The Activist Classicist, Part One: Can You Be Both?

By Lylaah Bhalerao

This piece is adapted from a talk given at the First Biennial Bryn Mawr & Haverford Colleges SPEAC Conference for Undergraduate and Graduate Research, ‘Now & Then: (In)equity and Marginalization in Ancient Mediterranean Studies.’ I would like to thank the conference organisers and my peers, who banded together over the last year and brought each other great comfort; they have informed and inspired these thoughts. First I explore why it is difficult to be an activist classicist, then I turn to equality legislation and practice in the United Kingdom, hoping to provide any activist student with the framework and precedent to effectively present proposals to their departments. I was heartened that my words at the conference chimed with so many attendees, and for their suggestion that I turn my presentation into an article. Seven months later, here it is. 

‘Women of colour are ethnographers of universities,’ claims Sara Ahmed, words which have been ringing in my ears as I reflect on my time campaigning for anti-racism policies in a Classics faculty over the last year. Ahmed continues: ‘we are participating, yes, but we are also observing, often because we are assumed not to belong or reside in the places we end up.’ I had been at my institution for three years and was beginning my fourth year as a master’s student when, as a result of the issues raised about institutional racism and colonial legacies by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Summer 2020, tensions flared internally about our positions on race equality and decolonisation as a faculty and as a discipline. By now, I thought I had overcome my imposter syndrome and the feeling of not belonging. That gave me the confidence to participate – vocally – and take a leading role in student action, thinking I could speak up on behalf of younger students who felt less confident and safe doing so. However, my imposter syndrome has never felt so strong as it did while sitting in some meetings with senior academics and having to justify my commitment to anti-racism and my experiences of systemic and generational discrimination. That is an observation from an ethnographer of a Classics faculty.

I would add to Ahmed that as well as participating and observing, as ethnographers of the university we are expected to have the vocabulary to explain racism and the rationale to solve it. However, here is the shocking truth: people of colour do not have the solution to racism. If we did, wouldn’t we have used it generations ago? We are also not all, by nature, activists. Some of us would much rather just focus on our work and write, but we are propelled into a position of activism in times of racial reckonings by virtue of being non-white, the other. We also become activists and take up action because we want to protect our communities. For me and the other graduate students, it was a desire to make things better for the students below us, so they wouldn’t have to experience the discomfort we had, that motivated us.

As I wavered in my classicist identity in late 2020, I was confident in my activist identity because I was trained by another activist and de facto ethnographer of institutions – my mother. She raised me to protest, and I marched before I could walk. She also played a role in shaping equality legislation in the United Kingdom, including the Equality Act 2010 which was designed to prevent the sorts of institutional issues faced by myself and my peers. Very often over the last year I would call her in exasperation, complain about the institution’s reluctance to act, and be met with her responses of ‘do they know they have to do this by law?’, ‘do they know the law allows them to do that?’, and sometimes even her laughing at how behind we were. Sadly, watching me go through the same experiences and have the same debates decades later disheartened my mother after a career spent in race equality. She may well think she did not do her job well enough if I am still fighting the same fight.

To understand why anti-racism (which I understand as actively working to undo systemic and institutional racism, supported by but going beyond policies to improve race equality) doesn’t seem to have a place in Classics, we first need to examine the history of the discipline and how it evolved. To many of us, Classics is a subject associated with the white male elite, white supremacy, and British colonialism. In its broader academic context, it was in British universities from the nineteenth century onwards that theories of racial supremacy and eugenics developed. Increasingly, these connections are being accepted and analysed by classicists. 

However, critics of this discourse in the discipline would argue that nineteenth-century Classics was also a subject of radicalism. It was not just the subject of Macaulay and Jowett, who shaped the importance of Latin and Greek to the East India Company and the Indian Civil Service under British rule, but Shelley and Byron too, those radical Romantics! It was also the subject of eighteenth and nineteenth-century revolutions: America, France, Greece. But what do all these radicals and revolutionaries have in common? This radicalism that classicists like to highlight was white men’s radicalism, particularly white wealthy men; if you were poor in the nineteenth century, you did not have the luxury or the education to live in the world of Shelley and Byron. Now, the people reminding us of this classical radicalism are, again, mostly white men.

It is true that motifs from antiquity have been used by different equality movements in the twentieth century, as motifs can appeal to all, but not in a British setting, which makes it an inappropriate point of reference for British Classics departments. In its statement on race equality, the Cambridge Classics faculty board drew attention to how Classics ‘has at times been a force for great good (for example in relation to gay and civil rights movements).’ In a statement on race equality from a British institution, it is inappropriate and misleading to align themselves with the Civil Rights movement in the United States, as if Cambridge Classics somehow played a part in that. In fact, at the same time as the American Civil Rights movement, an alumnus of Cambridge Classics was making the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, drawing on imagery from the Aeneid to criticise Black and Brown immigration from the Commonwealth. Yet no mention of the speech was made in the statement from the Cambridge Classics faculty. In a statement on race equality, are we yet again seeing British Classics thinking of racism as an American problem – not a British one – yet one that was also somehow remedied with some inspiration from ancient material? This is the problem with the Cambridge statement, symptomatic of the wider issue of denying racism in the UK; if British Classics departments are going to make any headway with race equality, it must be within the context of how Classics has manifested in racist ways in this country.

