Being Indo-Dutch, becoming a classical scholar

I grew up as the oldest and darkest-skinned kid in a mixed Indo-Dutch family in a terraced house in a small village in the southern part of The Netherlands. My mother is Dutch, my father was born on Sumatra in an Asian-European family that was forced to ‘repatriate’ to the Netherlands in the years following the Indonesian Independence War. They arrived on Christmas eve, 1954 – by boat, with almost nothing, in a country that they did not know, and which was unprepared to give them a warm welcome. I think their first years were very tough, but eventually, my grandparents and their children ‘landed’ relatively well in their new continent – at least, if you forget the war- and migration-traumas and look at it in purely socio-economic terms. My parents were not wealthy, but they were not poor either, and, besides some of the food, the only thing that in practice would distinguish us from most other people in the village was the way some of us looked. Culturally, I think we would count as ‘Dutch’, and we were – and my parents and one sister still are – active members of the local community. As a kid, I did well in school, and eventually would proceed to study Classics in Nijmegen, followed by a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology and some years in Oxford. Eventually, I would become lecturer in Ancient History in Leiden, a position that I still hold.

MS Oranje in Amsterdam, 1957 – the ship with which my father arrived in The Netherlands

Ethnic solitude and the ‘model minority’

The Indo-Dutch identity is strangely undefinable, and works completely differently with different people, even within families. Some feel very Dutch, others feel very different; some people look very Dutch, others look very different. Throughout my youth, I was of course aware of my background, but it seemed to play a relatively limited role in the way I developed as a person. The one recurring thing that I recall very well was that I was always looking for people ‘like me’, but rarely found them. I remember that I felt some excitement when, in the first year of my secondary school in the big city nearby, I was suddenly surrounded by a multitude of ethnicities instead of being the different one – but after I had ended up in the gymnasium track, with Greek and Latin, most of that diversity quickly disappeared from the classroom. I got used to it. It was only when I was the only one in my group of friends not to be allowed in the discotheque that I was made aware of the difference – but this only happened one or two times. Otherwise, there were some confusions, ‘jokes’ and ‘where-are-you-really-from’-questions at the everyday level, but, luckily, there was no meaningful racism.

In Nijmegen, at the university, my ethnic solitude was similar – and seemed similarly irrelevant. I came to see it as two different things: I was studying classics, and I had an Indo-Dutch background, and while I sometimes did see a certain tension between the two, in practice, the two did not really interfere. While the people around me may have known my ethnicity, I rarely publicly self-identified as ‘Indo’. Why would I? Nobody would understand. It was thought not to be an issue. This was the 1990s, the Netherlands were a self-proclaimed beacon of multicultural tolerance, and ever since I was a kid, the Indo-Dutch, had been seen as a kind of ‘model minority’, which meant that we were thought to have fully blended into Dutch society – culturally, socially and economically: in Dutch culture, a good migrant is an invisible migrant – and invisibility is something for which many Indo-Dutch people proved to have an enormous talent. By the late 1990s, we had, in many ways, stopped being regarded as a minority. Reality was much more complex, but it did not occur to me to make my ethnicity an explicit part of who I was.

Classics as a post-colonial challenge

Still, there were challenges. I arrived in Nijmegen with the privilege of not being a first generation student, as my father had studied and even worked at the university. Yet the way in which he, in all his difference, had been marginalized there, meant that I arrived with an enormous distrust in the internal machinations of (white) university departments, and I was ill-prepared to grant a lot of a priori authority to those in positions of power. This occasionally resulted in tensions in the conservative university environment where I studied. Moreover, as I immersed myself in classics forty hours a week, I noticed I felt a distance between the (white) European elites who had traditionally dominated classical scholarship, and the much more down-to-earth and multicultural place where I came from. I had difficulty embracing the classical tradition as something intrinsically valuable without questioning it. This put me, intellectually, at odds with most of the people around me, but I quickly discovered that I was about the only one who got really very excited about this debate.

My start in the field, thus, was not straightforward. I did not know what to do with ‘classics’ and its elitist ideology, and some people at Nijmegen came to think of me as a bit strange or difficult – when I started my Ph.D., my supervisor-to-be was even warned of my difficulty by some of his colleagues. Right now, it is easy to understand that this was part of my ‘post-colonial challenge’, but at the time, I was at a loss, as ethnicity was simply not on the radar. I even remember that I felt a bit ashamed when, after graduating, I could take part in a funding competition that was specially designed for people of a post-colonial or ‘non-western’ ethnic background: that surely could not be meant for people like me? I did not get the money, but I now realize that I was wrong in my judgement: my troubles with the classical tradition made that I had ended up in a somewhat remote corner of the field, in an intellectual no-man’s-land between two subdisciplines, where I was trying to give a voice to people who had been marginalized by classical scholarship on the basis of badly preserved archaeological material. This allowed me to do great and innovative research, but it put me, again, at odds with most of the people around me, who were very much into elite art, elite literature, and elites more in general, and did not necessarily get what I was getting so excited about. At one point, I was explicitly advised to stop questioning the elitist ideology underlying the field. I followed the advice.

Becoming an Indo-Dutch Classical scholar

Yet as I embarked on what would become an academic career, the world began to change in a way that would bring my ethnic background much more to the fore. The security panic that struck the Western world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks made it crystal clear that when it really mattered, people with my colour of skin were going to be found on the ‘other’ side of the trustability divide: suddenly, European authorities saw me as a security risk, and I needed to be checked, thoroughly, time and again, when on the move. I began to dress up for traveling. Moreover, the increasingly heated ‘debate’ about foreigners, migrants and refugees touched upon a raw nerve in a family where there were very vivid memories of a forced migration and a cold, racist reception. As I began to participate in this debate, I developed a visible public profile in the Netherlands. My academic colleagues knew about this, and some identified it as somewhat ‘different’ or ‘peculiar’, but I am not sure they fully understood where it came from. They may have thought that I was being controversial for fun, or that I simply was in search of the spotlight. I can hardly blame them: I still kept my two identities rigidly separated. After my initial struggles, I was not going to be difficult (or different) before I had a permanent position.  

