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.
For the very first installment of this monthly BIPOC Feature series, I am deeply grateful to Maia Lee-Chin for being willing to share her journey and insights into the field.
Despite my best efforts, I can’t avoid the Classics discourse. Several reactions to the recent email debacle gave me pause last night. It made me think: it’s time for some reflection, and some hard truths. It’s time for us to wake up, and act.
A few weeks ago, following a talk at the AIA-SCS annual meeting wherein an instructor talked about asking their students to justify slavery, I invited everyone to consider whether they were doing harm in their classrooms. Today, I want us to go further than that.
As we enter grad school interview season, it’s time to think about some questions that you should be asking on your (virtual) visits.
These questions are primarily ones BIPOC prospective students should have in mind. I know that in light of the recent discourse sparked by a NYT op-ed featuring Prof. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, they might be uncertain about continuing their academic journey.
These are also questions I wish I’d asked years ago during my own grad school interviews. But I believe these are generally important questions to ask for anyone who has a serious, invested interest in reforming the field.
A Change in Perspective
The recent #ClassicsTwitter discourse shows that our problems can’t (and won’t) be solved overnight. Those of us who offer critiques are painted as fatalists. We want to “burn it all down” with (they assume) no regard for the future of the field or the people within it.
In the intervening months I have become a little more optimistic about the future of Classics. Despite the near-constant debates about how exactly the field should be reformed – and, no, I don’t want to talk about potential name changes – I continue to love what I study. I made this blog for other BIPOC in Classics, ancient history, and archaeology who also love what they study, even if they hate the racist, elitist underpinnings of the discipline.
I don’t want to discourage BIPOC students from continuing their studies in grad school. But I don’t want them to blindly join a program (or field) that will be detrimental to their well-being, either.
I believe now that everyone should be able to make their own, informed choice about entering or leaving the field. In that vein, here are just a few questions relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion that you should be asking during a grad school interview.
When I heard about the new Netflix film, “The Dig” (2021), I’ll admit I wasn’t that excited.
Maybe I’m disillusioned by all of the talks, conferences, and workshops on anti-racism, and the ongoing commentary on Classics’ white supremacist foundations. My first thought when I saw the trailer was: “Do we really need more films about white archaeologists?”
It’s 2021; we know BIPOC archaeologists exist. Where’s the representation?
Anyway, I watched it, more so that I could say that I did and so that I could write this blog post from an informed perspective. This is not a review of the film. Consider it instead a review of the great mess that is the lack of diversity in films about archaeology.
From January 10-15, I decided to host what was then called the “7 Day #BIPOCinAncientStudies Challenge” on Twitter.
What I realize now is that it really turned out to be more of a BIPOC in Ancient Studies Week – no challenge about it, just a week of building community and amplifying BIPOC voices and experiences. I called it the BIPOC in Ancient Studies challenge because I wanted it to be more inclusive of scholars who don’t consider themselves to be classicists, but still study the ancient world.
Although we lost some momentum in the second half of the week, I think the challenge was successful overall. I hope that everyone (both those who participated and those who shared the posts) enjoyed it!
From the start of the challenge, I knew that I wanted to share the prompts from the week in a blog post. This is so that it would be accessible to those of you who aren’t on Twitter who want to think about the prompts.
Day One: Who/what inspired you to pursue a degree in ancient studies?
Day Two: What’s an academic accomplishment that you’re most proud of? (or if you have many, share them all!!)
Day Three: Share an article/book by a BIPOC author that you’ve found moving, profound, and/or inspiring. Here are the ones that were mentioned:
Diversity committee seems to be the buzz word for academia in 2020. If you are a graduate student of color, you have probably encountered one in your department or institution.
If you’re like me, you may have been recruited to join a newly-minted committee early on in the scramble to create these committees in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. While we have been quick to take action in some areas, like hosting a series on webinars on anti-racist pedagogy, the gears have slowed down a bit over the last few months due to the chaos of a full pandemic semester.