What is it about the current state of British academia, and Classics within that, that makes it hostile towards anti-racist activism and puts the burden on people of colour? I would argue that British academia does not regard race as a legitimate object of scrutiny. This is even more so the case in Classics because race has historically not been an object of scrutiny in the content we study; it is easy to hide behind the excuse that race as we conceive of it now was not a concept in the ancient world. Classics, and other humanities subjects, has also not existed in the same campuses as Black Studies departments, whereas on American campuses these departments would stand side by side. Therefore, Classics in the UK has actively excluded critical race theory, including the work of British scholars.

As a result, communities of scholars of colour thinking critically about race and empire have come to exist outside traditional academic structures. We see this happening in the field of Classics now, with lots of conferences organised by students and young academics, all the Classicists of Colour groups, the Sportulas and Critical Ancient World Studies springing up in the last few years. Eidolon was also a great platform for this community of scholars and their critical, decolonising thoughts, without which progressive movements in the discipline have faced a setback as new conversative, right-wing blogs emerge.

A familiar anecdote:

‘Saying that race is “too difficult” is how racism gets reproduced, I put in an email to the dean. The belief that racism is inevitable is how racism becomes inevitable, I pointed out. […] Do something about it, he replies. It shouldn’t be up to me, I answer.’

To remind all people of colour reading this, it is not your responsibility or your birthright to fix racism and find solutions in your institutions. We don’t have the skills or knowledge just by being born people of colour, but we are often expected to, as this anecdote from Ahmed demonstrates. Most senior academics also do not have the skills, which is why they need to interact with and understand equality laws and policies.

Ahmed argues that the responsibility for equality and diversity work is unevenly distributed and that it is also political: if the work is considered of less value (which we have established it is as it does not occupy an integrated academic tradition), then the people doing it occupy less valued spaces. She discusses how if you are a racialised person, you become ‘the race person’ who is relied on to show up on equality issues. Late in 2020, my mother warned me about becoming ‘the race person’, because it was a trap she had fallen into, and yet here I am; I care and I am Brown – that is all it takes to make me the race person.

Again, my thoughts return to ‘women of colour are ethnographers of universities,’ and take me further to argue that women of colour come to embody inclusivity and diversity precisely because of who we are not: white men, who are also often the ones in charge. We are the tick-box recruits for equality and diversity and as such we come to represent and embody the whole issue. To embody such diversity requires labour – unpaid and unrewarded. 

Here the woman of colour fits into embodiment theory, which identifies and challenges the belief that embodied experiences are separate from academia because they are a ‘polluting bias’ that clouds our objectivity, understanding objectivity as the ability to transcend the limit of experiences. Feminist theorist Donna Haraway argues that embodied experiences ‘unmasked the doctrines of objectivity because they threatened our budding sense of collective historical subjectivity and agency and our “embodied” accounts of the truth.’ Therefore, we should not strive for objectivity by ignoring our experiences as racialised people. In fact, we should abandon this strong attachment to objectivity because it is discriminatory and does not recognise embodied experiences.

If the field of Classics made that shift, space would be created for people of colour; space for us to write about material from our perspectives and experiences, instead of having to put them aside, especially for those of us who work on race, empire and decolonisation. Embodied experiences would become a strength instead of a barrier to achieving good, objective scholarship.

The shift towards accepting embodied experiences would also change the dynamic of discussing racism that exists within the academy and the institution. Academics are comfortable on ground that feels like a debate, where they can talk about things in the abstract and use reasoned arguments. As a result, I have found that discussions about racism become just like Oxbridge-style academic discussions in the seminar room: senior academics in a position to interrogate what the student says. Except in this case, the student is not evaluating scholarly arguments and ancient evidence, but describing their own experiences of racism. In these discussions, the existence of racism itself, and the validity of such experiences, end up on the table for debate. If you have experienced racism, it is very hard when put on the spot to formulate a reasoned ‘argument’ to the questions: ‘how is that racist?’, ‘why is racism our problem?’, ‘are you sure they meant it like that?’. Such questions, and the encouragement of debating racism, are attempts to move the discussion back onto the plane where objectivity is supposed to be attainable. Refusing to engage in such debates and focusing on embodied experiences can be where collective strength lies.

