Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

But who are we? And, you know, what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places.

-Meryl Streep, Golden Globes speech, January 8, 2017


From January 5 to 8 2017, Toronto hosted the Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS). The SCS, formerly known as the APA (American Philological Association), describes itself in these words :

The Society for Classical Studies (SCS), founded as the American Philological Association in 1869 by “professors, friends, and patrons of linguistic science,” is the principal learned society in North America for the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures, and civilizations. While the majority of its members are university and college Classics teachers, members also include scholars in other disciplines, primary and secondary school teachers, and interested lay people.[1]

For most North American scholars studying or working on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds in English speaking institutions, this huge conference is a must : Not so much because of the quality and depth of the many talks programmed than because of the opportunity it provides them to meet friends and colleagues, network, and, for the most junior ones, be interviewed for jobs. I myself have only attended the conference once, because the committee for my current position was holding long list interviews there, something which, I thought, was definitely worth paying the hefty registration and accomodation fees, as well as all the other expenses linked to making the trip to the city of that year, Chicago. Otherwise, since my “network” is more Canadian, European, and Middle Eastern than American, I don’t find it worth my limited travel expense budget to attend the SCS. However, since the conference was held in Toronto this year, I was happy to be able to meet a few friends and colleagues who were in town for the occasion.

When I entered the conference venue lobby (a huge, American-owned hotel located downtown) on the first morning of the conference, I was struck by how white the tag-bearing crowd was. Apart from the hotel staff and some tourists, everyone I saw that morning was white (and I made a self-conscious effort to walk and look around in search for what I hope would be some diversity; alas). What I experienced echoed the discomfort and sense of alienation I feel whenever I find myself in Torontonian spots where everyone besides my husband is white (some theaters, restaurants, exhibitions). The city being so incredibly diverse, the sight of such white homogeneity makes the adoptive Torontonian I am feel like I’ve just been teletransported to the early 20th century.

I understand my reaction as the result of both my scholarly trajectory (which goes increasingly in the direction of postcolonial approaches to the study of ancient history and of historiography), as well as of my experience teaching and living in Toronto. Canada’s largest city, which has been named in 2016 the most diverse city in the world[2], is a true cosmopolis, and although this multiculturalism doesn’t come without issues and challenges (Torontonians have, let’s remember it, elected Rob Ford), it is generally characterized by a substantially less segregated, discriminatory, and colonial order than what one experiences in many American and European cities.

The undergraduate student body at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), where I teach at the undergraduate level, is a mirror of Toronto’s diversity. For whoever is used to Parisian or Québécoises classrooms like I was until a decade ago, UTSC’s (and more broadly Torontonian) ones offer a welcome change : One that involves a  culturally and religiously diverse, transnational, and often diasporic crowd of students, most of whom speak at least two languages, and many of whom came to Canada as children or were born here from migrant parents.

UTSC’s students provide me with a keen, stimulating, and engaged audience with which I can approach a variety of topics in ways I couldn’t in homogeneous, white classrooms. It never happened to me so far, for instance, that I didn’t have at least one Greek and one Macedonian student in class when discussing tensions over who “owns” Alexander the Great’s legacy. Similarly, explaining how ancient Roman “religion” differed from Judaeo-Christian ones is very much facilitated by the fact that many students have been exposed – directly or indirectly – to non Judaeo-Christian rituals or beliefs. I’ve also had several students of South Asian origin come to my office after a special lecture dedicated to the Hellenistic Far East specifically to tell me how strong a moment it had been for them to realize that Greek history was also part of their heritage. One student and her family even planned to visit some Indo-Greek remains located in the region where her family comes from during their summer trip to India. And last term, after showing my first-year students a clip on the destruction and reconstruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan, a student of Afhan origin shared her experience visiting the site with her uncle, who is working with the UNESCO on the restoration of the site.

When I teach in such postcolonial classrooms, the necessity to decolonize the field of Classical Studies seems all the more urgent to me that despite the multicultural profile of the students, the idea that the Greeks and the Romans are the roots of “Western civilization” (for whatever it is supposed to mean) remains widespread. My response has been to highlight how things are much more shifting and, therefore, interesting than that, and how this “Classical” world they are interested to learn more about is part of a much more global, diverse, and complex web of historical dynamics, that, to varying degrees, stretched from the UK to India and China, and from northern Europe to the Horn of Africa. I am also increasingly convinced that introducing undergraduates to the issues surrounding the origins and development of the discipline allows for more honest class discussions, and for a better understanding of why the ancient world matters today.