Anxieties surrounding joining a diversity committee as a person of color are not uncommon, and while I am proud of the things we have accomplished, there are things that I wish I had asked before joining.
If you’re a person of color on the fence about joining a diversity committee, here are a few questions you should consider before making a decision.
When I first read Mary Beard’s latest post entitled “Is Classics toxic?”*, the first thing that came to mind was the term whataboutism. This term isn’t new, but may be particularly fresh for those of you who have paid attention to the events of the last year.
Whataboutism is the technique or practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue.
The accusation (probably): concerns raised by members of the discipline about Classics’ white supremacist history (and present), aka the thing that makes Classics “toxic.”
The counter-accusation: people only think Classics is toxic because it has been (wrongfully) co-opted by far-right, repressive movements.
Now I don’t disagree that the co-opting of Classics by the far-right has been a big problem. But what Mary Beard does when she foregrounds “big picture” issues is overshadow the concerns of non-white individuals within the discipline in favor of promoting a “better” public-facing image of Classics.
Nowhere in this post does she call attention to the micro- and meso-scale issues that have cropped up within the departments and institutions that make up the Classics community over the last few months (or years). Even her brief acknowledgement of the “lack of diversity within the modern academic subject” is vague: does she mean a lack of diversity in subjects or in actual people?
I suspect (based on the rest of the post) she means the former.
BIPOC are forced to face individuals and institutions that refuse to stand up for or support them, but what about all the good things that Classics (that is, the study of Greece and Rome) has to offer on the macro-scale?
“Maybe we could use this to political advantage, I can’t help thinking that one of the best ways of countering the conscription of Classics into the agenda of those far-right groups, with their white masculinist ideology, might be to celebrate the role the subject has played in the struggles against apartheid, in the proto-gay movement, in Trade Union activism and the thought of Marx.”
The role Classics has played in the struggles against apartheid (for example) is important, but so are the struggles that BIPOC endure on a daily basis in a system that continues to drag its feet on the path toward anti-racism.
Classics might not seem toxic to someone who takes a casual interest in the subject. Classics might also not seem toxic to someone working in the discipline, but who hasn’t felt particularly affected by its “bad history” – like Mary Beard herself.
Often, the people who feel most attacked by attacks on Classics are the ones who aren’t affected (or less affected) by the discipline’s history.
As she says in her post, the good and the bad aren’t mutually exclusive. I agree. They can exist in the same department, or even the same person. But when a system built on white masculinist ideology persists and continues to oppress marginalized groups (as it does to this day), it makes Classics hard to love.
It might not be toxic for some people (the Mary Beards of the world), but it certainly is for those who aren’t part of the majority.
Mary Beard’s call for “celebrating” the ways in which Classics has contributed to good things alongside the bad is just a thinly veiled attempt at tone policing those of us who are unhappy with the state of the field.
Perhaps she’s less worried about the co-opting of Classics by far-right groups than she (and others like her) is about it being critiqued by members of the discipline who aren’t white, male, straight, and/or nondisabled. Well, we are tired. And we need to be heard, without being told that we are being too harsh or too critical or too unsympathetic to the other side.
“The history of Classics (and all other subjects) is more complicated than any good/bad (burn-it-all-down/preserve-the-lot) dichotomy would suggest.”
Burning it all down, at least for me, doesn’t mean reducing the discipline to ashes and sweeping them under the rug. There are plenty of people in the discipline who love studying the ancient world, but hate the environment in which they’ve had to study it. As some have said, you can study Greece and Rome and critique the field, too.
I think that this image paints those of us who are advocating for a more inclusive, anti-racist discipline as people who would set fire to Classics and stand by watching it burn. But I don’t really think that’s the case, even though I often feel like this GIF:
What “burning it all down” means to me is dismantling the oppressive, exclusionary, and racist systems that underpin it. It means turning a corner towards becoming a discipline that is openly and actively seeking to do better by its diverse communities without undermining their valid opinions and contributions.
*I will not be including a link to the article because I don’t think more people need to read it