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June 27, 2022

This two-part series reflects upon AAPI experiences in Classical Studies. Part 1 is catalyzed by the author’s personal experience teaching race & ethnicity in antiquity in the context of the ongoing surge of anti-Asian violence in the country. Part 2 will reflect upon the shared experiences of students and scholars of Asian descent in Classical Studies through a series of interviews.

“Do you know about your Penn Law School colleague Amy Wax?,” a friend texted me in January, as the semester was starting.

“Blocked it out,” I thumbed back. I had, in fact, dimly seen the news, but the idea that a professor at the same university where I was excited to be newly teaching might be publicly rejecting the civic fitness of Asian Americans like me had, frankly, been too much to contemplate. “Good mental health strategy,” my friend responded dryly.

Two hours later, I took the clickbait. As I did a deep dive on Wax, I quickly learned that she is a known bigot, who in the past has fabricated claims that her Black law students were underachieving, in spite of the school’s blind grading policy. Now, Asians were a danger to “the culture” of this country, she asserted in a video-recorded podcast that made national headlines. She claimed that doctors from South Asian backgrounds who address social inequities should instead be “abjectly grateful” — seemingly conjuring the image of the prostrate, colonized subject — and that progressive Asians who work towards social justice do so only because they are “conformist to whatever the dominant ethos is,” aping others’ politics without minds of their own. It is a logic that is increasingly being called-out by young people and coalition-building activists as solidarity grows out of awareness of Asian Americans’ mutable and often weaponized place in the racializing landscape of this country.

To realize that Wax’s statements were not only unsurprising to, but even expected by the campus community (“the monster we’ve been living with,” one Asian American professor put it to me) — that felt like a punch in the gut, harder to shake off than the physical punch I’d once taken on the street, trying to get home.

Wax’s comments surfaced during the ongoing surge of anti-Asian rhetoric and reports of Asians and Asian Americans getting assaulted and slaughtered. The old daily soundtrack of looking Asian in America — mutters about “taking our jobs” or the mocking “ni hao” — morphed during the pandemic into verbal and physical threats while running errands. One of my Asian American students had been surrounded by a group on the street taunting her: “Ching chong.”

I teach a seminar on representations of race and ethnicity in the Classical Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. We examine ancient texts and images and think carefully about how difference and identity were construed and enforced in the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece, from Rome to Kush. My class was half comprised of students of color, so as I was reading up on Wax, I asked myself: did I really want to “block it out” for them, as I did for myself? What relationship between the “outside” world and the world of the classroom did I want to model for them?

I was conflicted. Part of me wanted to quit my dream job teaching language and literature: it felt degrading to teach at a place where Wax’s status undermined me and my work. At the same time, I thought to myself, “I’ll show her how civically engaged, what excellent critical thinkers my Asian students, friends, and family are!” But that impulse is to subscribe to the toxic myth of the model minority. And for nativists like Wax, there is no level of excellence that will satisfy. Rather, they seem to derive self-worth from viewing non-white ethnic groups as worthless unless they are abject. To perform is futile; to seek to please is to fall into the trap.

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In my course, as we puzzle through changing constructions of difference, we track a variety of terms whose referents (and translations) have changed over the millennia. Often, words that seem to have transparent correspondences in translation morph as soon as interpretive pressure and context are applied: “black,” “white,” “race,” to name a few. “Asia” and “the Asians,” too, do not have stable meanings from text to text — at times referring simply to the coast of what is sometimes referred to as Asia Minor, and at others to the large territories encompassed by the Persian empire which might even pull Egypt into a discussion of “Asia.”

One of the texts I read with my students is Airs, Waters, Places, traditionally attributed to Hippocrates, the fifth-century BCE Greek physician whose tradition would influence medicine for millennia. Hippocrates offers a fully theorized system for variation in human physiology through environment and climate. After a discussion of the influence of different environmental features on human health in general, he takes a sharp turn and focuses upon “the Asians” and their ways. In one of the earliest racializing statements explicitly arguing for natural difference between the peoples of Asia and Europe, one that goes far beyond skin-deep appearance, Hippocrates has much to say about the Asians’ lack of spirit and lack of manliness, ideas that have proven no less poisonous than ubiquitous over time.

