George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks would still be alive today if it weren’t for systemic anti-Black racism and its expression as police violence. Their lives matter, and so do the lives of countless other people of colour who have suffered marginalization and violence in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.
Racism, bias, and white supremacy are alive and well in Canada, where police officers kill disproportionate numbers of Black and Indigenous people; in Vancouver, where there has been a significant rise in crimes of racial harassment and assault against Asian Canadians since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; and at UBC itself, where just last month there was an incident of racial profiling on campus. We, the faculty and staff of the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies (CNERS), have not done enough to resist white supremacy and its manifestation in our department, in, for example, our hiring practices and the selection and recruitment of students.
As scholars of ancient cultures, we recognize that our disciplines have shaped and been shaped by ideologies of white supremacism, nationalism, and colonialism. This is not only a matter of white nationalists quoting the texts we study, but of our own reluctance to denounce racist ideas and practices that prevail within our disciplines. As Pria Jackson lamented in her recent article about racial justice in Classics, “Too often Classicists are allowed to believe that silence is justice, that it isn’t their bone to pick.” The same can be said for scholars of the ancient Near East or ancient religions.
We have not been vocal enough in our opposition to these deeply-entrenched systemic practices, even when our students have worked to institute change. We owe them a belated thanks for taking it upon themselves to organize multiple initiatives aimed at fostering racial and ethnic inclusivity in our department and disciplines. During the 2019–2020 academic year, the CNERS Student Association and CNERS graduate students took significant steps toward redressing social injustices in our fields through a conference on “Colonialism in the Academy,” public forums, reading groups, and fundraising. Some of our undergraduate students have also been involved in producing an open access textbook, UnRoman Romans, that teaches Roman history through the history of marginalized people.
During the 2020–2021 academic year, the CNERS faculty and staff commit to following our students’ lead and taking the following actions to foster anti-racism in our department, at UBC, and in our disciplines:
- Create an Equity and Social Justice Committee to reevaluate, with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion, our annual speakers program, hiring practices, and graduate admissions criteria, and also to develop strategies to support the specific needs of BIPOC undergraduate and graduate students in the department.
- Initiate a new, department-funded annual public lecture by a minoritized speaker or someone who has experienced the negative effects of white supremacy.
- Host discussions of select African diasporic texts both within our department and together with disciplinary networks like Eos, the scholarly society for Africana Receptions of Ancient Greece and Rome. The aim of these discussions is to promote the amplification of Black voices and perspectives in our classrooms and to challenge the overwhelming whiteness of our disciplines.
- Institute an annual departmental monetary contribution to a community organization in Vancouver or a nearby municipality that is working to dismantle white supremacy or police violence. We will accompany this donation with a day of action in which members of our department contribute volunteer labour to the organization in a way that is useful to them. The organization will be chosen by the Equity and Social Justice Committee in consultation with the department.
These initiatives are inadequate, and we need to do much more. Advancing anti-racism and dismantling white supremacy is a collaborative and long-term project that begins with listening and learning. We welcome your ideas and suggestions and ask you to hold us accountable for following through on these commitments, which we hope will mark the beginning of an ongoing awareness and practice to be more observant and resistant to systemic discriminations, particularly against people of colour, at UBC and beyond.
We encourage the CNERS community to educate ourselves. Please consider consulting the following resources:
- UBC Equity and Inclusion: “Five Steps on Tackling Racism”
- Ibram Kendi’s Anti-Racist Reading List
- Black-Centered Resources for Ancient Mediterranean Studies (a work-in-progress bibliography co-edited by CNERS grad students Dora Gao and Jayden Lloyd along with Nadhira Hill, Sam Ross, and Zoé Elise Thomas).
- Classics at the Intersections (resources on race and ethnicity in the Ancient Mediterranean on Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s blog)
- Principles of Antiracist Teaching & Reflection (antiracist teaching guide curated by members of the Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium)
- Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources
- USC Libraries: Research Guide on Anti-Racist Pedagogy
The CNERS department pledges to stand in solidarity with communities of colour and their allies committed to fighting racism, white supremacy, and police brutality.