The Rewards Outweigh the Risks— Advocating for Public Scholarship in an Era of White Supremacy

This is the text from my recent talk on the Public Facing Scholarship in Canada panel at the 2018 Classical Association of Canada Annual Meeting. The rest of the panel papers, handouts, and participant information can be found by following the link to our panel page @ this blog. Thanks to Aven McMaster, Katherine Blouin, Jaclyn Neel, and Alison Innes for such an informative and inspiring panel. This version contains external links to events or other mentions.

“The Rewards Outweigh the Risks— Advocating for Public Scholarship in an Era of White Supremacy”

There are a lot of great reasons for someone in a field like Classics to engage in public scholarship--it increases visibility of the field, helps entice donors to archaeological digs, increases the number of students who 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 of such public engagement as well. A portion of the general public that tends to be interested in things classical is not necessarily the general public one hopes to attract. While there are good people who took a class or two in college or even majored in it who want to connect, an unusually large demographic of the public interested in classics are white men who view classics as “western,” “white” and “theirs” alone. Among these men are those who are openly white supremacist and neo-nazi. They appropriate antiquity in a myriad of ways to support their dreams of a “white nation”--whether in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or elsewhere. This public – explicitly racist or just complicitly racist – forms a part of the public that we of necessity address, and who don’t hesitate to address us. Public engagement for us, as a result, comes with both risks and rewards. 

I’ll start with the risks: The public are not passive recipients of our scholarship.

We need first to admit an uncomfortable fact: a white supremacist is not necessarily crazy to see Classics as an ally. 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 has 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. (e.g. the Everyday Orientalism blog) 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 (which might explain part of their reliance) and that their ideologies depend upon. A scholar who wades into public conversations should not be surprised if the general public is unaware of the current communis opinio or recent scholarship.  In fact, such a public facing scholar might find herself facing a charge of being a so-called “Social Justice Warrior Revisionists” bent on indoctrinating the youth in colleges and set on destroying the “foundations of western civilization.”

There have, of course, been a few recent high-profile examples of what can happen when these white supremacists or there “bot” friends decide you are a threat to them. Aggressive threats toward Donna Zuckerburg and Sarah Bond are the most well-known cases. In each case, the scholar in question wrote a public facing work and was repaid with aggressive, threatening comments, articles written about them in right wing magazines and websites and, in Sarah’s case, posters hung on her campus and calls made to administration calling for her firing. In many ways, the excesses of the attacks on them are easier to dismiss as anomalous or unindicative of concerns we as a field need to have. And yet, the virulence and organized nature of the attacks should concern us.

Sarah Bond’s article was in a popular publication (Hyperallergic) and Donna’s was in Eidolon, an unapologetically liberal feminist magazine, but others are being targeted for their scholarship in academic journals and presses. Sarah’s case, though, is illustrative of how the targeting works--first, her article was picked up by an intern at the website Campus Reform, a group that considers itself a policer of liberal academics. [[Update: There is apparently a Canadian equivalent site now called “Woke Watch”]]. They look for 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 an electronic army of trolls to attack the author in the comments sections to their article, in emails or, more frequently, on Twitter.  Sometimes, the scholar might receive a call from the schedulers on the Tucker Carlson Show. They sometimes contact university administrators, making threats or demanding the person be fired. 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, but others, like Donna, are not so lucky.

This pattern has been repeated dozens of times in the last 18 months. It has even targeted students writing for student newspapers (as happened to a student at my campus). The attacks are extreme, but are not consistent. Concerning and more persistent, however, are attacks on our public scholarship by fellow non-classics academics, such as Nassim Taleb’s barrage against Mary Beard, which started with her Roman Britain tweets but which continues at seemingly random intervals still. Whether one agrees with her or not on this or any issue, Taleb (and I classify Taleb as such because he is insistent that he is “white” and descended directly from ancient Greeks and he uses lots of inaccurate and troubling genetics to demonstrate it), with is tens of thousands of Twitter followers and blog on Medium has used his public platform to wage a continual assault on her. So relentless is it that legitimate criticisms of her posts are often lost and classified as “trolling.” One of the myriad dangers that the white supremacist barrages can lead to is that it can  obscure actual usefully critical conversations.

For myself, the risks have been different. I joined Twitter--one of the primary mechanisms white supremacists use to attack--only this last October, the result of a concussion that clearly clouded my mind. But I did so while simultaneously signing onto a shared block list with other academics (it’s a program called “Block Together” and I highly recommend it), something that has protected me from numerous unpleasantries. But my first foray into public scholarship was quite unpleasant.

I first considered venturing into public scholarship back in 2009. I wrote a couple of blog posts and 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 received (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) is to try to make them go away. And that’s what I did. I didn’t want to get those emails. So, I figured I should just lay low. But last year, meeting with Donna Zuckerberg a couple of months after her “How to be a good classicists under a bad emperor” article hit the internet, I changed my mind.

My conversation with her on public scholarship started with me asking Donna what the Women’s Classical Caucus, an organization I currently co-chair, could do to support her. She said “write”. I was, as you might imagine, a little apprehensive. I’m a specialist in ancient immigrants and race and ethnicity in antiquity and the reception of these ideas in modern race science. These are things that could get me attacked on the interwebs. But, the best thing I could do to support her and others who were already starting to engage the tough questions was to write about it for the public using my expertise. So, I have.

