Last week, I received an email from the independent non-profit, New Hampshire Humanities, stating their organization’s commitment to “the ongoing work of ending systemic racism and injustice,” which included this quotation from Desmond Tutu who had spoken at their annual dinner in 1998:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail
of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not
appreciate your neutrality.”
I realize that many of us who teach Latin and Classics were trained in a traditional way, “raised” as teachers and scholars by people and programs that taught us that the best scholarship is that which leaves the “I” out of it and checks one’s personal agenda at the door. I certainly was. I was also much older than I should have been when I learned that claims of “objectivity” or “neutrality” often meant that a scholar was not being upfront about their agenda—and/or was using a third-person voice aligned with an idea of scholarly authority so embedded within the field of Classics and the structures supporting it as to be invisible: that is, in the privileged position of not needing to be stated.
As a field, society, community, etc., we have long passed a time when standing firm for an ideal of scholarly neutrality is possible or even sufficient. In a time of tremendous uncertainty and upheaval, we who teach, who write, who administer, have an opportunity, in fact a responsibility, not only to speak out but to act to end systemic racism and injustice within our classrooms, our educational institutions, our field, our communities, our nation, our world.
I understand well the desire to stay neutral, to not inflict our own contemporary partisan politics on the ancient lives and cultures we wish to get to know as well as we possibly can, in all of their complexity. But there are people living today, members of groups whose historical mistreatment has been justified by a narrow, oversimplified version of these same ancient lives and cultures. In such a world where white supremacist groups and governments, past and present, use Classics and the Classical Tradition in support of racist beliefs and actions, there is no room for neutrality.
To speak and act in our roles as teachers, scholars, and administrators to end systemic racism and injustice to which the field of Classics has historically contributed: this is not a matter of entangling oneself in partisan politics (and what a luxury it is even to be able to worry this out in one’s mind and heart!). It is a matter of fighting for human rights. Members of CANE, no matter whom you vote for or where you fall on the political spectrum, I implore you to speak out and act to end systemic racism and injustice, to stand up for the rights and lives and thriving of all human beings.
Members of CANE: a subject to which you have devoted much of your lives is being misrepresented and misused in the larger cultural conversation by white supremacist groups. Isn’t it up to us—we who are so invested in presenting as accurate, complex, and complete a picture of ancient lives, ideas, institutions, and cultures as possible to our students and colleagues—to correct the narrow image of the ancients perpetuated in support of racist ideologies? Who else is going to do it? Who else has the knowledge of the ancient world to do it?
We have the ability and responsibility to counter these narrow visions with a more complex, careful, nuanced, and considered view of the ancient world, in all of its badness and goodness; to reveal that the ancient world being used to promulgate racism and injustice is truly far more complicated than these groups would allow; and to show that these groups are using a simplified notion of the ancient world as a way of lending phony cultural authority to their destructive worldviews.
The members of CANE’s Executive Board have worked very hard in the past months to update our Mission Statement in keeping with the contemporary concerns of our organization and its individual members, which includes advocacy for areas of Classics which have historically been under-represented and under-explored. But we need every one of us to help fulfill this mission and to teach our colleagues, our students, our communities about the complexity of antiquity and of our own history as a field, which has so often been and continues to be complicit in the support of racist and fascist regimes and has, until fairly recently, been closed off to all but elite white males.
Now that we–many of whom would have been excluded from the study of antiquity in the past–have had the opportunity to develop the skills needed to do greater justice to those ancient lives, including the knowledge of the way language can be manipulated for particular ends and how the practices of institutions so seldom live up to their stated ideals, can we not use these skills to do justice to the living, to speak up against systemic racism, and to act to end injustice in our classrooms, communities, and society?
I ask you to speak out and act as individuals and as members of CANE: not to convince you to take sides in an increasingly polarized and hate-filled period of partisan politics within our country and its institutions, but on issues that are first and foremost about human rights. Neutrality is absolutely not an option where anyone’s human rights are concerned.
Susan A. Curry
Immediate Past-President of CANE
Senior Lecturer in Classics
University of New Hampshire