One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.
Check out this month’s feature, written by Ashley Lance, to learn more about Ashley’s experiences with talking about identity and racial categories, how her identity relates to her work, and her thoughts on the future of Classics. Check out previous posts in the series here.
I always have to be very careful about how I introduce where I am from and who I am.
Describing where I live in the US, I can say something like “Oh, where I live is about 5 hours north of San Francisco” which normally gives people a good idea. When I am in the UK, I have to say something like “California, but at the very top of the state – do you know what redwood trees are? I’m from where they grow”.
However, this statement has two problems: 1) people still don’t know where I’m talking about and 2) it isn’t quite true, at least in Cambridge.
The Botanical Garden at Cambridge has at least three redwood trees, brought over from northern California in the late 1800s, that are all thriving in a less than typical environment for them.
The point I’m trying to set up here is that who I am is very connected to where I am from and it is hard to describe who I am if you cannot picture where I grew up.
I am a Yurok and Wiyot woman, an enrolled tribal member, and grew up on different reservations in the area (stream Reservation Dogs btw). I do not usually bother saying all of that when I meet people though.
In the US, I am comfortable leading with my identity in conversations. I normally say “I’m Native”.
The benefits of this statement are that I don’t have to add “American” as a qualifier and, despite the fact that 40% of Americans think we do not exist, most people seem to handle that statement well.
In the UK, when I decide it’s worth telling someone, I can’t say that I am Native. I have to say that I am Native American and affirm that I’m a tribal card carrying, certificate of Indian Blood, enrolled member. Introducing this part of myself is made even harder in the UK, because there is not even a category to mark yourself as Indigenous anywhere, let alone as being Indigenous from America.
Already it can be really hard for me to articulate my identity clearly to people, and so far I am finding it even harder to do that in Classics.
I am about to start my PhD in Ancient Philosophy at Cambridge. I recently finished my MPhil there as well, where I wrote my thesis on whether there is any conception of race in Plato. The plan is to continue my work on race in Plato, or maybe even take the leap to Aristotle.
I got interested in this topic not from a course in Classics but from a course on the philosophy of race. As an undergrad at UT Austin, I was a double major in Classics and Philosophy. I was lucky that the Philosophy department had courses that were not just different variations of Early Modern philosophy.
In the course, one article, “How We Divide the World” by Michael Root, made two claims that Socrates would be a white man in Minnesota and that there is no race in Athens. To me, these seemed like statements that needed more space to question if they were true.
That article became the foundation for my research. Another foundation, which I have struggled articulating, and even left out of my MPhil thesis, is my identity.
I think that for a lot of marginalized individuals in Classics, it can be intimidating to take claim of your own identity in your research. See above for how hard it can be in a personal conversation.
For me, I partially worry about the backlash, the potential to experience anti-native racism, and people misunderstanding what I mean when I say my research is tied to my identity. All of these are strong reasons not to include a statement in the work itself.
But I know where I am coming from and all of my epistemic entanglements, so to speak. Even more, I think that my research is made better by the fact that I am Native.
“Native” as a racial category is one that has always been historically defined by the federal government and not tribes. Like all racial categories, the definition of who is and is not Native shifts between years, and even between forms.
Even now, there are large discussions in communities about who claims who, who is reconnecting, and who is a “Pretendian”.
Being a part of this category, I think, makes me more sensitive to what race could look like in another time, or at the very least more flexible about the definition.
What is left out if I do not make my experiences apparent?
Thoughts on the Future of Classics
Sometimes I find these questions very hard to grapple with and I am not sure what the answers to any of them are. But, I have been involved in other projects that let me positively claim my identity.
I have been really lucky to be involved in a project on Critical Ancient World Studies which is led by Marchella Ward and Mathura Umachandran. Through this, I have met so many scholars from various backgrounds and learned so much from them. It has also helped me claim my identity, at least while writing about issues of epistemic injustice in Classics.
Epistemic injustice is based on social epistemology which sees knowers not as isolated individuals but as an interconnected web. Understanding knowledge this way means that knowledge, and what types of knowledge are valued, can be shaped by existing power structures.
In writing about epistemic injustice, I have been able to work through issues of what is asked of marginalized individuals in the name of creating a more diverse department. I am also able to name the types of injustices I have faced in classroom settings, which I think is a really powerful thing to be able to do.
A project like this really helps me be optimistic about the state of Classics and what it could be and even needs to be.
In our last CAWS brainstorming session, when we were imagining what the future of Classics could be, we ended up coming back to a quote (which I am blanking on the attribution right now): “We want fucking all of it”.
In my ideal world, Classics looks like this project. Interesting people from different backgrounds producing interesting and unique knowledge about the ancient world. No one has to worry about how pronounced they need to make their own identities because those identities are already empowered.
I am not sure if what I’ve written incorporates everything, but it’s a little bit of all.
To end, I want to say that it makes me happy there is at least one other California Native thriving in Cambridge, even if it’s just the redwood trees in the botanical garden that I mentioned at the beginning. Redwood trees tend to thrive together; they have shallow root systems so they grow in groves. This allows them to share nutrients with each other, but also grow as tall as possible.
I like to imagine that projects like CAWS, this blog, and all the other initiatives happening in Classics are starting to make a root system that is helping marginalized scholars feel a little more connected.