Five Tips for Teaching Racial Competency with Racially Biased Textbooks: A 21st Century Skill for Classicists

Tom Di Giulio
Jan 10 · 8 min read

What can Latin teachers do about problematic instructional resources? Instead of normalizing the racial bias in your Latin textbook, use it as an opportunity to foster racial competence.

The author of a manuscript at his writing desk. 14th Century.

Racism in Classics is a pervasive and well-documented problem that extends into every corner of the field, even into our classroom materials. Teachers do not intentionally encourage passive acceptance of problematic materials, but that is what often happens when these materials go unchallenged in the classroom.

All educators committed to antiracist pedagogy and equity must build the language and strategies to recognize, discuss, and confront these racial biases. This is critical to ensuring that the representations of the Classical world that appear in the resources students encounter in our classrooms are not imparted and received in a way that maintains and promotes white normative practices and ideology.

The following tool is a way to help teachers of secondary Latin identify racial biases in their materials and present curricula in a way that welcomes honest and respectful dialogue about race with their students, and equips students with skills that foster critical engagement. This tool is adapted from Ali Michael’s and the Council on Interracial Books for Children’s guide “10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism” and is designed to encourage students to engage critically with textbooks and literature.

Before using any text with students, it is important for each teacher to consider the effects on a student’s self-image.

Laying the Groundwork

Make sure you and your students have a common understanding of key terms relevant to this kind of critical analysis. Tolerance.org and The Kirwin Institute both provide helpful information on terms that might be unfamiliar to your students. These resources, and others, can help you acquire accurate language to discuss these issues. It is also important to establish a supportive classroom climate, which is beyond the scope of this article.

Some key terms include:

Stereotype: According to tolerance.org, a stereotype is “an exaggerated belief, image or distorted truth about a group or person- a generalization that allows for little or no individual differences or social variation.”

Normalized perceptions: Bias often goes unrecognized in society and is accepted and maintains stereotypes in ways that reinforce domination and control.

Bias: Most students will be familiar with this term, but it is still helpful to define it. The Cambridge Dictionary provides this definition: “An unfair personal opinion that influences your judgment.”

Implicit Bias: According to the Kirwin Institute at Ohio State University, implicit bias refers to “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” Unlike other forms of bias, implicit bias, according to the Kirwin Institute, is “activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control” and generally favors the groups we identify with.

Institutional Racism: Institutional racism, as defined by The Aspen Institute, refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor or disadvantage a racial group.

Individual Racism: Individual Racism, also as defined by The Aspen Institute, can include face-to-face or covert actions toward a person that intentionally express prejudice, hate, or bias based on race.

After going over the definitions with your students, establish that racist attitudes and bias are conveyed both overtly and covertly through various media, including instructional material. Widely used textbooks for Latin at the secondary school level such as Cambridge Latin Course and Ecce Romani present material that is overtly exclusionary and racist. Here we will consider excerpts from Stage 17 of the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC) Unit 2. It can be useful to have students respond in their journals in addition to small group and class discussions.

1. Check the illustrations.

What are the physical characteristics of characters?

Although slavery was not racialized in ancient Rome, textbooks often portray enslaved people or sinister characters as dark and/or dirty while the Romans are presented as white. Encourage students to compare appearances (looking for tokenism and stereotypes) and clothes as indicators of status.

Who are the active doers and the passive followers? In many of our instructional resources, some characters are fully developed as leaders, while others are portrayed as subservient and one-dimensional, and often nameless. Here I suggest displaying the image without the Latin text. Then, prompt the students to identify the active doers and passive followers and to guess what is the relationship and power dynamics between the characters.

Example:

In Cambridge Latin Course, Unit 2, Stage 17, pg 77, the last illustration image on the page, which often sets up the storyline for the following stories, depicts two Romans, Quintus and Barbillus in togas, as distinctly white. Barbillus is standing behind a young nameless Alexandrian enslaved boy, which CLC presents as black. Barbillus, with his hand on the boy’s shoulder, is giving the enslaved boy to Quintus as a gift. The power dynamic is clearly illustrated by the positioning of the characters, their racialized appearances, the meaning of their clothing, and the transactional nature of the illustration.

2. Check for loaded words.

Do words or descriptions have insulting or demeaning connotations?

