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Portrait of An Exclusivity Fallacy

We do ourselves a disservice when we assume and reinforce the notion that belonging and inclusion are primarily questions of surface-level similarities.

I literally laughed out loud when I saw the email. A member of the Classics Department faculty notified the concentration listserv that the Smyth Classics Library would be closed temporarily this summer for a few renovations, which included a new coat of paint, new chairs, and the removal of all but one of the portraits in the name of creating a more “inclusive space.”

It is quite amusing to me that the Classics Department would be concerned about the inclusivity of its library — one of the few libraries on campus that requires special swipe access and therefore is an “exclusive” space that only students affiliated with the Classics Department can regularly access.

Now, I truly love the classics at Harvard. The faculty are world-class scholars and educators and I’ve met some of my best friends and classmates in my Latin courses. I strongly believe that Latin, Greek, and ancient history are not “dead” or useless things, as many 21st century technocrats might believe, but rather, they are immortal things. The classics speak first and foremost to a human condition and spirit not much altered over the last two millennia, and humanity’s continued fascination and exploration of lives lived so long ago reflect something transcendent and timeless about the ideas and stories those lives produced.

The removal of portraits depicting prior Harvard Classics scholars, then, presumably because they were too white and too old (I certainly don’t know that for sure, but what else could it be in academia these days?) seems somewhat incongruous for a discipline that usually grapples with more profound questions of human identity with great rigor. (I’ll continue to overlook the fact that you must swipe into the library in the first place too for now.)

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This somewhat baffling move is merely indicative of a concerning trend across college campuses. For all our efforts to improve “inclusivity” and “belonging” and similar niceties, we are often unwilling to consider their natural and necessary opposites, such as exclusion and non-belonging. If we are to seek inclusion, it is simply a logical necessity that some will be excluded, such as those without swipe into the Classics library. (Sorry, I thought I could let it go but I couldn’t help myself.) If we are to seek belonging, it is again a logical necessity that some will not belong, perhaps because they do not share our interests or values. (Some people choose to study math or computer science instead.)

We do scholars and students (indeed our very humanity) a great disservice when we assume and reinforce the notion that inclusion and belonging are primarily questions of sharing surface-level similarities. I may be a young, stubborn Asian-American female, but I would imagine I might have more in common with the mind of an old, dead, white male who also loves Latin than perhaps that of someone who looks like me in the Women, Gender Studies, and Sexuality Department.

I’m a little skeptical of the notion championed by many progressive-types that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” because when taken to its logical end, it would appear that our primary criterion for association are literally the physical traits like race, age, and sex we observe in others. I know humans have a powerful impulse for association with humans who look similar, but surely, in the pursuit of scholarship, belonging and inclusion ought to value substance over senses. When inclusion is a substantive matter instead of a trivial question of portraiture, though, it might be the case that fewer people will be included, but that inclusion is far more meaningful and profound.  

The study of the classics to me is ultimately testament to the idea that there are things far more integral to the human condition than trivialities of label and association. Like hundreds of years’ worth of scholars who came before us, we have decided that there are some lives, some ideas, and some stories that transcend their geographic, racial, gender, diversity-label-whatnot boundaries and are worth our time and diligent study.

I bet those old dead white men on the library walls were just as fascinated by the tour-de-force of the Homerian epics as I am. I bet they chuckled as uncomfortably as I did reading Catullus 16. I bet they thought of their own unrequited loves as they read Aeneid IV. I might not see my own ambiguously ethnic facial features in them, nor my sex, nor my age, but I do see part of my mind and passions. Those men and I belong to a cohort whose standards of inclusion point to something indeed far greater.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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