There has been a recent and much-needed focus on the interaction between Classics and social justice, in broad terms. The 2017 Society of Classical Studies featured several events which aimed to bring activism and social engagement into the sphere of what constitutes the work of Classics. This paper acknowledges these advances and commends those who are doing this important work, but it primarily explores the limits and appropriate use of activism for classicists.
This paper springs from concerns about the way we as classicists approach outreach (a term which itself carries some problematic connotations) and how we position ourselves in relation to the “others” to whom we reach out (e.g., veterans, the homeless, or prison inmates). Such work is often described in terms of bringing Classics to those who are less fortunate, which implicitly frames academia as a sort of Prometheus who bring the gift of learning to those who stand in grave need of our beneficence. This paper seeks to reframe this relationship and think about ways that Classics can help break down hierarchical power structures rather than reinforce them.
This paper also draws attention to the historical association of a classical education with colonialism and imperialism (both in the British Empire but also in the early American education system) and the ways that classicists might avoid unconsciously and unintentionally perpetuate this association. Because Classics already comes with a great deal of cultural baggage, we must be careful not to insert our field recklessly into spaces which are already colonized in one way or another. Particularly because Classics has been used to promote racist ideologies in the past, it is important that we do not let a sort of “classical exceptionalism” creep into our academic and social activism.
With this in mind, this paper explores situations in which outreach and activism work has been done carefully and effectively and distills key principles which can be applied to social justice work more broadly. This paper also looks at practices to avoid, drawing on suggestions by Black Lives Matter activists and other anti-racist organizers about how white people can be effective allies. Because our field is still predominantly white, this portion of the paper focuses in particular on behaviors that are and are not helpful when white allies are working with communities of color. My goal is to offer a tentative set of best practices that can help classicists maximize the social impact they are having without engaging in problematic behavior or replicating past transgressions of our field. I also hope to offer a framework for conceptualizing activism projects which can prevent us from being at the center of our work and can keep our focus on the marginalized communities we are seeking to empower.