The audience for my public scholarship is both my colleagues in classics and anyone in the public at large who has interests in the ancient Mediterranean world. Frequently, my posts target or derive from the writings of others (almost always non-classicists, but not always) about classics in popular or contemporary culture. Whether it’s an anonymous person who hates Black Achilles or David Brooks and Mark Bauerlien lamenting that “western civ is dying” or some random lawyer on FB who doesn’t know the difference between rape law and adultery law in antiquity, I choose my topics based on whether or not I think I can persuade someone--usually someone in the field or an interested but not white supremacist non-classicist--that the ancient world is not a white monolithic space that belongs to elite white men alone. The difficult topics are the ones where it is our fellow academics (in classics and in other fields) who have an investment in a white male and “western” classics.

Public engagement isn’t just for a general public outside of academia nor is that the only place white supremacists or neo-nazis hide. Often it includes colleagues in other fields (and within our own) who are interested in antiquity for personal reasons. These colleagues may often be overtly or implicitly white supremacist or defenders and promoters of “western civilization” or, more frequently these days, are interested in genetics and see genetics as correcting decades of attempts by ancient historians and archaeologists to undermine biological determinations in human variation--i.e. the construct of race.[1] Numerous of the defenders of the “west” who look to maintain a status quo view of classics and classical antiquity as “white” and “western” sometimes run so called “race realism” journals like "American Renaissance” or “The Occidental Quarterly” or "The Dorchester Review" or go by names like Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, David Reich, and Charles Murray--there is a strong investment in maintaining the “Greek Miracle” if you are a white male neuroscientist, psychologist, or geneticist who believes that race and gender are biological realities that determines intelligence and behavior.

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--Classics is valuable for its complexities, not its perfections. 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 this by a religion colleague at another university just for using the word race in relation to antiquity), 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 or at the bar.

These are the risks, clearly--harassment, dismissal, even threats. But, I don’t allow comments on the blog proper and my healthy 99,000+ person strong block list on Twitter has helped a LOT. And the rewards increase as those of us doing this work gain in strength and numbers--the more of us doing this work, the less impact the more extreme elements on the internet have and the more impact we can have on the more moderate forms of classical exceptionalism that pave the way for white supremacism.

So, what are the rewards?  The public are not passive recipients of our scholarship.

In terms of the profession--Prof Bond’s article and the response to it have engendered real conversations concerning the display and teaching of classical art--museums are changing, even if only slowly. Donna’s journal Eidolon, has a regular readership of around 10,000 now and celebrated its 2nd anniversary with an unabashedly feminist rebranding; it has been inspiring a more diverse classics and giving voice to many in our field who haven’t felt like they could speak before. A recent conference I participated in, Racing the Classics, included many scholars (young and older) who participate in reception studies and some in public scholarship and they are committed to trying to find ways to ethically promote a study of classics that includes race and racism--in antiquity, in the field, and in the use of classics to promote racism outside of the field. We actually held a panel at CAMWS this year on Classics and White Supremacy--lots of people came (standing, sitting, jammed into the room) and have continued to express appreciation for it happening.

There are also professional rewards.  Since that conversation with Donna in January of 2017, I have written 2 articles for Eidolon. My blog Classics at the Intersections has gained an audience. It’s focused mostly on the intersection of ancient views of race and modern one, of racist appropriations of the classical past, and sometimes, women and gender. I also house there an online bibliography and resource database for teaching race and ethnicity in antiquity where my own and colleagues’ syllabi are available to anyone who wants to adapt them. My blog has had around 79000 views since August 2017 as of last week, which is way more people than will likely ever read my scholarship in academic publications. Posts I’ve made are being assigned in classes around the world. My name recognition in the field has increased measurably, especially for someone who works at a small teaching college in the American midwest.

Creating public scholarship has also impacted my regular scholarship--a big question that is always asked about public scholarship is “but does it count?” It may not count in itself for tenure and promotion at this time, but it has led to opportunities that do: I’ve been invited to participate in a number of conference panels, podcasts, or workshops on classics and white supremacy. I’ve been invited to meet with departments to help them build inclusive syllabi and curricula, and to participate in an international workshop in Leiden on creating integrated approaches to studying histories of race and migration that includes historians, archaeologists, and geneticist. I was asked by Johns Hopkins to write a book for them on the topics I address in my public scholarship--in the voice I use in my public scholarship. More people are actually reading my academic publications as a result of my public facing work. These are material gains, scholarly gains that resulted from my willingness to venture into a hostile public sphere, where the work I do wouldn’t “count” for anything professionally like tenure or promotion. And, yet, these are real professional gains.

But there is also a personal reward that such work can engender. Whenever I feel like I can’t keep up the work because I’m tired and have too much else to do or think it’s not worth it because no one reads it or pays attention, I get an email or someone comes up to me at a conference and thanks me for being willing to discuss issues of racism and classics’ role in it publicly--thanked by graduate students, junior scholars, senior scholars--people I have never met, people I now count as friends, people who genuinely find some value in the work. There is a real need among many of our colleagues to be able to talk about our history of complicity, to talk about the systems of power and hierarchies that still dominate our field. In a field that is over 90% white and still dominated at the tenured ranks by white men, being public and reflective about our own history 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 two years, white supremacists’ love for the classics 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 (though hat tip to Pharos/Curtis Dozier and Matthew Sears/Twitter Warrior™--are not backing down despite threats to tenure or even getting employed in the first place. 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. I have tenure. And a platform. If I don’t use it in support of others and of my discipline, then what is the point?

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 and our professional organizations will support them in doing so. And that can start with how we value public scholarship in our teaching and our own research--podcasts, blogs, databases, they are all valuable and worth assigning and citing. Public scholars are fighting on the front lines of public opinion for our field. The least we can do is to support them and acknowledge the hard work and expertise it requires. Thank you.

[1] I discussed this issue with respect to the UNESCO “Statement on Race” at CAMWS and will have a blog post forthcoming on the topic.