Although our embodied experiences are what motivate us to take up activism, because they are not seen as compatible with attaining the neutrality required by the neo-liberal academy, we are left in limbo. We are denied the full identity of ‘classicist’ because our experiences orientate us towards ‘activist’. Someone becomes ‘the race person,’ not the ‘Homer expert’; they get demoted, their credentials ignored, reduced to just their being, and defined by how their body looks, not what their mind produces.

We need not, however, rely on our own experiences to support our demands for measures to combat racism – a legal framework already exists. The Equality Act 2010 has been mandating universities to take action to improve race equality for a decade, although you would not necessarily think so from how little it comes up in institutional discussions. The Act can function as an objective measure in some ways, for surely senior academics cannot belittle and ignore the law as they try to with personal experiences?

The Public Sector Equality Duty (Equality Act 2010)

Those subject to the equality duty must, in the exercise of their functions, have due regard to the need to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

This duty applies to all universities in the UK, and has done for over a decade, but so many of us have been working hard to convince our departments that they need to take action even though the law actually mandates them to do so. In the words of my mother, ‘nothing you’re asking for is radical, it’s standard practice.’ Apparently not in elite academia.

What actions could universities take then? Having ‘due regard’, as stated in the duty, involves:

  • Removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics
  • Taking steps to meet the needs of people from protected groups where these are different from the needs of other people
  • Encouraging people from protected groups to participate in public life or in other activities where their participation is disproportionately low.

There is a case to be made that decolonising the curriculum is a proportionate measure for improving equality, addressing the disadvantages experienced by people of colour, and especially for fostering good relations.

The duty is also supported by positive action. This differs from affirmative action in the United States because a lot of what affirmative action allows is still unlawful in the UK, but positive action still allows institutions to take measures to fulfil the Public Sector Equality Duty. These include:

  • Meetings for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) students, spaces for BAME students and staff, BAME workshops and training
  • BAME bursaries and scholarships to encourage applicants, allowed because there is evidence of under-representation with funding being a barrier
  • Tie-breaks in recruitment: if there are two equally competent candidates and one is underrepresented or has a protected characteristic, it is lawful to pick them on that basis. Therefore, if a white person and a non-white person are in the final selection for a job and cannot be separated on merit, the non-white person should actually be appointed – an idea which surely sends shivers down the spine of many. In fact, universities should be actively doing this anyway, but we see no evidence of that.

Despite these lawful provisions, student campaigners still may find themselves questioned about whether such measures are discriminatory against white people, as myself and my peers were. The answer to that would be: discrimination is about deprivation, so what are you being deprived of here because you are white? As I hope is evident now, there is a lot that can be done and it is not radical, it is recommended by law.

When I gave the first version of this piece as a presentation in March 2021, I concluded by asking myself and the audience if it was possible to be an activist classicist. I said, ‘I like to think so.’ In the current framework of Classics in the UK, it seems that if you are a person of colour who is active in anti-racism, then your classicist identity is compromised (so much so in my case that I fled a Classics department and opted instead to locate myself within an Ancient World Studies department). This is partly influenced by the current political climate in Britain: in the current British culture wars being waged by the right-wing press and the government, being an anti-racism activist has become shrouded in negativity. Spearheaded by the now departed Gavin Williamson and Oliver Dowden as Education and Culture Secretaries, the government has been working hard to isolate anti-racists and anti-colonialists and to keep the movement out of schools, universities and museums. 

Instead of recognising that anti-racists are driven by their experiences and their morals, we are labelled as interested in ‘identity politics’ and ‘cancel culture’ – as if these are new phenomena and non-white cultures and voices have not been cancelled for generations. In fact, ‘cancel culture’ is being practiced by those right at the top of the British government who claim to be fighting it. I think of, for example, Dowden’s refusal to reappoint Aminul Hoque, a Bangladeshi-British academic who supports decolonising the curriculum, as a trustee of Royal Museums Greenwich, among other blocked reappointments. His successor, Nadine Dorries, spells more trouble and is being called the new ‘minister for culture wars.

However, I said in March that I believed this is the moment, and the tide will turn against people who do not believe in change. I believed that academia can and should be a force for good in society and I was determined to continue to straddle my activist classicist identity, working to make them recognised as one entity. However, my optimism and faith in institutions have fluctuated since March, leaving me wondering if this struggle to be an activist classicist is worth it, which I will discuss in part two of this series. I still believe in the power of activism and that academia should be a force for good, but if I had to pick between ‘activist’ and ‘classicist’ I know which it would be, and which is more valuable to myself and to society.

Part two will be available next month.

Lylaah L Bhalerao is committed to taking critical, cross-cultural approaches to the ancient world. She is a Fulbright scholar, currently beginning her doctoral studies at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, NYU. She is also a strong, vocal advocate for anti-racism measures and decolonisation within the disciplines and institutions that deal with the ancient world. She is happy to speak to young people of colour interested in studying the ancient world and help them navigate fields where they may find they are underrepresented. You can find her on Twitter @LylaahLB.

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