September 1, 2021
Cambridge University’s Archaeological Museum is planning to explain the whiteness of its sculpture plaster casts as part of its anti-racist strategy. The plaster casts in the museum and lecture rooms are said to give a misleading impression of the whiteness and absence of diversity of the ancient world.
The Cambridge classics faculty says it will draw attention to the diversity of those figured in the casts, to the ways in which color has been lost and can be restored, and to the role of classical sculpture in the history of racism. These plans have met with a strong reaction. One of the finest departments of the humanities in the Western world is giving official credence to the allegation of more than two hundred students, academics, alumni, and even some of the staff, who in an open letter to the classics faculty board called for an acknowledgment of the existence of systemic racism within the Classics Department.
The classics faculty responded with a statement of plans to address the accusations of racism. It will erect signs to explain the whiteness of the plaster casts. Faculty will be encouraged to include content warnings in course materials, lectures and readings. Tutors will receive training on how to discuss sensitive issues, even if they are uncomfortable. The present proposal is that all members of the classics faculty should be given implicit bias training every three years, and their teaching should be monitored. Is Cambridge becoming biblical? “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow?”
White plaster casts are not the only cause of concern. Birds have it, insects have it, over-educated moths in your rugs have it — what’s the use of mothballs? British and American scientists are beginning to change the common names, first given in the early 20th century, of plants, insects, and animal species, that perpetuate negative stereotypes and cause offense. The Entomological Society of America says many of the names of insects are problematic, venerating questionable people, or are unacceptable racist slurs. The Society gave the examples of the Gypsy moth and Scott’s oriole and has removed the word “gypsy,” which is often regarded as a pejorative term and may refer to negative stereotypes of the group.
The Entomological Society suggests that people use the scientific names, Lymantria dispar and Aphenogaster araneoides, for these two creatures until new common names have been chosen. Scott’s oriole is to be changed because Winfield Scott, 19th-century U.S. general, in 1838 led the military force that removed Cherokee Indians from their land to the west, in a march, the Trail of Tears, that led to the death of thousands.
The Entomological Society is choosing language that reflects modern values. According to guidelines of the society, the new names for insects should exclude words that unnecessarily incite offense or fear or promote emotional reactions, or are unacceptable depictions of cultures, populations, ethnicity, race, and industries, or perpetuate harm against people of various ethnicities and races. The society is particularly concerned about the term “gypsy,” the English word for the Romani people, history, and culture — an Indo-Aryan group, the largest ethnic minority in Europe. For jazz-lovers, that culture includes the virtuoso guitarist Django Reinhardt, the Belgium-born gypsy of Manouche Romani parentage who made “gypsy jazz” fashionable.
The work of the Entomological Society has been preceded. Some of the names given to species have already been changed. The name “squawfish” was regarded as derogatory to women and was changed in 1998 to “pikeminnow.” The name “jewfish” was felt to be culturally insensitive and was renamed “goliath grouper” in 2001. The new name is meant to refer not to the Philistine Goliath killed by David, but to the fact that the fish with its flaky fillets can grow to 700 pounds. The Philistine lobby is unlikely to issue a claim of being persecuted or slighted.
The issue of renaming controversial words remains. There are at least nine islands or bodies of water named for the jewfish, including Jewfish Creek Bridge, near Key Largo, and Jewfish Point in Los Angeles. And what to do about other non-Jewish names — Spanish mackerel and Irish lord?
And then there are some who refuse to take yes for an answer. An exhibition, “Our Future Planet,” is being held at the Science Museum in London, exploring the cutting-edge techniques being developed that could help climate problems by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reducing greenhouse emissions that are said to cause the rise in global temperature.
The exhibition has been criticized by scientists and public activists, for the same reason: much of the funding has come from Shell, the multinational oil and gas company. On opening day, a group of scientists, members of the “Extinction Rebellion,” protested inside the museum. The Extinction Rebellion is an international movement, using direct action and civil disobedience to push action on ecological issues, halt biodiversity loss, and reduce carbon emissions.
Again, on August 28, 2021, environmental activists, including the irrepressible 18-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, demonstrated against the exhibition, blocking roads, attaching themselves to railings, playing drums, and blowing whistles, because the exhibition is partly funded by Shell. The activists called on the museum to drop sponsorship by Shell, but they ignore reality. Shell and other companies have the resources, the people, and the logistics to be important players in the climate change issue. The dilemma will remain: “Is Shell part of the solution or part of the problem?”
Those engaged in the struggle against racism are unwise to adhere to the view of “all or nothing at all.” They tend to see, as Winston Churchill said on another issue, the difficulty in every opportunity.