Amsterdamse Poort (now destroyed) with statues of Roman gods in Batavia (now Jakarta), ca. 1885.

When I had job security, there came more space for reflection, and things began to change. This was a slow process, but it was sped up immensely by the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020: the discourse that emerged over that summer hit me in the face – with the double-faced colonial past of my Indo-European family and with the deep-rooted whiteness of classics as a discipline. It is through these intense debates that I came to recognize the post-colonial cobbles that had caused the bumpy ride through the first stages of my academic career, and came to accept that the two identities that had grown in me were much more intimately entangled than I had wanted to acknowledge. Why did I end up studying classics? Because I was an ambitious second-generation migrant in search of social mobility and intellectual recognition. Why did I end up in the relative margins of the discipline? Because most mainstream classical scholarship is ideologically problematic if you do not subscribe to the white, elitist tradition that in many ways still dominates it – and ethnic difference makes that scenario a lot more likely. Why did I experience tensions with the academic establishment? Because I am the dark-skinned son whose dark-skinned father had had some very bad experiences with academic establishments, and with racism more in general, and because I ventilated an ideological criticism for which not everyone had a frame of reference. Why did it take me two decades to link the Dutch Classical Tradition that I was studying to the fact that my grandparents (and their parents and grandparents, etc. etc.) had grown up in a Dutch colony ruled from a place called ‘Batavia’? Because I kept my background and my academic field rigidly separated. Why did none of my professors bring it up when we were studying classics? Well… that brings me to the more general issue at stake here.

Towards a post-white academic field

Why am I writing this down? Of course, this is a personal account, but the argument is not about me. I think I am trying to make three points. First, the implicit whiteness of the ideology underlying classics, classical archaeology and ancient history is very real, and can have real consequences in the way our discipline ‘works’ with people who do not come from a ‘western’, elitist background. I am not the only one saying this: just this month, Javal Coleman described how, in studying Roman slavery, he essentially ‘was being told what kind of questions to ask by older white men’. Reading his interview set in motion the process that produced this text. Earlier this year, Kelly Nguyen argued how Eurocentrism and elitism are ‘endemic to the field’. In April, the New York Times had a long article on the work of Dan-el Padilla Peralta noticed how he ‘sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity’ – a sentence that I found too recognizable. Some people in the Netherlands would argue that what they are saying is an American discourse that we should hesitate to ‘import’ into Europe. Yet The Netherlands are a post-colonial society with several large, ethnic minorities: there are people here, too, whose experience is in some ways similar – and I am one of them.

Second, the whiteness of classics is not just ideological. It also is, very much, demographic. I’d love to see the day when classics, as a discipline, lives up to its claim of universality by being as diverse as the world in which it operates, but at present, this is patently not the case. Just this week, my old colleague Zena Kamash published an article highlighting the way in which the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conferences had, throughout their history, been dominated, basically, by white men from the Global North. The good news, I think, is that we know that this imbalance does not need to be written in stone: the last decades have seen clear policies and developments in addressing the gender-balance in the discipline, and classics clearly has become a lot less masculine as a result – even if gender parity is still too far away. The bad news is that, as far as ethnicity is concerned, not a millimetre of progress has been made in the last decades. This problem is broader than classics alone: in the face of increasingly diverse and multicultural societies, the western humanities have remained astonishingly white, particularly at the professorial level. In the Netherlands, part of this may be due to the fact that the humanities do not attract a lot of students with ethnic roots outside Europe, but I think we must very seriously entertain the possibility that the imbalance also results from implicit bias. From my perspective, whiteness, and embodying the European elite habitus, contributes significantly to the construction of academic excellence, affinity and acceptability at our universities, while not being white is less easily associated with academic leadership, and more easily with being different, or even difficult – I am not the only non-white humanities scholar in the Netherlands who has encountered this issue. Is there enough space for difference, if our discipline is so demographically homogeneous?  The fact that I for so long did not feel free to make my ethnic identity part of my academic persona – and when I talked about this with other people, they would mostly confirm my intuition – offers me a tentative answer.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly – I have, eventually, become a relatively senior academic, but I have not forgotten how I got here, and some of the issues and questions I faced have not entirely withered away – ‘am I not making this up?’. I think if I look back on the last twenty years or so it would have helped me enormously if there would have been people like me who would have gone through this before, and who could have told me that I was not mad or difficult, and that, in fact, what I experienced was perfectly understandable given the place where I came from as a person. Someone, perhaps, who also would have told me that there was no need to keep the personal and the professional so rigidly separated, and who could have told me what I know now – that embracing your background (when you can!) can be an enormous source of liberation and strength, while suppressing it might prove a source of doubt and vulnerability; that I’m not like them but I can pretend did not actually work out that well for the guy who wrote that song; that it could be more rewarding to focus on your own intellectual destination than to try to spend your time building intellectual bridges to places where you’ll find no one waiting – even if your destination differs from the main paths offered by your discipline. Never forget that your difference also may be produced by their narrow definition of sameness, and the cultural weight they have attached to it. So the third reason why I write this down is because junior people in the field struggling with these issues should have the opportunity to understand that they are not mad, that what they are up against is real, even if every individual situation is different – but also that some people have found ways out, and that there are other people out there in academia who have gone through this before, whose experience – as far as it is accessible – can be a very valuable archive.

Miko Flohr, 19/09/2021