Of course, I clarified — as much for myself as for my students — that Hippocrates’ “Asians” weren’t the same as the “Asians” of sociopolitical imagination in the U.S.A. But that knowledge felt like a mere factoid, given the discomfiting proximity of ancient and contemporary stereotypes, as well as the campus “climate.” Even though the speakers and referents have changed over the course of history, from West to South and East Asians, the rhetoric hasn’t: The Asian race is feeble, Hippocrates writes. They are not autonomous. They are habitually dominated.

“Does the spirit of liberty beat in their breast?” Wax’s smug intonation broke through my memory.

“Echoes of Amy Wax, anyone?” I murmured, immediately second-guessing whether that was appropriate to ask in class, then wondering whether Wax, who is protected by tenure, ever second-guesses what she says. Hippocrates’ essentializing view of Asians was not lost on my students: when living on Asian soil, Greeks (and unspecified others) are able to defy the determinative influence of environment that dictates the spiritual characteristics of Asians. Hippocrates’ Greeks maintain their autonomy, freedom, courage — in short, their Greekness — even when they live in the environment of Asia. In an argument where we might expect a shared environment to dictate the characteristics of both Greeks and Asians, Hippocrates’ assertion that Asians are spiritually inferior seemed to fuse ancient and contemporary experience with uncanny precision: the one is suited to The Law, the other to the laundry.

Wax’s views certainly mark a despicable extremity of anti-Asian sentiment that has justified forms of oppression and violence on both local and geopolitical stages, but I argue that she articulates views that are implicit in the academy more generally. David L. Eng, Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed, telling me in an interview that Wax is “a symptom of a larger problem of bad faith around race within the Academy.” And Josephine Park, Professor of English and a member of the steering committee on Asian American Studies Program at Penn, similarly affirmed to me that, consciously or unconsciously, “many people fundamentally share Wax’s views on Asians and Asian immigration, but Wax is actually saying them aloud.”

Rather than solely pointing to Wax as an aberrant outlier or embarrassing anomaly, we educators must also take the opportunity to look within. The notion of natural Asian difference exists in supposedly more enlightened corners, too, and we must carefully think through it, if we are to do our duty to all our students. The assumption that AAPI students are considered different from the rest of humanity was never clearer to me than during my interview for a tenure-track Classics job. One of my several distinguished interviewers, who had been mostly checked-out during our conversation, swerved to ask me: “Well, how do you teach these Chinese students anyway?”

Spouted with sudden fervor, this question was not a pedagogical inquiry into how I teach international students. That much was clear to me from the frantic frustration in my interviewer’s voice after I responded with some salient examples from my experiences teaching international students. The question seemed to be a sort of test to see what or whose side I was on, with the hope that I occupied a position somehow both inside and outside the club, able to provide intelligence from some alternate universe. That my interview experience was digested for me later by an insider merely as an encounter with “a known racist” somehow did not make it sit better.

Chinese,” of course, often functions in the U.S.A. as a synecdoche for Asians in general. Rhetoric in this nation’s history has been virulently “anti-Chinese” at significant intervals, including the present moment. (Such a pose must be carefully disambiguated from informed criticism of the government of China.) Yet the associated violence and discrimination is visited upon persons from diverse AAPI backgrounds, as the attacks across the country have demonstrated. Reflecting anew upon my own experiences this spring, I wondered whether and how other Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Studies have navigated similar scenarios and how they were experiencing the current surge of hate as students, scholars, and teachers. How was anti-Asian sentiment affecting our lives in the field?

Header image: Hippocrates refuses the gifts of Artaxerxes, 1792, Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Kate Meng Brassel teaches as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.