Why is it then that, while undergraduate classrooms are increasingly diverse, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Toronto, I couldn’t spot one non-white Classicist in the SCS venue lobby? And by extension, why is it that only a very small number of North American (and I think I’m not taking too much risk in saying European) graduate and postgraduate Classicists do not identify as white? One easy answer – and a comforting one for white Classicists – is cultural and concerns family pressure among migrant families : Most non-white parents do not want their children to get a degree in Arts, Humanities, or the Social Sciences. Instead, they hope to see them make an economically secure and stable life for themselves by becoming scientists, doctors, or engineers. Beyond its stereotypical nature, such a phenomenon is, like all stereotypes, in part true. Yet it certainly does not only apply to non-white families nor to all migrants (how many white people were bemused that my parents would allow me to study in the Humanities despite the fact that I was good in school?) and it does not prevent graduate programs and faculty in other disciplines such as History and Anthropology to be way more diverse than Classical Studies and its related disciplines (Classical archaeology, papyrology, Greek and Latin epigraphy) are. Just stroll through the hotel lobby where the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting takes place (which I did twice) and you’ll see the difference pretty quickly. Although they remain mostly white and aren’t exempt either from issues regarding diversity, these fields have taken on the postcolonial turn at least 25 years ago : The American Historical Association (AHA) created a committee on minority historians in 1990 and adopted a on Statement on Diversity in History Teaching in 1991, while the AAA’s Commission on Minority Issues was created in 1992-1993. More broadly, scholarship in these fields testify to a critical engagement with postcolonial theories and methods that is in many ways only starting to develop in Classical Studies[3]. If almost all graduate students and scholars in Classical Studies remain to this day white, it is therefore also because the discipline doesn’t make non-white students feel included enough for them to consider worth dedicating themselves to it in the long term. It has, in other words, not properly decolonized itself.

The creation in late 2016 by the SCS of a distinct committee on diversity[4] is certainly a great initiative, and a powerful symbol, whose strength is all the more evocative that the announcement was made on the Society’s website less than two weeks after Donald Trump’s election as the Presidents of the USA, in a climate where racism and bigotry seemed to have been unleashed throughout the country. Roger S. Bagnall’s Presidential message highlighted the inspirational role played by retired Princeton Classicist W. Robert Connor, who, through his blog, « challenged the Society to take a more activist and thoughtful approach to the long-standing and persistent underrepresentation of African-Americans in Classics »[5]. I would add that, in the USA as elsewhere in the “West”, this underrepresentation actually applies to all non-white groups, including those rooted in countries that were part of the Classical world itself.

What could and should we do? Quoting Edward Said in passing does not suffice. While waiting for the SCS’s committee on diversity’s work to bear some constructive fruits, I believe it remains the duty of instructors and scholars to honestly confront the deeply imperialist roots of our discipline both within and outside the classroom, to break away from the 19th-century, Eurocentrist canon of “the Classics”, and to fully engage with what all ancient evidence actually tell us : That this world Classicists love so much was multicultural, multilingual, and in its way, global, and that a great number (if not most) of those who ever spoke and wrote in Greek and Latin or lived in the “Classical” world would not qualify today as white nor as western. To paraphrase Meryl Streep’s powerful Golden Globes speech of Jan.8, 2017, the Greek and Roman world was, like today’s Hollywood, « crawling with outsiders and foreigners ». Without them, there wouldn’t be much of that world left for us to study and reflect upon.

Katherine Blouin


Notes

[1] https://classicalstudies.org/about/about-scs

[2] http://www.blogto.com/city/2016/05/toronto_named_most_diverse_city_in_the_world/

[3] The pioneering work of Martin Bernal, Phiroze Vasunia, Barbara Goff and, for Egypt, Malcolm Reid, ought to be mentioned here. We must also aknowledge how an increasing number of scholars have been working on ancient multiculturalism, cultural identities, and multilingualisms, as well as on issues of race and ethnicity in the ancient world. The philological and historical study of ancient women and gender dynamics has also imposed itself as a major component of the field (both in terms of research and curricula), and that, in my view, to a level that the sub-field of ancient multiculturalism, race, and ethnicity still hasn’t reached. (This note was expanded after a comment by Deborah Lyons (see below), whom I thank)

[4] This committee was created following the decision to split a former committee on the status of women and minority groups into two separate ones. Interestingly, all the most recent members of that committee are white academics (https://classicalstudies.org/about-scs/leadership/committees). My colleague Regina Höschele also points to me that this year’s annual meeting included a panel on the impact of immigration on Classical Studies in North America.

[5] https://classicalstudies.org/scs-news/diversity-and-equality

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9 thoughts on “Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white

  1. Thank you for this article, which points to a fact about my profession that I regret. Don’t think that we haven’t noticed! But we are not all white, and many of us who are, are deeply committed to fostering diversity in the academy and in our profession. The Diversity Committee is new but the Committee on Women and Minority Groups was in existence for many years. The SCS sponsors scholarships for minority students who are pursuing a Ph.D. in Classics.
    A new group, “Classics and Social Justice,” was formed at the meetings this year by people who are bringing Classics to prisons, working with vets, and are dedicated to social, economic, and racial justice.
    But what concerns me is that your article ignores the many people in the field who have been exploring race and ethnicity in antiquity, Greek and Roman cultural exchanges with and debts to other peoples, and the role of Black scholars of antiquity. Vasunia and Goff deserve credit but they are far from the only ones who deserve mention in this connection.

