3 Steps to Implementing Antiracist Pedagogy (ARP)

I have talked about antiracist teaching on here in the past. This week I want to delve deeper into why I think antiracist pedagogy (ARP) is important and some ways that we can implement it in our classrooms.

I’ve always been skeptical of diversity and inclusion initiatives that include offering more courses that might ‘appeal’ to people of color and draw them in. This manifests as offering or amplifying existing courses on ‘race and ethnicity,’ on ‘slavery in the ancient world,’ and on the relationship between ‘barbarians’ and Greeks and/or Romans.

In the absence of more structural reforms, I have always viewed such an approach as a trap. 

Courses on these topics are absolutely necessary (although certain choices in vocabulary are not) for exposing students to alternate perspectives, ones which both challenge and complement dominant narratives about the ancient world. Without such perspectives, our understanding of the ancient world would be incomplete.

However, when implemented poorly, these courses reflect a persistent two-part illusion. 

Plastic vases from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

On the one hand, implementing these courses rests on the assumption that antiracist pedagogy means diversifying the curriculum (i.e. offering more courses about marginalized groups). On the other hand, professors who believe this assumption also tend to believe that students of color will be drawn to courses that purport to highlight marginalized groups (‘slaves,’ ‘barbarians’).

The reality is that antiracist pedagogy is not (just) about offering specialized topics courses about marginalized groups. Nor is it only about diversifying your syllabi or amplifying BIPOC voices by inviting them to give guest lectures. 

ARP is about integrating discussions of power relations and systems of oppression in all courses, regardless of whether the course’s focus is on race and/or ethnicity. Systems of oppression are not specifically BIPOC issues; discrimination – including racism – affects everyone. 

This week’s post begins by demystifying antiracist pedagogy, and then offers three steps to take if you want to implement it effectively in your classroom. 

Although ARP is certainly at home in courses on race and ethnicity, this approach is meant to help instructors who don’t typically think about power dynamics in their classrooms. Nevertheless, I think all instructors will benefit from the strategies outlined below.

Understanding ARP

Antiracist pedagogy (like critical race theory and decolonization) is not equivalent to diversity and inclusion; however, this is what most people mean when they say they (want to) employ it.

While incorporating the voices of historically and systemically excluded groups is an important aspect of antiracist pedagogy, it’s not just about diversifying our curricula, classrooms, syllabi, or departments.

Antiracist pedagogy is not just the purview or responsibility of instructors who teach courses on race and ethnicity in the ancient world; it is the ethical imperative of all instructors. 

ARP involves not just confronting systems of oppression, but analyzing them and the ways in which we are complicit in and affected by them, both in and outside of the classroom. It also involves supporting students’ development of racial literacy so that they can effectively act on our racialized world.

Incorporating ARP into your courses – three steps

I have distilled the major tenets of antiracist pedagogy down into three steps that you can take to incorporate antiracist pedagogy into your courses. Those steps are:

ARP StepCourse- or Topic-Specific Questions to ConsiderActionable Steps to Take (activities, readings, etc.)
Contextualize: Where does this depiction or narrative fit within its larger historical, political, and cultural context? How did this marginalized group and dominant groups interact in this context? How has this relationship and/or marginalized group been discussed in modern scholarship?
Interrogate: Who produced this depiction or narrative (consider gender, social status, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc)? What is their relationship to the person(s) depicted? What system(s) of oppression are implicated in this depiction?
Amplify: What resources highlighting the personal narratives and/or scholarship of POC are available to you and your students? How does looking at these alternate perspectives complement or challenge the dominant views of this depiction or narrative?

It’s important to remember that our classrooms are not insulated from what goes on outside of it – in our departments, on campus, or in the wider world.

While you might be responsible for demystifying the politics of scholarship and publication, you should encourage your students to make connections that are meaningful to them and bring them into the classroom for discussion.

Incorporating ARP into your courses – examples

Using vase painting and other visual art from antiquity

Given the enormity of the corpus of Greek vase painting in particular, it is understandable that certain things get lost in the shuffle of trying to cram everything into a single semester-long course. Course design is all about making tough choices – not just about what sites, objects, and texts to highlight, but how much to say about each one.

In most cases, vase painting is used to supplement more historical or text-based courses, so treatment of the iconography is necessarily brief. Surveys on vase painting, by contrast, would be dedicated to more in-depth analyses of images on pots and the craftspeople who made them. 

This can be true, but usually just a few images, pots, and craftspeople are privileged while others receive only a few minutes of treatment before moving on. A case in point is the treatment of the Amasis painter in a vase painting survey I took a few years ago.

