Decolonising Classics as an undergraduate: A South Asian perspective

By Mai Sanadhya

What does the discipline of “Classics” mean to a South Asian? To my father, it conjures up images of marble busts, empires, and distant wars. To my mother, a docent at a history museum, it means unadulterated access to historical pots. To me, that one word has become emblematic of frustration, Eurocentricity, and a touch of imposter syndrome.

At first, the prospect of studying the Graeco-Roman world at university was a thrilling notion. Influenced by The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s famous novel set in a Classics department, I pictured Classics as an elusive, challenging discipline filled with students that sat in libraries and debated Greek grammar or read Homer with a glass of wine on the side. I believe that the way Classics is discussed in the media and marketed to those who have never interacted with the field creates such an illusion. Before choosing to enter the discipline, I hadn’t stopped to think critically about my romanticized perception of Classics. Where did classical elitism stem from? Where were the people that looked like me? How would my race and ethnicity affect the way I interact with the discipline? Naively, I entered into my BA degree without even considering how my identity would shape the way I view the field.

The imposter syndrome kicked in before orientation week was even over. There I was, meeting students that had Classics professors as parents or had studied Latin for years, students who had already read Euripides and Aristophanes and Sophocles. The panic settled in when a student-led society gave a presentation entirely in Latin on the third day of orientation week. What was I doing here? I didn’t belong here! It never dawned on me that perhaps I was not the problem. 

Initially, I had planned to study linguistics, but I made a last-minute change in degree to an Ancient World BA, a less structured version of the Classics degree with no language prerequisite (which, despite its title, focuses on the ancient Mediterranean rather than the ancient world as a whole – take from that what you will). I had considered switching to Classics itself, but found myself hindered by the language requirement. I was raised in Asia, and learning Latin or Ancient Greek had not been an option for me; in high school, we studied Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, or a modern Romance language instead. Not a single one of my peers had professed an interest in Classics, presumably because we had had no interaction with the field. Upon moving to the UK, I was surprised to find that learning either Greek or Latin was not uncommon in private school education: nearly half of private schools in the UK teach Latin at GCSE level or above. So, when I switched my degree to the Ancient World BA at some ungodly hour a week before the course was supposed to start, I think I surprised even myself.

First, I had to tell my mother. Since she works at a museum, I knew that I wouldn’t be facing the stereotypical “brown parent” reaction. She was wonderfully supportive; she let out a joyful laugh and told me that I was turning into her! I frowned a little. Her degree was in pure mathematics; when my brother and I were young, she had quit her job to raise us, and after we were old enough to take care of ourselves, she had started volunteering as a docent in the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore. It was an unpaid position, and when she began, she had considered it a hobby. What did that mean for me?

I decided against telling my father directly; he could find out through my mother. Although he insisted that I do what makes me happy, every career-oriented conversation I had with him consisted of him telling me what a good lawyer, or medic, or physicist I would make. After having taken both mathematics and physics at a higher level, I was now plunging myself into the humanities on what seemed like a whim. I had never even stopped to consider that I could study the humanities at a higher level – not because I was unaware of the courses available, but because I had never pictured myself in them. My father had drilled into me that whatever I did, I would only succeed if I was the best, and that the purpose of work was to make money. I had tried medicine, astronomy, genetic biology, and more, but I hadn’t stopped to think about how much I adored my philosophy or language classes. The switch to Classics felt like a shot in the dark because I had never let myself do anything like this before. I had always tried to do what I thought I was best at. Classics was new and daunting, and I was terrified by the prospect of not knowing whether I’d be fantastic or horrendous at it.

I first started wondering why “Classics” was so-named after I unpacked my copy of the Bhagavad Gita as I settled into my new flat. After all, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Sanskrit epics with which I was already familiar, are just as rich and beautiful – just as deserving of the title “classics” – as the Iliad or the Odyssey. It was after this realization that I began to notice the little things: how strange it was that I was one of very few people of colour (POC) in my classes; how uncomfortable I felt when professors dreamily romanticized life as an Athenian; how I found myself scowling at the Acropolis and thinking that Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, archaeological sites related to the Indus Valley civilisation, were equally impressive structures. I felt clogged up with all these ideas and parallels, but every time I mentioned the Gita to a professor, they stared at me blankly. It felt as if I had nowhere to turn to, that this idealised image of a supposedly perfect world of Ancient Greece and Rome was somehow more ideal than my own culture. I began to resent the label “Classics”: as the discipline is usually taught (and was taught to me), it should be called Graeco-Roman studies instead. What separated Ancient Greece and Rome from, and elevated them above, other ancient cultures?

