The Historically Contingent 'Race' Problem

At a basketball game last weekend while sitting at the scorers tables keeping book, I was asked by a ref whether or not I believed that whiteness was real. It wasn't a totally random, inappropriate question--I had Denise McCoskey's book Race: Antiquity and its Legacy and he saw it sitting there. I think I must have looked at him puzzled, but then said "Yeah. It exists."

I mean, I find the whiteness of my normal environment kind of overwhelming sometimes--our whole team (6th grade girls travel ball) and pretty much all of our teams generally in my town are 100% white. And we were playing an almost entirely black team--the reality of our whiteness was pretty obvious. This is a normally odd feeling for someone who grew up in a minority white place with a mostly non-white family. And, yes, I think about (and write about and talk about) race all the time, so the question should not have puzzled me--the context just threw me for a second.

But it also got me thinking about how I often respond to questions about race in antiquity--all the caveats and the definitions and the fine distinctions and nuances. And then I thought about why we so often try to avoid talking about race in antiquity at all (we talk about "ethnicity" instead) and all the reasons we give--why I have done so, even. And then I thought about how I would have talked to the ref at the game about all of this and how big of an eye roll I would have gotten.

And yet, as an academic, I find explaining the history of race in a clear and meaningful way difficult, especially when most of us classicists seem to want to avoid talking about race in antiquity at all. Read any book on ethnicity and you'll find some dance around the term "race" explaining why we don't use it. Some of the ways scholars do this is with fun little trite phrases like:

"Race is a social construct" and so not real and so we can ignore it. Except that social constructs are thoroughly "real" in their impacts and in shaping the worlds we live in and study.

"Race is biological and we are talking about culture." No it isn't. It is cultural and social and political. The biological part is part of its imaginary reality. The rooting of it in biology is what makes it dangerous. It emphasizes that character is embedded in physiognomy at some primordial date in the past. It privileges a mythical 'nature' over the reality of socialized, racist 'nurture.'

I think for many of us, myself included, to speak of ethnicity carries less baggage than to speak of race, but also, to speak of ethnicity is easier because we can connect it to the Greeks, at least, through the term ethnos, while race is "foreign." In my book on metic ("immigrant") women, I used ethnicity to discuss individuals mostly because people were identified on their tombstones by an ethnos--their city of origin, and most of the foreign women in Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE were Greeks, too, just not Athenians. But there was and is a valid reason for me to have talked about race, which I did, but maybe not enough.

If we think about what race is, its really a way of thinking, not a "thing." It's a way of thinking that assumes hierarchies. It assumes one group of people is inherently better than another. It assumes that there is a connection between geography and identity that can't change--that you take the geography of your primordial origins with you through time and space. The Athenians believed in something like this. Its why some of us (Susan Lape, importantly, here and here) talk about race and racial identity and citizenship--the Athenians very clearly believed that they were superior to others inherently based on their birth (indigenous to their land--an autochthonous birth unrelated to the descent of other humans) and that they had to preserve this superiority by rejecting intermarriage with non-Athenians (anti-miscegenation) and in this way retaining their purity. This is pretty close to race and race thinking in in the modern world.

So, the women I studied were excluded and legally oppressed because of their race--they weren't Athenian. Didn't matter that they were Greek. And yet, while I talked about "racial citizenship" and "racial thinking", I didn't use the word "race" but "ethnic identity" when speaking of individuals and the group they belonged to. That's kind of cowardly of me, in some ways. Whatever other types of identities they constructed, Athenians had a concept of "race" that maps pretty well onto ours--even if they didn't have anything like modern race science to underscore it.

In truth, no identities are "real," if by "real" we mean an impermeable category that someone is born into that is defined through immutable characteristics. That "real" doesn't exist. No identity that we have (internally of externally constructed) can meet this criteria. Does that mean identities aren't "real," though, in the sense that they matter in the way we navigate the world around us?

Could I have explained this to the ref at the game? That, well, yes, I study ancient Athens and they were racists and were the "white people" of their day, even though the only actual "white people" in the city would have been the rich women or the Scythian slaves or someone with a bad skin condition or disease? He probably would have asked me why I would want to study a bunch of racists. I think some of us still struggle with the answer to that particular question.

