Q&A Goes Horribly Wrong

Racist comments directed at a scholar at a disciplinary meeting floor classicists in the room. Some see it as a major setback for a historically exclusionary field that is trying hard to change.

January 7, 2019
 
Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Classicists engage in frequent debate about whether the field is “too white,” whether Western civilization is a manufactured idea and what new lines of inquiry will ensure classics’ continued relevance -- or even its survival.

But at an annual gathering of classicists this weekend in San Diego, that debate crossed the line from professional to personal, from real inquiry to racism.

The incident involved an attack on Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an assistant professor of classics at Princeton University, by an independent scholar named Mary Frances Williams. It happened during a question-and-answer period at a panel on the future of classics Saturday at a Society for Classical Studies conference.

Panelists included Peralta, who spoke about an alleged incident of racial profiling at the conference site, in which two classicists of color were stopped and asked for identification. He also cited classics journal publication data showing that authors are largely white, and pushed for diversification of the field. Another speaker was Sarah Bond, an associate professor of classics at the University of Iowa whose research and public outreach often focuses on the idea that our notions of race in the classical world are much more informed by Eurocentric Renaissance views than historical reality.

During a discussion period, Williams spoke about the need to protect the idea of Western civilization, according to firsthand accounts, while Bond tried to argue that that concept is a construct. (She's written about that for lay audiences here and elsewhere.) Then Williams turned and addressed Peralta directly, declaring that she was “not a socialist” and that Peralta only got his job because he is “black,” those present said. (Peralta is Dominican by birth.)

Many in the room denounced Williams's comments as racist and she left the session. Word of the incident lit up Twitter, with many expressing disbelief and anger that an academic gathering could turn so uncivil.

Peralta declined an interview Sunday, saying he was taking some time out after the events of the weekend. But he has written about how classics helped shape his own journey from living in a homeless shelter to a professorship at Princeton.

Bond, who was reluctant to talk before Peralta shared his own account, said Sunday that she remained “as appalled as anyone. I love my field. But we can and must address this and commit to being better. No more apathy or no more avoiding the issues of racism in our past and present. Otherwise we won’t have a future.”

Helen Cullyer, executive director of the Society for Classical Studies, said via email that the association has notified the meeting attendee “who expressed her racist views” that she “may no longer participate in meetings and sessions at this San Diego conference because she has violated our annual meeting harassment policy.”

That policy defines harassment as including but not limited to “sexual harassment, such as unwelcome sexual advances, or other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature” and, relevant here, “activities/behaviors such as stalking, queer/trans bullying, or hostility or abuse based on age, disability, religion, race or ethnicity.”

By attending the meeting, the policy says, “all participants accept the obligation to uphold the rights of attendees and treat everyone with respect.” While the society does “not seek to limit the areas of inquiry of its members or to curtail robust scholarly debate,” the group aims “to promote critical and open inquiry that is free of personal harassment, prejudice and aggression.”

The society's governing board also released a statement Sunday condemning "the racist acts and speech" witnessed during the meeting. "There is no place for racism on the part of members, attendees, vendors and contractors at the meeting," the board said, reaffirming its 2016 statement against “the use of the texts, ideals, and images of the Greek and Roman world to promote racism or a view of the classical world as the unique inheritance of a falsely-imagined and narrowly-conceived western civilization.” (Some white nationalist groups have adopted symbols from the classical world to promote their cause.)

Reached via email, Williams said that it's important to unapologetically "stand up for classics as a discipline and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical and artistic foundation of Western civilization and the basis of European history, tradition, culture and religion." She said she'd planned to make additional points on the classics curriculum during the session but was cut off. 

Williams said she did not believe that her comments were controversial, and that she’d hoped to “get things going” during the group discussion.

Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College and a classicist who attended the controversial session, noted that this year’s meeting marked the classics association's 150th anniversary. She said the society is very engaged in diversifying, and that other conference sessions acknowledged the field’s history of exclusion.

Of Williams’s comments, Nugent said, “I believe the attitude is not very widespread, but I don't think it's nonexistent. But there are probably, perhaps, largely along generational lines, some who feel that some women got their positions that way, and that minorities did.”

At her own first faculty meeting in 1978, for example, Nugent said, her chair introduced her by saying, “And as you can see, she’s a woman.” And that’s “fair indication of what it was like for me," she added.

Of the more recent incident, however, Nugent said everyone she’s talked to has been “shocked and appalled” about this “very painful episode.” And part of that pain is the fact that classics is working so hard to move beyond its past.

“Classics has been so strongly identified as elitist. So our history is not one of being progressive, but of keeping the gates closed, keeping the field as the property of the elites. There was a perception that you could only get into this club if you were a member of the old boys’ network.”

Scott Jaschik contributed to this article.

 

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