Tag: Race

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


[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