn more about the group on our website, which also explains how to donate to support our microgrant scheme.) We launched in May 2020, and to mark our one-year anniversary, we arranged to hold a panel discussion with the London Classicists of Colour network. All members of the Sportula Europe board identify as people of colour, four of us (myself included) grew up in London and three still live there and have some past or present affiliation with universities in London; so LCOC seemed a natural partnership. We advertised our panel discussion on the Classicists list, and received two responses questioning why there was any need for a group for classicists of colour. The first of these messages, from a Ghanaian colleague, may have been asked in good faith: Black and brown people from countries where they are the ethnic majority often do not realise how different the experience is for those of us raised in a white-majority country like the UK, where we are minoritised and experience both systemic and interpersonal racism and (especially in a field such as Classics) can feel extremely isolated without such solidarity spaces. The second email, from someone called John Bradley, did not seem to be written in good faith. John had this to say:

At the risk of lighting a blue touch paper could someone explain what ‘of colour’ means? I am ‘of colour’ being a pasty pink with the occasional red splodge, but when I was younger living in the Middle East I was much browner than many a ‘celebrity royal’.


As the previous commentator noted, the intention may be laudable but, in my opinion, the practice is (albeit mildly) racist, semantically dubious if not downright double plus ungood.


Better to encourage Classics in all under-represented groups in schools. If one must favour one group over another at least resist the newspeak.

Email from John Bradley to the Classicists list

There’s plenty wrong with this email, attempts to stop minoritised groups from choosing terms to describe ourselves by labelling this as Orwellian “newspeak”; and it elicited a few public replies noting how disingenuous it was to pretend not to understand the term “person of colour”. I don’t know if other readers will have picked up on the subtle jab at Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex and surely the “celebrity royal” alluded to here: it picks up on an argument used by many right-wing commentators in the UK to claim that Meghan Markle cannot have been the victim of racism in public discourse because she is light-skinned and doesn’t real count as Black. (This argument, to be clear, is itself incredibly racist.) John’s comment to the effect that a network like London Classicists of Colour favours one group over another smacks of the “all lives matter” rhetoric claiming that working against racism is an attempt to discriminate against white people. It is telling – but not at all surprising – that merely advertising an event in Classics which did not center whiteness should elicit this level of fragility. If I had received this message privately, I would have sent it straight to the trash folder where it belongs.

However, this was not private: it was sent to a major international mailing list, and was directly attacking – and labelling as racist – LCOC, a group with no presence on the Listserv itself. (I’ve spoken with members of the LCOC committee and they didn’t know they were being maligned in this way until people started sending them screenshots.) I also know how the list tends to work, and realised it was necessary to provide an authoritative response to nip the conversation in the bud. As such, I composed and sent a lengthy email in which I calmly and politely explained the meaning of the phrase “people of colour”, the purpose of our panel discussion (including the fact that anybody could attend), the work of Sportula Europe (which does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity), and the importance of Classicist of Colour networks specifically. I won’t provide the whole email here, but here’s what I had to say on this final point:

The London Classicists of Colour network (based out of University College London), much like the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour (at the University of Oxford), is a student-run affinity group for undergraduates and postgraduates who identify as Black, Asian or as a person of colour. Both LCOC and CCSCC offer space for community-building, friendship and encouragement for students who experience racism or other marginalisation in a discipline where the vast majority of scholars are white; they also organise public events, open to people of any ethnicity, which showcase the work of BIPOC scholars or research which has a focus on ethnicity in antiquity studies. Neither group has any responsibility whatsoever for encouraging Classics in schools, any power to shape departmental policy, or any duty to support all underrepresented groups in Classics (again, these are led entirely by student volunteers). If you would like to learn more about why students of colour feel that they need these solidarity spaces against racism in Classics, then the second section of the Sportula Europe bibliography offers some valuable perspectives.

Extract from my email to the Classicists list

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that the University of Cambridge also has a small network for classicists of colour, but it has much less focus on events that are open to the general public, so I did not mention it in my original email; and I’ll note that, while the current members of the LCOC committee are based out of UCL, it is explicitly open to students from any institution in the University of London network. If any other UK universities have similar groups, I would love to know about them; but I don’t think it is coincidental that these three groups are found in the largest Classics departments in the country, as only very large departments have enough students of colour to make such groups viable. They are also quite new: I think LCOC has been running for less than six months at the time of writing, and neither Oxford nor Cambridge had these groups established when I studied there.

