What Future, Classics?

This weekend's events at the 2019 AIS/SCS annual meeting in San Diego will go down as some of the most important in our field's history, I think. In part because so much of it has been captured on video and on Twitter. But also because it forced to the surface what has been percolating below the surface forever--the field of classics has now and has always had a racism problem. It isn't just the use of classics by overt white nationalist and white supremacist groups. It isn't something locked in the past like the use of the Apollo Belvedere and Myron's Discobolus as examples of perfected white bodies.

Laurence Fishburne as Prof. Maurice Phipps Higher Learning
It's the assumptions, in fact, that scholars of color in our field only have places because they are not white, as if only white people are capable of truly understanding the classics, while black people are incapable. This is a very old and toxic lie, but one that continues to haunt our field. As I said in a Facebook comment to a friend: "This whole desire to abstract both ourselves and our work from who we are is a way to ensure that there is an invisible norm against which anyone else can be measured. You can't say who the norm is, though, because then it reveals all the -isms it is laden with." It's the only that is the problem. Because sometimes, as stated so eloquently by Dan-el Pedilla Peralta, ones blackness should be the reason they are hired:
 I should have been hired because I was black: because my Afro-Latinity is the rock-solid foundation upon which the edifice of what I have accomplished and everything I hope to accomplish rests; because my black body’s vulnerability challenges and chastizes the universalizing pretensions of color-blind classics; because my black being-in-the-world makes it possible for me to ask new and different questions within the field, to inhabit new and different approaches to answering them, and to forge alliances with other scholars past and present whose black being-in-the-world has cleared the way for my leap into the breach.
Yes, please. Let's all say this together: they should have been hired because they are black.

A few years ago, I was the chair of my university's personnel committee. We had spent a couple of years trying to remove exclusionary language from our job ads and ranking criteria--for example, when you say "small liberal arts experience preferred" you ensure that your applicant pool will likely be about 85-90% white, and that any candidate who applies who did not attend or previously work at a small liberal arts college will start at a deficit in the rankings and thus not rise to the top of the pool, regardless of other qualifications. Such criteria also ensures a level of group-think or sameness in educational philosophy among the candidate pool. This isn't a good thing if you want a vibrant and dynamic faculty and one that will better match the growing diversity of the student populations on campus.

There were other measures as well to increase the number of applicants and ensure fairer treatment for non-white non-middle/upper class candidates, too, like an improved diversity statement, implicit bias training, etc. Whether it has worked or not is an issue for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it made some faculty uncomfortable.

One faculty member whose department was conducting a search sent me an email and wanted to ask some questions about the diversity statement and other measures the university was taking around hiring. He wanted to propose a hypothetical situation and see what I would say. The hypothetical was the following: say their department was hiring someone in perception psychology and they had two candidates who were in all ways equal except for one way--one of the candidates was blind. He wanted to know if, according to our 'new' hiring policies, would they be required to hire the blind candidate. In other words, would he have to hire someone only because they were blind.

The problem with this hypothetical is the only.

The reason for hiring the blind candidate is not only because they are blind, but because they are blind. Being blind means that the individual has experienced the world differently from other members of the department. It means that the way they perceive and receive and comprehend the world has to happen differently. This difference means that they will bring something to the program, to the classroom, to faculty meetings, to their scholarly inquiries that are unlike what others who have not experienced the world in the same way. In other words, they bring something dynamic and vibrant and meaningful that didn't exist there before.

The other thing they do, of course, is to provide an opportunity to students who may have thought that being in front of a classroom and being a scholar was not for them to learn that it is for them. This value cannot be underestimated. Those experiences are embodied in the person standing before them, in the voice of the scholar, in the ideas and the questions and the answers, in the assignments they craft, the syllabi they decide upon. If you continue to hire similar people, then what happens in the classroom and in the scholarship and in the leadership and contributions to the college are the same.

I explained this to my colleague, who seemed unconvinced at the time that there was no such thing as only when it came to hiring someone who had experienced and navigated the world differently.  Some people, after all, like sameness. They don't want surprise. Difference makes them uncomfortable. And they are willing to hire someone only because they are like them because it means they can avoid that discomfort.

Although my colleague used the issue of sightedness to ask his question, race is often the real question on people's minds. And when someone says to them that they should hire a person because  they are not white, because that brings something to the program that another white colleague can't, this means that there must be some reason, some prejudice, that converts that because to an only, that seeks to negate the value of that different experience and perspective. And that means, as @rogueclassicist remarked on Twitter the other day, that a whole lot of white people will need to start wondering whether they only got hired because they are white.