Sometimes, it takes just a moment to realize that, when people talk about academics as "out of touch," there are reasons for it. It takes a special form of distance to be able to treat something that is so much a part of the lived experiences of others (and not in a good way necessarily) and treat it in a rationalized and abstract manner. As one commenter on a recent Twitter conversation noted (about a different issue)*:

I don't say "objective manner" for a reason, though. Because when we talk about issues like sexual assault (which the above commenter is referring to) or race and racism, objective is really just another word for "not an issue I have to deal with" or "privilege." And it is also something that results from the viewing of "black" as a race but not "white." If we "don't see race" or think that we can deal with it "objectively" or "rationally" it's because we have lived without its weight for most or all of our lives.

We academics, especially those who deal with the distant past, are trained to abstract ourselves. But, as I tell my students all the time--objectivity is a myth (which is what ideals are); whoever writes the narrative or compiles the evidence and pieces it together is a subjective part of the history. Whoever asks the questions and sets the parameters for the experiment or interprets that resulting data has included their subjective self in the study. There are no self-evident, self-monitoring, self-completing, self-narrating events, studies, or experiments. All we can do is be aware of our subjective input and do our best to not let it overtake us.

And we need to recognize this when the quest for objectivity leads us to split hairs and our lack of experience leads us to only be able to theorize and not be able to engage with our object of inquiry when they are a real person's subjective reality. Race is a reality too many of us scholars on race and ethnicity in antiquity have trouble thinking about in anything but an abstracted way because we project race (regardless of our knowledge that skin color =/= race) onto people of color both in our field and in our studies and leave whiteness as a colorless, raceless norm. We assume whiteness for the Greeks and Romans even when we don't mean too because we only ever picture race and ethnicity in antiquity as non-Greeks and Romans.

But white people have race now and ancient Greeks--the Athenians, at least--also had race then. And still we treat "race" like a historically contingent nuisance that we can articulate away through philological sophisms and rhetorical sleights of hand. We act like it is our scholarly responsibility to place it on its modern shelf and not taint our ancients with. It's one of the many reasons we have a racism and race problem in Classics.

None of this ruminating helps me with the problem of being able to articulate a history of race to the ref on the fly during a time out. But at least I can be a little more honest with myself as I prepare to do more scholarship on the history of race in antiquity and classics' contributions to modern white supremacy.

For a recent discussion of some of the dynamics of racism and race in our field see "Episode 51: Race & Racism in Ancient & Medieval Studies, Part 1: The Problem." Episode 52 (Part 2) is coming out Wednesday. A good discussion of the terms for race, ethnicity, nation, etc. in the Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon is their "Episode 44: 'Us' & 'Them' in the Ancient and Anglo-Saxon Worlds."


*A reference to the Twitter convo I had with Mary Beard the other day on how using the USA Gymnastics case to talk about the need for sentencing reform was a bit tone deaf and she shouldn't be surprised if people just didn't have time for it. The commenter above joined the fray and said some very thoughtful things.

The Dorian Invasion and 'White' Ownership of Classical Greece?

I was speaking with a student last semester. She loves Classics, but she can't seem to get her parents to understand why. She's Indian and her family and family friends, she tells me, have asked her things like why she wants to give up her own culture and study someone else's. India, of course, has a long history with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Greeks even settled in parts of what was called India in antiquity (though are parts of various modern nations now). India appears in our Greek sources as early as Herodotus (and earlier is some fragmentary works), was an important players in the ancient trade networks that went through the Persian empire, and became part of Greek reality in the Hellenistic world as a major political and military player. The idea that the study of Classics is 'foreign' to a student from India more than the descendants of Celts and Germans and Norse people is weird. And one needs to wonder why (though we already know the answer: hint, it's racism).

