Racism in Our Field

It’s the second week of 2019, the second week of our revamped blog, and I had wanted to use this week to provide a lighthearted introduction to GSIC and our goals in order to give some grounding to this project. Faced with some of the racist harassment at the recent AIA-SCS conference, however, I’d like to swivel and talk about something heavier.

The events of the conference have been outlined in numerous news storied and through discussions on twitter — I’ll point you to Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s summary and thoughts on the matter for a more thorough account. The first incident I heard about came in the form of racial profiling, with staff at the Marriott Hotel in San Diego asking for the credentials of two women of color to make sure that they “belonged” at the conference. Djesika Bel Watson and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn from The Sportula not only assuredly belonged there but had in fact just been honored with the Professional Equity Award from the Women’s Classical Caucus. Later, Dr. Padilla was accused during the question section after his presentation of only getting his job because he was black.

Such racist harassment is unforgivable, and no scholar, no human should be faced with this treatment at an academic conference. It is, unfortunately, perhaps not unexpected from a field with a history of racism — some of which is transparent and openly discussed and some of which has been so deeply ingrained and institutionalized that it can be hard to push back against.

Not only is the field of classics a mire of institutionalized racism, but other aspects of the grad student experience seem to invite disproportionate amounts of discrimination. Grad students of color may experience a disproportionate amount of discrimination in the conference setting; already facing opposition based on their race, they may also be looked down on for their age.

We need to continue working to prevent this, through scholarship, sure, but also through our actions — every day ones and those at conferences. In a field with problematic roots and modern uses, standing up against this sort of nonsense is essential. We grad students are the literal future of this field, and we can solidify these changes. Classics should be more than just a safe space for those scholars who seek to study it, it should enthusiastically seek out those views that it shut out for so long. People of color, and especially women of color, should be invited in, respected and listened to. While the field has made strides in centralizing these ideals, the events of this past week show us that we have a long way to go. So it falls to us, then, to ensure that the future of our field is inclusive.

The Board of Directors of SCS has released a one paragraph statement condemning the events in broad language and are working on drafting a longer statement. In their statement, they point the reader to their established policy on harassment. While this policy was obviously not enough to prevent the events of this past week, it seems like the bare minimum that should be in place to ensure the protection of participants. CAMWS currently has no such anti-harassment policy, though Tom Sienkewicz, CAMWS Secretary-Treasurer, indicates that the organization has begun to discuss the creation of one.

GSIC fully supports the development and wide publicization of an anti-harassment policy for CAMWS meetings. Such a policy should outline zero-tolerance for harassment of any kind, including racially-motivated attacks, and specifying a reporting procedure.

Dismantling institutionalized racism in classics won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But perhaps we can draw some takeaways from this, some action items that we graduate students of classics can act on right now:

  • If the money is available,  donate to The Sportula to provide microgrants that enable more people to study classics, especially students of color.
  • Reach out to the upcoming CAMWS conference leadership to offer support for a visible and publicized anti-harassment policy.


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