I was very fortunate, as a first-year undergraduate, to have two other British-born people of colour in my small cohort of 11 students, and to have stayed in touch with them ever since. During my MSt year, both of them were also living in Oxford (although not studying there), and I had other POC postgraduate classicist friends in the department too. It wasn’t until I started my PhD in a much smaller department that I really understood (for the first time in my life) what it meant to be in the only person of colour in a friendship group. It was horrible, exacerbated by the general state of the world (particularly in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2019 General Election) which meant that racism was always on my mind; there was nobody around me who could understand how seeing the way that politicians and journalists talk about other Black and brown people – how even those who had lived for decades in the UK were still seen as foreigners who could be stripped of their rights and dignity in an instant – constantly buffeted my psyche and made me feel that I didn’t belong in this country, that my life was worth less because of the colour of my skin. My PhD experience has given me a newfound appreciation for the importance of classicist of colour networks; and I am immensely grateful for the creation of Sportula Europe last year, which has alleviated much of this isolation for me. It’s astonishing to think how dependent I have become on four new friends that I am yet to meet in person.

I hoped that my measured intervention, my simple defence of the right of BIPOC classicists to create solidarity networks for themselves, would put an end to the matter. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case. After my intervention on the Listserv, I received a response from a different email address, but which I believe to be the same person as above, since the email was signed off as “John”. (Admittedly, it’s an incredibly common name, so I don’t know that for sure; and it doesn’t make much difference whether it is the same person or not.) Be aware that the following message is more explicitly racist (particularly in regards to mixed-race people and queer people of colour), and I had a much more visceral reaction to it. An email account labelled as “Colporteur” had this to say:

Ashley says, “Every member of the Sportula Europe committee identifies as a person of colour.” But every fair-minded person has an equal stake in fighting any kind of discrimination. Why a group should exclude people of another skintone, who are fighting for the same cause, is beyond me. Segregation only fortifies—if subtly and unintentionally—what it pretends to tear down.


Mixed-race people (or more accurately, people who look mixed-race) get discriminated against on multiple fronts—including, probably, by some members of the Classicists of Colour committee. Should they form a “Classicists of Not-Quite-Colour” committee? And should those mixed-race people who are also, say, bisexual, split off from the “Classicists of Not-Quite-Colour” committee, some members of which may differ with them on the rights of bi people? And if not, on what grounds shouldn’t they?


Ultimately we all break down into individuals. And we’re all mutts. So why class ourselves as anything else?


John

Email from “Colporteur” directly to me, but seemingly intended to go to the Classicists list as well

John completely ignored the point about students of colour wanting spaces for themselves, away from the often overwhelming racism of the discipline, and accused such groups of enacting segregation. John accused these committees (I’m not sure whether LCOC or Sportula Europe is meant here; I think the former, but the claim is equally invented for both) of discriminating against mixed-race people and bisexual people to the extent that such individuals would feel unwelcome in these spaces. Setting up an opposition between queer people and (some) people of colour has a strong whiff of homonationalism, as far as I’m concerned, and doesn’t reflect any undergraduate or postgraduate communities I know. The email also claims that mixed-race folk such as myself do not count as “people of colour”, and ends with a term that has a particular history of being used to racially abuse us. Multiple mixed-race classicists have been in touch with me to say how hurtful they found the message and this choice of words. To echo a comment made by a friend on Twitter, John’s message suggests a false belief that only multiracial or multi-heritage people with one white parent can count as “mixed”; but at the same time, and based on a second email that John sent me off-list, I think the phrasing about “people who look mixed-race” and the idea that “we’re all mutts” is meant to imply that anybody who has distant ancestry from more than one (narrowly-defined) ethnic group somehow also counts as mixed-race. Having a small amount of variety in a 23andMe profile is not in any way comparable to my experience as someone with a white British mother and a Punjabi father who was raised in both cultures, a combination which shapes my entire existence and identity. I don’t know whether John realised that the message was being send directly to a queer mixed-race person, but even if not, it would have been sent to a mailing list containing such individuals; I don’t know whether the message is more or less racist for having me as its direct recipient. In any case, although I’m generally inured to white fragility and to claims that Classics as a discipline doesn’t have a problem with racism, this particular message felt extremely personal, and hit me far harder than I would have expected.

Here’s where I may have messed up. When I received this email, I could see that it was addressed to me directly, but with the Classicists list cc’d in. I assumed that if I could see it, so could everybody else; and with racism that vile, it’s important to shut it down promptly, so I hit “reply all” and composed an angry refutation. I didn’t realise that, because the “Colporteur” account was not a list subscriber (a fact which strengthens my suspicion that it is an alternative email account for John Bradley), it was automatically blocked from posting to the list. If I had not replied, nobody else would have seen this message; but because I did, people could scroll down through my email and see what I was responding to. As such, I inadvertently exposed more people to this racism, and I feel awful about that. I have asked the list moderator to remove my message (and therefore the message I quoted) from the list archives, so nobody will stumble across it accidentally; but of course, it still went out to current list subscribers. I’d like to explicitly apologise to any other people of colour (especially mixed-race people) on the Listserv who were hurt by seeing the message I quoted, as well as to any parents of mixed-race kids who may have been similarly affected.