I should not wonder why, however, as I (mistakenly) spent time today reading the comments on an article concerning the casting of a black man as Achilles in the new BBC Troy series, Troy: Fall of a City. Within the comments, all sorts of tales of genetics and descent are being thrown around--both for and against Europe or Africa as the originator of all races, the place of 'whites' vs. 'blacks' in Egypt (with the subset of Cleopatra as Greek, Arab, or black African), whether Neanderthals are part of this conversation or not, and then the "just because we come from Africa doesn't mean we are black" divisioning between sub-Saharan and north African. And then we get fun comments like (all screen grabs of comments are from the article on black Achilles unless otherwise noted):

I'm white. And yet, I have certainly not felt over the 25 years during which I have studied and worked to become a Classics professor that Classics and 'everything' came from me or belonged to me. I'm from a small town near Akron, Ohio in the middle of the US and then moved to San Diego, CA. I'm a first gen college student. Most of my family have no idea what I actually do. They certainly don't spend all that much time thinking about ancient Greece and Rome and their ownership of it in an unbroken line of descent. How can this field 'belong' to me? It doesn't. Or so I thought...

Turns out, I was wrong! I am pretty much solid German on my mom's side (she was the first generation of her family in the US to marry a non-German dating back to before the Revolutionary War) and, it so happens that, according to the Nazis and their Romantic-Nationalist predecessors and many a neo-Nazi today, THAT MAKES ME DORIAN GREEK!

In other words, it's time to talk about the myth of the so-called "Dorian Invasion" and the myth of an Aryan Ancient Greece.

H/T for the map.
As with many a historical myth about the origins of various Greek cultures, this one has a source in Herodotus and was an attempt by mostly German scholars (at first, it seems) to explain the changes in language from non-Hellenic to Hellenic. The mysterious Pelasgians appear as a 'native' substrate of possibly Anatolian origin (except the Athenians, who were indigenous but 'became Greek' by changing languages..maybe..Herodotus is a bit dodgy on this one), while the Dorians--those vigorously masculine Greeks best represented by the Spartans, as you can see from the map above--from a Nazi textbook--those Dorians came from Germany!

The myth of the Dorian/Aryan/Nordic invasion begins, in many ways, as a failure of methodology, specifically, as a result of historical positivism. Historian Jonathan Hall once described historical positivism as a mode of seeing in "myths of ethnic origins a hazy and refracted recollection of genuine population movements" in the Bronze Age. Variants of these myths were "pathological aberrations from a 'real' historical memory" (Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, 41). Unfortunately, these "pathological aberrations" became bound to ideological positions that became linked to political parties and movements and race science.

As one can read all about in my new favorite book Brill's Companion to the Classics and Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (the chapters by Wiedemann and Whyte specifically) or (going back pre-Nazi) in Helen Roche's Sparta’s German Children, Hitler and many a German firmly believed that Spartans/Dorians and Germans were one people and that the martial valor and glory of Greece was the result of Germans invading Greece and establishing a civilization. They, the modern Germans, were then both the progenitors of ancient Greek civilization and its heirs. And they, as Tacitus explained to them, were a pure people. Their Blut und Boden  ideology explained both who they were and why they were born to be conquerors.

I've even read 19th century texts that suggest that some German scientists and anthropologists explained the fall of ancient Greek civilization by the deterioration of Germans too long from their proper climate--the heat of Greece enervated them over time, making the rise of a new Greece in Germany the only solution. Hitler certainly saw it that way as did many of his predecessors, like Karl Otfried Müller. Whatever other flaws there may be in Martin Bernal's Black Athena, pointing out the long trail of classical philologists and historians invested in a northern European invasion as the only possible explanation for the development of an advanced civilization in southern Europe was not wrong. The Aryan/Dorian (later Nordic) invasion was used to explain not only ancient Greek civilizations, but also those throughout Asia and even north Africa.
How long did historians and archaeologist struggle to fit the evidence into a narrative of a Dorian invasion? This great article from 1978 laying out the evidence debunking the invasion myth gives you a clue. And yet, even while scholars have moved on, the general population has not. And the recourse this public makes to genetics is complicating the issue. While there is quite a bit of good work being done in the realm of genetics, popularizing articles in magazines like Science and  National Geographic make it seem like we have hundreds upon hundreds of solid samples to test from, resulting in "new" discoveries every few months in the origins of genes for "whiteness" or "blackness" or homo sapiens vs. Neanderthals, etc.