Michaels flags words such as savage, primitive, lazy, and docile, especially when describing those in subservient roles. Also look for words used to describe the slave-owning masters such as kind, friend, good. Once these problematic words are identified, have the students discuss if is it accurate to portray enslaved people as happy or lazy and masters as kind? Also ask them why this language is harmful and hurtful.

Example:

The Latin text, corresponding to the illustration mentioned above in CLC, reinforces the dynamics of the illustration with such loaded language:

Barbillus servos multos habet. ego nullos. “decorum est tibi servum Aegyptium habere,” inquit Barbillus. inter servos Barbilli erat puer Aegyptius. Barbillus, vir benignus, mihi hunc puerum dedit.

Barbillus has many enslaved people. I none. “It is proper for you to have an enslaved Egyptian.” said Barbillus. Among the enslaved people of Barbillus, there was an Egyptian boy. Barbillus, a kind man, gave this boy to me.

Whose interest does Barbillus’ kindness serve? How is Barbillus kind to the nameless Egyptian boy?

3. Check the story line.

How are problems presented, conceived, and resolved? Ask students to consider if the people of color are considered to be “the problem.” Students should examine if the oppression faced by people of color are related to social injustice and whether the story encourages passive acceptance or active resistance to this oppression.

Who has power? Here, ask students to identify characters’ positions of power and status (essentially who makes the decisions). Background on Roman imperialism and the characters’ place of origin can enhance this conversation.

Example:

In the stories following the model sentences and illustrations (as described above), Tumultus I and Tumultus II, are described in the teacher manual on page 47 as follows:

In Tumultus I, Quintus is off with his recently acquired nameless slave boy to visit his freedman’s shop near the harbor of Alexandria. The streets are crowded and they are having a hard time making their way. The Egyptian boy grows anxious as he sees there are a lot of Egyptians (plurimi) at the port and not any Greeks (nullos Graecos). The boy says the streets are dangerous because the Egyptians are angry (viae sunt periculosae quod Aegypti irati sunt). The Egyptian boy, whose role is that of a guide, suggests it better if they turn around and head back, especially because the Greeks have even fled the area. However, despite the advice of his guide, Quintus says no and that they will carry on to the shop.

In Tumultus I, the angry Egyptians are identified as “the problem” — more precisely as “a physical threat” to the Romans and Greeks. No context is given by Cambridge as to why the Egyptians are upset. The Egyptians’ outrage is not depicted by Cambridge as a form of active resistance to their oppressors or to class inequity. By providing no social context to their anger, Cambridge has framed the Egyptians as an irrational mob. And despite the admonishment of the expert guide, an actual Egyptian, Quintus, the Roman presented as white, rejects the black boy’s advice and commands they press on.

Then, in Tumultus II, the Egyptian crowd blocks their way. And an old Egyptian man starts cursing Romans and Greeks alike. The boy, sensing Quintus’ anxiety, led him to the closest house, which the boy knew belonged to a business acquaintance of Barbilus, who also turns out to be Greek. Then, the hostile Egyptians (infesti) attack the house. The Greek craftsman arms them with clubs just as the Egyptians break in. A fight ensues. Quintus is knocked out unconscious. When he awakes he finds the house destroyed and the nameless slave boy on the floor dead next to him.

4. Note the heroes.

Who are the heroes? Ask the student: “Whose interest is a particular hero serving?”

Example:

Above, the nameless Egyptian black slave boy dies fighting for the life of Quintus, his new white Roman master. The sacrifice of the black boy here is very reminiscent of what Spike Lee calls the “magical negro” trope.

5. Note the author’s perspective.

Whose perspective is represented? In many of our resources, the story is told from the perspective of the people who hold the most power and influence, as in this case from Cambridge University Press. It is important to remember that textbooks like CLC are not classical texts and do not represent the viewpoints of the Romans. CLC is a collection of modern textbooks that utilizes fictional stories originally written and published in the early 1970’s, most recently republished in 2015. CLC represents a modern viewpoint, and thus must be scrutinized as such.

Counterfactual questions and supplemental resources can help students explore the perspectives of characters whose humanity is not fully realized in the textbook.

It is hard, and sometimes even impossible, to abandon textbooks completely. This resource provides a way to use them ethically by equipping students with skills that will serve them well in other content areas. These strategies can help teachers recognize problematic content in textbooks and equip students to challenge problematic narratives instead of accepting them without question.

Additional Resources

Ad Meliora

Towards a better Classics

Tom Di Giulio

Written by

Ad Meliora

Towards a better Classics

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