On the other hand: was I wrong to expose this to the Classicists list, especially when most of its subscribers (like most Classicists in general) are white, and therefore not directly impacted by Colporteur’s racist language? Would it have been better to let this person get away with saying this to me via a private email? Experiences of racism often involve downplaying the offence (“maybe this person didn’t realise I was mixed-race when sending that message”) and feeling shame for potentially damaging social cohesion (“maybe I should have ignored it and not made a fuss”); and I want to avoid second-guessing myself like that. I’m trying to think of these two email exchanges as equally important contributions to this unfortunate conversation: my first email attempted to argue a case, alleviate any confusion and persuade people about the value of solidarity groups and community spaces; the second exchange showed the kind of casual everyday (but still painful) racism which people of colour still face in Classics, made clear that we will not tolerate it, and proved that groups to support and uplift people of colour in the discipline are sorely needed.

In any case, having received this racist abuse, I sent this response to the list:

What grounds do you have for saying that members of the Classicists of
Colour committee discriminate against mixed-race people or bi people? What
gives you any right to say that mixed-race people only count as
“classicists of not-quite-colour”? (Let me note also, in case you aren’t
aware of this, that “mutt” is often thrown at mixed-race people as a slur,
and I find its inclusion in your email offensive.) Affinity groups are not
segregation, Sportula Europe stands in solidarity with all marginalised
groups, and I, personally, am a mixed-race gay man. Stop being such a
clown.

Yours, enraged and not engaging with this any further,
Ashley

My email response to “Colporteur” and the Classicists list

A calm and measured tone will only get you so far, and I should not have to be polite to anybody calling me a mutt and a person of “not-quite-colour”; but I still aimed to show some restraint, so as not to give anybody else on the Listserv an excuse to attack me further. I did receive an off-list apology from “Colporteur” for any upset the email had caused; but that apology still maintained that “mutt” was not a perjorative term and that classicist of colour networks were “segregating groups by melanin level”, so it doesn’t seem that this individual understands why I was upset by the original message. More importantly, I’ve received more than 20 messges of support, some private and some public, many from people I know but quite a few from complete strangers. I’m trying to let those positive messages wipe out the pain I’m still feeling at having such a horrible message in my inbox.

For the sake of completeness, I do want to share one other frustrating message I received off-list. As with the Colporteur email, this was sent to the list and seemingly intended to go public, so I feel entitled to share it, but it was caught by the list filters (and I have learnt my lesson to check that before taking action). The email, from CJ Hinke, started by completely mischaracterising the work of Sportula Europe and trying to set the organisation against colleagues in the USA who are similarly advocating for equity and antiracism in Classics, before moving onto some patronising advice to the effect that I should just try to ignore racism. I provide an extract from this second half below:

We can’t control the behaviour of others nor do I find it effective to shame them. We cannot choose our colours or our sexual identities. But the choices we have are the importance we give those built-in identities and our readiness to take offence.

Often our first impulse is to react, with, often, over-reaction. What matters is how you feel inside. Your poise & confidence in your own life not how others view you, even if their view makes you invisible.

We would recoil from the invention of new words in Greek or Latin so why should we feel the need for such new definitions in English?

It’s labeling we have to oppose—perhaps largely even self-labeling. I am a veteran of civil rights. The posters still hold true: I Am a (Hu)Man. The rest of it is just greasepaint.

To let such issues as “mixed-race” or “bi” or any other joining words get up our snoots is folly. All academics teach our students various kinds of life-choices. So choose to have a laugh at the expence of boors & cretins. Take a breath, relax.

Grow some patience so whatever your position is, you can help others understand it and, therefore, you. Maybe you’ll find you can even grow compassion for life’s fools.

Extract from an email from CJ Hinke (Thammasat University, Bangkok) to the Classicists list, with my email address cc’d in

This message isn’t very coherent, but it includes heaps of tone-policing, suggests I’m in the wrong for caring about my identity as a queer person of colour (or even simply for using such “new definitions”), and encourages me to give racism a free pass and just ignore or laugh at it (which is a surefire way to ensure that racist systems do not change). Anyway, it turns out that CJ Hinke was banned from posting to the list (rightly, I would say) in February after a nonsensical email accusing people who call out racism of destroying the discipline; so the only people who received this email are those, such as myself, who were directly copied into it. I’m very glad of this, as it means I don’t have to expend more energy writing a public refutation or correction. To be clear: although it may seem less abusive, I find this kind of message almost as exhausting and frustrating as the other emails I have criticised in this post, and it is infuriating that somebody should think it’s acceptable to send something like this to the entire mailing list (as Hinke attempted to do). I don’t understand how these people get the confidence to post to a public list about topics that they clearly know nothing about, with absolutely no sense of shame.