Typically, however, we have only a few samples and studies of the sort that discovered "The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals" suffer from numerous flaws in the data (small sample sizes, assumptions about migration patterns, comparisons only with modern populations, choosing not to randomize samples) and give the general population a sense of certainty where there is none. The results are comments like:

This is a comment on Dimitri Nakassis' blog post about the Science article. The commentator and his predecessor "Double Helix" view the result of a 4-16% admixture of "northern" DNA possible for the samples labeled Mycenaean as DNA proof, to the commentator and others, of the Dorian/Aryan/Nordic reality of ancient Greece.  The longevity of this myth that all southern European, north African, and Eastern/Central Asian civilizations were the result of northern invaders is real, even if it is now playing out in the realm of pseudo-science. Whatever someone wants to believe, they will find evidence or skew evidence to support it because that's how ideology works.

But the Aryan/Dorian/Nordic myth does real harm if Classicists and ancient historians don't challenge it and do it regularly. It excludes people from our discipline whose history it is just as much as it is anyone's (more so in some cases) by allowing one small group of people--'white' people--to lay claim to it. It also puts a value on whiteness that encourages adoption of 'whiteness' as a way of viewing and moving in the world by those peoples who may have been excluded in the past--like  Greeks or Latino people, who are increasingly identifying as white while simultaneously developing virulent strains of white supremacy of their own. We see valuation on whiteness lead some individuals (like N. Taleb) to reject and work tirelessly to argue away cultural heritage and connections to a non-northern European past.

In the end, the lingering myth of a Aryan invasion in the popular imagination, though now grounded in different 'evidence',  perpetuates the whiteness of our field, continues to send a message that Classical Greece 'belongs' to northern Europe, and, perhaps the worst thing of all, seems to have made some corners of the internet nostalgic for the 2004 Troy movie and Brad Pitt as Achilles. What can we do when theories long debunked continue to prosper and cause harm? In addition to trying to make our research accessible to the broader public, I say we enjoy the new Achilles.

Impacts of Teaching Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World

One of the questions we ask ourselves whenever we rethink our teaching or, as has been an explicit part of the conversations around teaching race/ethnicity or gender/sexuality in antiquity, when we introduce new approaches to old material is what is the impact. This semester, I made explicit in my Ancient Identities class what I'd always interlaced implicitly--I incorporated current events and conversations directly in the reading and as part of the requirements for students' final projects. I wanted to share some of the results/impacts. I'll start first with providing comments from student course evaluations and then list the names (with some description) of student final projects. Excluded from the evals is the normal "Prof. Kennedy sometimes overestimates the amount of reading we can do..." Of course I do. We all do. It's how you know we are professors.

Evaluations from Ancient Identities (Fall 2017):

"After taking this course, I now have an interest in understanding how Greeks and Romans constructed their identity by analyzing and comparing their identity with others. Most importantly, I am now curious to see how people's interpretations of ancient texts influence modern events...The instructor was fun to learn from. She challenged my thinking and pushed me to be more analytical in my understanding of the readings. But beyond that, she encouraged me to think more in the abstract, which is something that is not often encouraged in many courses."

"You really pushed me outside of my comfort zone and got me to think about concepts in a new way which I really appreciate. I really learned so much in your class and I also struggled a lot but that is always a good part of learning."

"This course is an excellent one for dismantling assumptions. There are so many implicit assumptions about the ancient world present in modern society for which there is NO evidence in classical sources. This course was incredibly challenging, as we could not take any prior knowledge of the classical world for granted. I also liked the structure, starting with the theories of antiquity and then moving to evaluating evidence using those theories."

"I knew nothing about the class so I was skeptical but I was also really curious to take it...I feel like I have a whole new perspective on the subject and I am very glad I took this class."

"I was very interested in the time period but never really thought of the identity and race aspect of the time period...There were many tough questions asked, a lot of questions that really had no specific answer, which challenged you to really think about things ."

"I wasn't sure what the identities part of class would be but as a classics student I was already excited for the course...this course made me think very differently about the ancient world."

