Towards a more inclusive, safer space in Latin and Classics classes

This past school year, I struggled to include as much about ancient Roman culture and history as I would have liked. When I did include elements of Roman culture, my thoughts were often guided by my earlier reflections about Classics as a field. During the 2016-17 school year, especially as a result of teaching modern world history, I thought a lot about Classics, its history as a field, and its role in creating and perpetuating social inequalities. For centuries, Latin was a language of the aristocratic and educated elite, and now it has become more democratized. As nationalism developed and Europeans sought a history of their people, the Greeks and Romans became exceptional, “pure” ancestors of the European nations. During the age of new imperialism (1750-1914), Rome served as a model and mirror for the European empires. Indeed, many imperialist officials were classically trained (Mattingly 2011’s Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire makes this point very well). As scholars attempted to classify the people of the world, diffusionism and the bogus idea of Social Darwinism developed, influenced, and privileged the “ancestors” of the “West:” Greece and Rome. Classics, Greece, and Rome came to be seen as exceptional, great, and without comparison–something to be studied in a department of its own instead of among many in a history or anthropology department.

“Because a field traditionally Euro-American in composition, avowedly non-presentist in its focus, and propelled even to this day by a conviction of its centrality to “Western civilization” has made it really easy for the casual student — or the trained professional — to subscribe to facile narratives of static timeless white purity under assault from waves of immigrants.” (Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “Classics beyond the Pale,” Eidolon)

This history places Classics within larger historical trends that facilitated and resulted in great social and economic inequality throughout the world. Around the time of the 2016 American presidential election, there were a lot of articles about racism and underrepresentation of people of color in Classics and academia, writ large. While these topics continue to be important matters of discussion, these articles formed a lot of my thoughts going into the past school year:

Working with these articles and based on my own thoughts and discussions, I developed a list of some practical steps about how to make Classics more inclusive and the Latin classroom a safer space for students from minority populations.

  • Consider how your perception of the ancient world has been formed in very “white” terms. Can it be seen differently and in more racially diverse terms?
  • Ensure that scholars of color are represented in your courses’ syllabi, invite speakers of color to come talk to your class, or show videos with presenters of color. Yet do not make this the one go-to scholar or article to achieve this goal.
  • Do not  glorify or focus on racial tokens. They are not spokespeople for their races–just their own personal experiences. Their singular presence is a reflection of institutionalized racism.
  • Make classroom discussions inclusive of all opinions and viewpoints. One person should not be a spokesperson for their race, and students of one race or gender should not dominate the conversation. — Guidelines for Harkness discussions can be very helpful here.
  • Visibly support minorities and people of color, whether it is through a Black Lives Matter pin, sign, or shirt, or through a “Safe Space” certificate and sticker on your office door. Invite speakers of color. Respond encouragingly to comments and questions from students of color (though this is not the same as wholeheartedly agreeing with everything they say).
  • Reach out to and encourage people of color to take your classes, participate in your classes, and to continue in the field. Learn about the scholarship of people of color. This is, of course, assuming you have a willing participant in this conversation.
  • Talk frankly about race, colonization, imperialism, and inequality. Talking about problems and major issues helps understand, process, and resolve them. Do not deflect by changing the topic. Do not inject inappropriate humor. Recognize that discussions about race and imperialism may provoke people, including you, to become angry or defensive because of the implication that they, or you, are purposefully oppressing others. Nevertheless, persist, recognize your anger and defensiveness as unhelpful (since it’s not about you right now), and focus on the difficult topic ahead of you. Help your students achieve these lofty aims of checking their white fragility.
  • Redirect the discomfort in a positive direction, and recognize that discomfort is helpful to learning. From the piece about the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “We have had a little bit of pushback when we are speaking more directly about race and identity. We have to look at where people are on their identity journeys,” says Flanagan. “We ask them: ‘Is this discussion uncomfortable because we have provided a fact they didn’t know about, or because we provided a reinterpretation or different way of thinking about a particularly moment in history?’ We want to sit with that and think about why it is uncomfortable.” She says this type of reflection helps teachers parse out their thoughts, and identify how racial relations have impacted their understandings.’
  • Remember: “There’s a difference between knowing something (or sort-of-knowing something) and feeling it, living it, day after day after day. There’s a difference between me talking about privilege and one of my students being denied it — even in an elite classroom, in a comfortable environment, amongst allies, in a course on difference. And on some level, I knew that. Duh. But what I didn’t get, what I couldn’t get, was the physicality of it — the exhaustion of dealing with this every day, for even for the most privileged and educated students of color in the country.” (Sharrona Pearl, “The Importance of Talking Explicitly About Race“)

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