I keep reminding myself that, although I can’t dismiss this as an isolated incident, neither can I take the opinions of one or two classicists as indicative of the field as a whole. As mentioned above, I have also had many messages of support. Yet every time something like this happens, either to me or to any other scholar of colour (and you had better believe that we have whisper networks to discuss these things when they happen in private), I can’t help but wonder whether I’ve wasted the last ten years of my life on a discipline which still lags so far behind on racism. I remember a point, as an undergraduate, when I would have described myself as a classicist first, a gay man second, and a mixed-race person third; now I find myself sometimes embarrassed to tell new people what I do for a living, or to express my affiliation with some of the departments where I have studied, and I regret that I haven’t spent more time getting involved in BIPOC and queer spaces outside of academia. Racism permeates British society and exists in all professions, but I wonder if higher education is unique in offering no recourse through HR for people on the receiving end, and in defending terrible behaviour on the grounds that people produce good research or have a right to academic freedom. At least fortnightly over the last six months, I have found myself seriously contemplating dropping out of my PhD programme; and although there are many factors behind the depression and suicidal ideation I have been experiencing recently, a major element is the albatross around my neck that is my thesis. (Due to various pandemic-related limitations on my productivity over the last 15 months, and the amount of time I have spent on antiracism and EDI work over the same period, I think it will take me at least another year to finish my PhD; and even with an extension from my funding body, my income will run out after Christmas.) My love of the subject has been greatly diminished by an increasing awareness of the awful regressive elements still active in the discipline, and my research seems so meaningless when it doesn’t and cannot address any of the real issues with Classics: to use an image from antiquity, it feels like I am fiddling while Rome burns. The more effort I put into improving Classics, the more it feels like I am allowing myself to be mistreated and exploited, and the less confident I am that this work actually makes a difference to people from marginalised communities.

I don’t want to end on a sour note. This week was meant to be an opportunity to celebrate the work of Sportula Europe over the last year, to bring together classicists of colour in an online space, and to show BIPOC undergraduates that there can be a place for them in the discipline. I was already a PhD student before I ever had a chance to learn from a BIPOC academic (at a departmental seminar); I can count on one hand the number of Classics panel discussions I’ve attended which were not majority-white (and probably on two hands the panels which were not entirely white). It’s important to me to show students that there are people of colour who succeed in Classics, that it is possible if you are able to find a community; and in fact, our event was a resounding success. I naturally find myself defending BIPOC-only (and queer-only) spaces from a pessimistic perspective, whereby it’s necessary for marginalised people to have spaces where they don’t have to worry about prejudice, harassment and marginalisation, enclaves of security and self-care in what might otherwise be a hostile environment. This panel discussion reminded me that we can and should make an optimistic defence of these spaces as well. Some of the most exciting, original, vibrant research and activism in ancient studies right now comes from people from traditionally underrepresented and marginalised groups (which is unsurprising: new perspectives enrich the field). Groups like LCOC and Sportula Europe can bring together dedicated students and scholars into creative and intellectual projects that otherwise could never exist. I’m constantly learning from my BIPOC friends and colleagues, particularly those in Sportula Europe, and I’m glad that our LCOC panel enabled us to share that experience with other people. My favourite thing about the discussion was the fact that we didn’t need to prepare answers or a presentation to establish an official line (although we have engaged in collaborative writing and editing before, to great effect). I can be confident that whatever my friends in Sportula Europe say, it will be intelligent, informative, nuanced and provocative; that we will each be learning from each other in real time, and contributing equally to an interesting and productive conversation. When we decided to host this particular panel with the London Classicists of Colour committee, we did so in the expectation that they would engage in good faith in this same spirit of collaboration and solidarity; our trust in them turned out to be very well-placed. The event was a source of energy and joy for all of us as panellists, and hopefully for our audience as well.

The racist and offensive response which was elicited from (one or two members of) the Classicists mailing list when we advertised an event about being a classicist of colour is proof that such community spaces are necessary. However, it is the creative and intellectual collaborations evidenced by the panel discussion itself – and by the wider work of The Sportula, Sportula Europe, London Classicists of Colour, the Christian Cole Society, the Asian & Asian-American Classical Caucus, Mountaintop Coalition and other such groups – which really prove to me that BIPOC networks in Classics create a better and richer discipline for everyone, whatever your race or ethnicity.

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