"It is really intriguing to consider the construction of race, but it is also discouraging to see all the biased/racist constructs in modern America that I feel like I have power to change...Our readings also sometimes required us to analyze issues I have not put much thought into...The diversity of reading material was great. It kept it more interesting when switching between ancient and modern texts. Class discussion was good...It would be interesting to have a segment of the class be about actions taken in the ancient world and modern world against racism. This would pair nicely when reading all of the depressing articles at the end of the semester and leave us more encouraged and driven to do something with the knowledge we have gained in this course."

"This class covered a lot of difficult topics and pushed my ability to think critically and push myself to think of topics in more than one light."

Titles of Student Final Projects (Fall 2017):

I am not including links to the project blog as I have now made their assignments private for FERPA reasons, but, here is the description of the assignment:

"The final project for this class is a hybrid creative/research project that asks students to look comparatively at the ancient and modern worlds by using ancient ideas about racial/ethnic identity to think through a contemporary debate/problem/etc.  For the project, students are asked to write an 1000-1500 word essay that includes citations to both our ancient readings and modern news/scholarship/texts/videos/etc."

Students picked their own topics, linked to current and recent media about the topic and used our ancient sources to think about the issue. I was (mostly) very impressed.

Pax Americana: How American Nationalism Rewrote the History of Rome
Cultural Theories in The Phantom Menace (an oldie, but a goodie)
Connections between ancient and modern Jews
How Has Ethnocentrism Transitioned Through Antiquity Into Modern Times?--on accepting refugees
Standing Rock and Roman Civilization
Decentralization: Greek Civilization, Athenian Democracy, and Bitcoin
The Next Step in the Evolution of Eugenics--from SParta and Plato to the Holocaust to  CRISPR cas9
Romans and Americans: Who are we to judge?--nation of immigrants, melting pots, and white supremacy
A Heritage or an Identity?--on Confederate monuments
Why are Native Americans still using blood quantum to determine tribal membership?--on the racist origins of blood quantum
Anti-Russian Propaganda--Use of Classical imagery during the Cold War
Immigration in the US, Athens, and Rome
Language and Identity: Russia and the Crimean Crisis
From Airs, Waters, and Places to Water, Lead, and Identity: An Analysis of the Fragile Human  
     ego to Control the Environment
Refugee Crises as a Threat to National Identity--are they?
Pocahontas Battling the White Man--Disney meets Herodotus
A Dichotomy: Being “white” on the census vs. being “white” in America
Seriously, Does Cultural Appropriation Exist?
The Film Industry Addressing Ancient Issues--Scottish stereotypes in Trainspotting
Rethinking Opportunity--on disability and the American Dream
Coerced birth control injections by the Israeli government: the continuation of an ancient stance 
     against heterogeneity
Since When Did Diversity Look So Dim?--asking why affirmative action exists and exploring whether it works as it should

So, I think the class this semester was a big success. I could not have asked for students to do more than they did (except maybe spend a wee bit more time reading...). But they engaged the big questions and the little ones that make up the big questions and came away thinking about them more than they did before. That's a win.

Reflections on Doing Public Scholarship

This August, I participated in a faculty symposium on my campus where I was one of 6 faculty reflecting on different aspects of what it means to do public scholarship or be a "public intellectual." It was really interesting to listen to my colleagues who either study public intellectuals of the past, study attitudes towards them today, or engage in different types of public scholarship than I do (theatre making as public scholarship, science blogging on the Discovery channel, etc.). 

One of the things that became pretty clear in the discussion is that if you are a white man, being a public intellectual is not as hard as it is if you are in some way something else. I have decided, as I prepare to head off to the annual conference for classicists and archaeologists that will be happening come hell or 'Bomb Cyclone', to post my remarks reflecting on the value of public scholarship from the symposium.


There are lots of great reasons from someone in a field like classics to engage in public outreach--it increases visibility of the field, helps entice donors to digs, increases the number of students who may want to study it and reduces the number of parents who don’t know what classics is. My own experiences and those of a number of my colleagues in Classics and ancient history (and our Medievalist colleagues), however, have shown the risks as well. The general public that tends to be interested in things classical is not necessarily the general public that one hopes to attract. While there are good people who took a class or two in college or even did their undergrad in it who want to connect, a large demographic of the public interested in classics are white people who view classics as “western”and therefore “white” history or who are openly supremacists and neo-nazis. They appropriate antiquity in a myriad of ways to support their dreams of a “white nation.” Public engagement for us, as a result, comes with both risks and rewards. 

