It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo: you don’t notice it, but then something makes you switch between figure and ground, and there it is. That’s the way I felt after I returned on January 6 from the Society for Classical Studies meeting in San Diego. It had been, for me, an unusually pleasant meeting–I managed to schedule everything that I had to do on Friday, January 4, and so had all of the 5th to see some of the sights and visit old friends in the city.
So it wasn’t until I was back in Pennsylvania that I saw the headline: “After Racist Incidents Mire a Conference, Classicists Point to Bigger Problems.” (I’ll resist the philological impulse to emend “mire” to “mar.”) On Saturday, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, an independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams stood up during an open discussion at a panel celebrating the 150th anniversary of the SCS, formerly the American Philological Association, and suggested that Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an Afro-Latin assistant professor at Princeton, had gotten his job “because he’s black.” People in the room condemned her remark as racist, and some moved to take away her microphone. The SCS Board of Directors tweeted a condemnation of “the racist acts and speech that occurred” and expelled Williams from the meeting. A few days later, SCS President Mary T. Boatwright issued a letter to the SCS membership affirming the Society’s need to “confront, meet, and remedy the problems so appallingly revealed in San Diego.”
I need to say at once that Williams’ remarks strike me as racist, as well as simply rude, and that they deserve condemnation. Classics, at least in higher education, does have a deserved reputation for being whiter and more privileged than many other disciplines in the humanities, and you’ll look a long way at an SCS convention before seeing any persons of color with badges hanging around their necks.
But just stand a step or two to one side and look at what happened through the lens of intersectionality. The situation at the SCS begins to look a bit more complicated once you recognize how different systems of social and professional stratification weave through each other. A white woman accused a black man of owing his job to racial preference, and so implied that he was unqualified; but also, a female, marginalized member of the academic precariat—an “independent scholar”—suggested that a member of academe’s elite, a male Ivy League professor, had not earned his privilege, whereupon she was promptly crushed by the profession’s establishment. The fact that her challenge was racist and wrong doesn’t, I think, change that dynamic.
Complicating our understanding of this incident doesn’t make the problems of racism and unjustified exclusivity in classics go away. Suddenly you see the arrow, but the E and X are still there. But the intersectional lens may help us see that the problems are not simply a matter of individual prejudice or personality, and that they are not confined to classics, or to racists.