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    1. Hi Deborah,

      Many thanks for your comments and for the further information about current initiatives by the SCS. It all sounds very encouraging, and I’m certainly as glad as aware that many colleagues are concerned about the issue. Do you happen to know when the former committee on women and minority groups was first created? I haven’t been unable to track that information as of yet.

      Re your comment about work in the field on race and ethnicity : I completely agree with you! I’ve been myself researching and teaching on these issues at the undergraduate and graduate levels for many years, so when I read your message, I somehow wondered why it didn’t occurr to me to mention this important area of the field, and why I felt like aknowledging Phiroze Vasunia and Barbara Goff in particular. My point in referring to them was that they directly and extensively engage with the imperial roots of Classical Studies as a discipline, the ways in which this legacy has shaped past scholarship, and how the field remains perceived by the general public. I should have mentioned as well Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which no matter what one thinks of it, had a considerable impact within and beyond Classical Studies.

      I also mentioned work on women and gender because my sense is that it has succeeded better than race and ethnicty (so far at least) at carving a place for itself within mainstream CLA curricula in North America. Would you agree? How many undergraduate and graduate curricula seriously aim to expose at least minimally students to non Graeco-Roman texts and, for instance, Punic and Persian primary evidence? Of course there are, but I think the total falls way behind the number of curricula allowing students to get a basic grasp at ancient Greek and Roman gender, sexuality, and family dynamics. To give a few examples : the overwhelming majority of the graduate students I’ve taught so far have never been exposed to Persian primary evidence; they have no clue what the Fayum portraits are; they generally don’t know about the so-called tophet nor about scholarly debates concerning their function and, more generally, the terminology one should use to refer to the Phoenician/Punic/Carthaginian « world ». These young scholars are bright, open-minded students who come from different academic backgrounds, and my experience has been that if you provide them with an opportunity to open up their Classicist gaze beyond the Graeco-Roman canon, they will gladly jump on the opportunity. I also think that by making such a approach more “mainstream”, we might also contribute to attract a wider pool of graduate students. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have boundaries within the field, but we should also be able to recognize these boundaries for what they are – practical yet far from perfect disciplinary conventions. I guess this is where I was coming from when I wrote my post. But you are right : The important work you mention should be aknowledged, and I will do so (I’ll add a note to indicate that I modified the text following your comment).

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  2. In general, your comments are both appreciated and unfortunately too accurate. However, I would like to note that I had a different experience of Toronto SCS than you seem to have. In the SCS’ defense I will say a. it’s less white than it used to be! b. we were clearly attending different panels, as I attended no all-white sessions (counting the audience as well as presenters) and c. there are a lot of us working to make things better. I was struck, though, by Jinyu Liu’s eloquent pushback at the panel on Immigration and Classical Studies from a questioner who wanted to know how to persuade ethnically Chinese talented Latin students to become professional classicists rather than going to law school. As she pointed out, the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with valuing your parents’ wishes about your career choice is itself highly culturally constructed. As well, the classics world needs lots of allies and supporters in other professions. Viewing a classics PhD as the OTW for “people who like Latin and Greek” is one of the mistakes that created our current supply>demand mess in the first place. None of this is meant to suggest, however, that we don’t have a whole lot of work to do to make the study of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world more inclusive, holistic, and welcoming than it is currently.

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    1. Hi Anise,
      I’m well aware that my SCS experience has been quite superficial, and I referred to my little lobby observation session more as an opener than as a scientific experiment, so I’m happy to hear that you and others had more nuanced an experience and feel that things are actually changing. I also couldn’t agree more with the rest of your comment. Now I regret not having attended that panel!

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      1. I mean, “more nuanced” is the key; I’m not saying “oh, look, we got up to 10 or 12% in some gatherings” should be viewed as anything but the start of progress. But when I attended my first SCS, I could have counted the colleagues of color I knew on one hand.

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  3. Amen for this. And though some others may have seen some non-white Classicists this year at Toronto (I myself didn’t make it this year), I sort of think that’s missing the point. We’re still fighting attitudes such as that seen recently on the Classics-L listserv where Classicists can’t seem to understand why students at a School of Oriental and Asian Studies might not want to be learning *quite* so much about “white” philosophers and might care more to learn about philosophers and historians from the cultures they’re actually studying (and all but calling these students the racists). And oh goodness! How many unchallenged, actually-racist comments have I seen on that list! Every time I think to speak up, I remind myself I’m too early in my career to stick my nose that far out. Would that more established scholars would bother pointing out these things. But even in the younger generation, I’ve overheard an all-white group of grad students talking about a young black student who asked about her chances of getting into a grad program–and their comment was that obviously she would have a good chance, since there are not many other black Classicists. All I could think was I hope they didn’t actually say that to her face. These are the attitudes we’re fighting. The fact that you *can* go through large swaths of SCS and never see another non-white person is telling. The fact that these opinions are still being expressed openly by Classicists to other Classicists with NO embarrassment and NO pushback is a problem. We won’t see a true mix in Classics until we start combating these attitudes, and unfortunately, that means needing the open and vocal support of our more established colleagues.

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