Classics has a long and complicated history with respect to modern race constructs and justifications for colonialism and imperialism. Over the course of the last 40 or so years, however, the field--at least a portion of the field--has been coming to grips with its biases and complicity and sought to correct the historical record by engaging critically with past scholarship, with new archaeological and material artifacts, by widening the canon of authors and texts we teach and research on, and, more recently, by engaging in more public outreach to make all of this research accessible to a wider public. Many in the public, however, prefer the 19th and early 20th century writings about ancient Greece and Rome--writings that are in the public domain-- and that their ideologies depend upon. They do not take kindly to the so-called “Social Justice Warrior Revisionists” who are indoctrinating the youth in colleges and who are set on destroying the “foundations of western civilization.”

My colleague Prof. Sarah Bond, whose story you read about in one of the pre-symposium readings, is only one of several classicists who have found themselves in the cross hairs of white supremacists and right wing media for trying to bring what is established fact among scholars into public spaces. Sarah has a personal blog, publishes a regular column in Forbes, and also does invited pieces, like the one in Hyperallergic that earned her a large number of anti-semitic and sexist comments and even threats of violence. She is a member of our national organization’s outreach committee and had not considered it dangerous before. That can change quickly if you work in what is often called “identity politics”--Sarah doesn’t normally, but her art history article touched a nerve with people who want classics to be white history for white people and any hint that the ancient Mediterranean was “diverse” raises a cry from them.

Sarah’s article was in a popular publication, but others are being targeted for their scholarship in academic journals and presses. Her case, though, is illustrative of how the targeting works--first, her article was picked up by an intern at Campus Reform, a group that considers itself a policer of liberal academics. They like scholarship on climate change,  studies on “whiteness”, gender and sexuality studies, diversity in the classical world, etc. They write an article about it, typically one that misrepresents what the scholar actually writes. This then mobilizes a literal army of trolls who begin to attack the author in the comments sections to their article, in emails or, more frequently, on Twitter. They sometimes contact university administrators making threats or calling for the person’s firing. Sometimes, as in the case of both Sarah and another one of her colleagues at Iowa, the scholar might receive a call from the schedulers on the Tucker Carlson Show, which one should always, I am told, reject. If you are lucky, you both published in a forum that helps moderate the threats and work at a university that mobilizes behind you and provides you risk management and legal support, if needed. Sarah was fortunate on both counts, others are not so lucky.

If any of you are not aware of the current situation surrounding Prof. Tommy Curry, a philosopher at Texas Tech, you should look it up. Lack of institutional support for his public scholarship has left him living under continuing threats of violence. When we do public scholarship, the question of how it “counts” or where it “fits” in our roles at the university, something our colleague Paul Djupe's survey engaged, matters, as does how our institutions support us. And it is something I’ve thought lot about as I’ve made my return to public engagement. Because it isn’t just a matter of whether it counts for tenure and promotion, but whether our institutions--institutions that benefit greatly from the work of public scholars--actually support us if things get messy.

I first considered venturing into public scholarship back in 2009. I had an opportunity to be a “talking head” in 3 episodes of a History Channel international series (sorry, no aliens). Filming was fun, the reactions of my friends and family when they saw me on TV was fun. Not fun were the sexually harassing and disgusting emails I starting receiving (and occasionally still receive) from men whose only response to women being experts in anything (and I was the only woman in 2 of the episodes, one of 2 in the other) is to try to make them go away. And that’s what I did. But last year something changed my mind.

Another colleague of mine, Donna Zuckerberg, found herself last November the recipient of anti-semitic and sexist threats on Twitter, in emails, and in comments on an essay she wrote calling upon the field of classics to engage more directly in the teaching and researching of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, the positions of women and slaves in antiquity. Her own research has focused on the way Men’s Rights Activist groups and so-called “Red Pill” communities on the web appropriate classics to justify and support their idea about women and race. Her work bringing this material to the public has put her in their crosshairs, especially since she has opted to forgo a traditional academic career to create and edit an online magazine called Eidolon for bringing the work of scholars to the general public. What institutional support does she have?