Although the thick volume from the Berlin Painter exhibition in 2017 would say otherwise, I would have much preferred to spend more time on this lesser-known painter than several days on the Berlin Painter and his contemporaries. As far as I remember, my professor noted the Egyptian origin of his name – which aligned well with the label attributing him to a figure with African facial features – before swiftly moving on to another topic.

What could my instructor have done differently to emphasize antiracist pedagogy?

ARP StepCourse- or Topic-Specific Questions to ConsiderActionable Steps to Take (activities, readings, etc.)
ContextualizeDo depictions like this appear often? How are they usually approached/interpreted? If this is indeed a portrait, what do other (self-)portraits in vase painting look like? What would the make-up of a workshop have been? How often would foreigners have been employed? What relationship would they have had with Greek craftspeople?[insert other examples of figures with African features in Greek vase painting and/or ceramics]
[insert other examples of self-portraits in vase painting]
[insert scholarship about pottery workshops]
InterrogateConfront/expose the power dynamics and overlapping systems of oppression that have led to the ancient individual’s circumstances, behaviors, treatments
Why would they have been depicted this way? Is it accurate or offensive? How can we know? 
AmplifyThe experiences of people of color in this particular context (i.e. pottery production or the ancient Greek/Roman world more broadly)
The scholarship of people of color who have worked on this topic/issue
[insert scholarship by BIPOC on this topic or issue]
[list of BIPOC scholars who might be qualified to talk about this topic to your class]
[insert ancient sources written by POC, especially craftspeople]

Using film or other popular media

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about why we need more representation in films about archaeology (and, really, the ancient world more broadly). 

I am confident that many instructors have found ways to incorporate more diverse depictions of the ancient world into their courses – using everything from video games to music videos (hey, Lizzo!) to television (Troy: Fall of a City, anyone?) to film. 

Poster for Spike Lee's Chi-Raq (2015)

I’ve spoken a few times about one professor’s use of Chi-Raq in a course on Aristophanes; however, what I realize now is that this was not antiracist pedagogy. Like diversifying one’s syllabus or inviting BIPOC to give guest lectures, having students view film adaptations that ‘diversify’ antiquity is not enough to make your pedagogy antiracist on its own. 

The steps that I’ve outlined above can also be applied to using and reflecting on receptions of antiquity in the classroom.

ARP StepCourse- or Topic-Specific Questions to ConsiderActionable Steps to Take (activities, readings, etc.)
ContextualizeDo depictions like this appear often? Why or why not?
How are ancient populations usually depicted?
How are different depictions of ancient populations received by the public?
[provide or ask students to provide examples of classical reception in popular media]
[assign and discuss reviews of the media your students are viewing – e.g. a film review of Chi-Raq]
InterrogateWhy are certain (i.e. white-washed) depictions of ancient populations so popular and prevalent across media?
Are these depictions accurate or inaccurate? How can we know? Does it matter?
AmplifyReviews and reactions by BIPOC who have interacted with the popular media receptions of the ancient world
Reception produced by BIPOC in other media (e.g. blog posts, Youtube videos, music, etc.)
[insert scholarship by BIPOC on this topic or issue]
[insert other forms of reception by BIPOC]
[list of BIPOC scholars who might be qualified to talk about this topic to your class]

An additional method of amplifying marginalized voices in this context would be to simply allow your students to voice their own opinions about the media in question. 

As they offer their opinions on execution and faithfulness to the source material, you might ask them how they arrived at their conclusions. This is another way of getting students to think critically and recognize their own biases and complicity in systems of oppression. 

Inviting guest speakers who identify with marginalized identit(ies)

A final point to address is how we can more ethically invite BIPOC (and other scholars who identify with marginalized identities) to give guest lectures in our courses. Sometimes it can be easier to talk about power dynamics in the past than it is to face them in the present. 

It’s important, though, not to ignore opportunities to talk about the power dynamics which shape our field today. There’s a reason why you invited a BIPOC speaker to your class: either you feel that they’re more of an authority on the subject or you feel that it’s important to give space to marginalized voices wherever possible. (A third possibility is, rather simply, because you think it would make you look good and ‘woke,’ but I’m hoping this isn’t common.)

No matter the rationale, share it with your students. Why do you feel it’s so important to highlight this particular scholar’s work and perspective? Why is your own perspective insufficient?

I’m sure many people would argue that this kind of discussion has no place in the classroom. This is not true. As mentioned above, our classrooms are not insulated nor separate from what happens outside of them. 

Refusing to acknowledge the choices which led to you inviting a BIPOC speaker to your class, and in turn the systems of oppression and privilege which have prevented BIPOC scholars from getting the attention and support they deserve, serves to perpetuate those systemic injustices.

Moreover, it runs the risk of tokenizing those scholars, because they are inevitably presented as taking an exceptional perspective on a topic that has been widely studied.

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