S0, my return to public-facing work started with me asking Donna what the Women’s Classical Caucus, an organization I currently co-chair, could do to support her. It ended with me writing for her. I was, you might imagine, a little apprehensive. But, as a specialist in race and ethnicity in antiquity and the reception of these ideas in modern race science, the best thing I could do to support her and others was to write about it for the public.

Since my conversation with her in January of last year, I have written 2 articles for her magazine (one published in May, the second in Sept). I’ve restarted my blog (previously untouched since 2014), where I focus mostly on the way the intersection of ancient views of race and modern one, of racist appropriations of the classical past, and sometimes, women and gender. I am also using the blog to promote better public knowledge about the diversity of the ancient world and for providing material for learning about it. To that end, I have created an online bibliography to which my colleagues have also begun contributing for the study of and teaching of race and ethnicity in antiquity and I make my  own syllabi available to anyone who wants to adapt them. I’m also participating in public syllabi projects. I’ve also been invited to participate in a number of conference panels or workshops on classics and white supremacy. 

The audience for my public scholarship is both my colleagues in classics and anyone in the public at large who has interests in the classical world. Frequently, the readers who have the most issue with what I and my colleagues say about race in antiquity are the non-professionals. As one commenter on a said “It seems that opinion is divided with professional historians and classicists on one side and interested lay people on the other.” So, one of the questions I have had to consider when it comes to audience is what do “interested lay people” have invested in classics?

Many seem to be invested in the idea of a fully “white” antiquity, which suggests they may not want to hear what I and my colleagues have to say.  So, part of my public engagement goal is to try to sway those who can be swayed to love the classical world for reasons other than a false fantasy of it being a white wonderland and to get them to embrace a more accurate picture of the past. I also try to demonstrate how modern misconceptions came into being--though it is challenging to get people to understand that pointing out past racism in classical scholarship isn’t an accusation of racism in all current admirers of antiquity. I’ve been accused of betraying my race, of trying to induce white guilt, and even of hating classics. The toughest part of public engagement for me really is not replying to everyone who is wrong on the internet.

These are the risks. But, there are rewards as well--Prof Bond’s article and the response to it have engendered real conversations concerning the display and teaching of classical art. Donna’s journal Eidolon, has a regular readership of around 10,000 now and just celebrated its 2nd anniversary; it has been inspiring a more diverse classics and  giving voice to many in our field who haven’t felt like they couldn’t speak before.

For me, the rewards have been more personal. I feel invigorated doing the work and I’ve been thanked by younger scholars for bringing issues of racism and classics’ role in it to more public attention. In a field that is over 90% white, being public and reflective about our own history as a field can make a big difference. We need to own our past and recognize how embedded racism (and sexism) are in our field.

Over the last year, white supremacist’s love for the classicists has manifested in distressing ways and the question of the risks vs. rewards for public scholarship has become all too real. But none of the women I know who are doing this work--and the people doing this work are overwhelmingly younger women in the field--are not backing down despite the threats. And, far from intimidating me into hiding this time around, the attacks on my colleagues and friends, and the open references to things classical by white supremacists in their hateful manifestos and recruitment campaigns, have galvanized me to do more and to work with others to create support for any scholar in our field who chooses to use their expertise to inform public debate.

The question of support should concern us all, though. Was Prof. Bond supported by her institution because her work was not directly related to contemporary race and so the response easily classifiable as absurd? My own public scholarship engages directly with racism today and how classics is used to support it. Would my university support me if I were threatened for that writing? What can and should universities do to be prepared for the possibility that they too may face a challenges of public outrage over public scholarship by their faculty? And what about our colleagues who may not be full-time faculty, who may be graduate students, who may not be directly affiliated with a university but are members of our profession and our professional organizations? What can our professional organizations do to help?

We live, for better or for worse, in interesting times, and now more than ever, I’ve come to believe that those of us who can participate in public engagement should--even though the risks are real and the rewards are not necessarily always immediate or clear. And I hope that as more faculty decide to use their expertise to inform public debates more institutions will support them in doing so.