One answer is imperialism. The idealisation of Greece and Rome has played a significant role in the construction of ideas about empire, and in shaping and justifying oppressive power structures. To take a 20th century example, European settlers in the Americas used Classical literature to shape their genocidal agenda. Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany both adapted classical ideals and aesthetics to serve their own purposes. I learned about how the upper-class British scholars and politicians had used Classics as a tool of imperial oppression in India, my motherland, reframing aspects of classical antiquity to justify racist and colonial ideas. I found Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire by Prof. Mark Bradley particularly informative on this topic, alongside the research of Prof. Phiroze Vasunia. I was amused to read that the British did not enjoy the weaponization of Classics by people of colour, such as Gandhi, who engaged seriously with the works of Socrates and Plato and completed a full Gujarati translation of Plato’s Apology. This book became emblematic of Gandhi’s ideology under the British Raj, and as such, the book was banned. It is a real shame that the study of Graeco-Roman history, language, and culture – a complex and diverse subject – has so often been reduced to pushing a racist and imperialist agenda.

In a completely irrational way, I felt like I was a traitor to my own culture: I had picked the colonizer subject. I’m a born-and-bred Lucknowite; English is my third language. If I told other students what degree I was studying, they couldn’t fathom what reason I could possibly have to pick Classics. When I told one of my high school friends that I had switched my degree, they laughingly called me a “white man’s wh*re,” which did not help with my guilt complex. This completely reframed how I saw myself as a student of Graeco-Roman antiquity. When I returned home and found myself face-to-face with my parents’ friends and my extended family, every time I was asked what my degree was (asked is a stretch – it went more like: “so you’re doing physics, right?”), I smiled uncomfortably and replied “history.” In part, it was because I didn’t want to explain the differences between BA Classics and BA Ancient World. However, the nagging sensation in the back of my brain told me that there was more to it. I didn’t want to face the scrutiny of my parents’ generation. I didn’t want to have to watch their eyebrows raise and hear the polite “oh!” of surprise escape from their lips. Somehow, “history” seemed like a more convenient answer.

As soon as I began to think more critically about the subject, I quickly realized that simply diversifying a reading list – the most common outcome of attempts to decolonise an academic curriculum – wouldn’t be enough to remove many of the problematic aspects of the way Classics is commonly taught and understood. However, it became apparent that even diversifying a reading list was a major ask. Looking through all my assigned reading, I could not find a single POC academic, let alone a South Asian one, even though a simple Google search gave me the names of plenty of POC academics doing invaluable work in Classics. Through this whitewashing of reading lists, my impression of Classics as a first-year undergraduate was severely skewed – I began to believe that this was a discipline where I did not belong, because where were the other people like me in it? The thought made me despair. Since, as a first-year undergraduate and newcomer to the discipline, I had no dissertation to work on and scarcely any independent research to do, my understanding of the ancient Graeco-Roman world was severely biased.

I had pretty much given up on the notion of an anti-racist and non-imperial undergraduate experience in this subject when an email found its way to my inbox, advertising a panel discussion on “Decolonising Classics”. This was my first interaction with anyone who was making a clear effort to improve the field for students like me, and needless to say, I skipped Greek class without a second thought and happily joined the Zoom webinar. Then, for the first time since beginning my degree, I found myself in a POC-dominated space. It felt like the huge weight on my shoulders had lifted. I could speak freely. I could learn from the experiences of other people of colour who had been in the field for significantly longer than I had. Important points were raised, but we encountered the same issues that I still regularly face now – we know the problem, but what is the solution? Where is the right place to start? What can we do as students and junior scholars? I still felt powerless against the whitewashed juggernaut that is Classics, but at least I had found a space where people were voicing the same doubts that I had. 

The session was going incredibly well, until the last ten minutes in which students were invited to ask questions. At one point, someone jokingly (I hope) commented, “Actually, I’m the only white man here so I guess I’m the minority.” The Zoom call went silent, until another student responded, “That’s because you’re the only one who bothered to show up.” To me, at that moment, the need for a POC space within Classics became crystal clear. The safe atmosphere that had been cultivated throughout the call suddenly turned tense and uncomfortable. We all said our goodbyes and signed off.

Eagerly, we waited for the faculty to take concrete action after this discussion, but after a few weeks, it seemed that the issue had been tabled. Although I got along with all the undergraduates in our department, and everyone was pleasant enough to me, I felt as if I had no support structure to rely on when it came to the regular microaggressions I experienced, and the sense that I didn’t fit in, as if somehow I was a chameleon trying to adapt to a foreign environment. Consequently, I was intrigued to find an email about creating a society for students interested in decolonisation in ancient world studies. Within a month, the London Classicists of Colour (LCOC) society was founded, a group focused on decolonising Classics and focusing on creating a POC community within the field. I was shocked to find myself on the committee as a mere first-year, and even more surprised to find that the committee consisted solely of women of colour. Suddenly, there was a support system in place to combat the doubt and disillusionment I was struggling with. I found a space to discuss race, marginalization, and representation with regard to Graeco-Roman antiquity.  In the coming months, our society grew and not a single discussion we had created or supported an elitist model of Classics.

When creating LCOC, we decided that our key points of focus would be hosting welfare sessions, academic events, and socials in order to foster a community among students in London (and, as we have run most of our events on Zoom, elsewhere too). We have faced some challenges along the way, and even our choice in naming the society “Classicists of Colour” proved to be contentious for some. However, we found that the reclamation of the term was empowering, as we were drawing attention to the point that this is a support network primarily for students of colour, although all are welcome to attend our public events. Since then, we’ve been routinely challenged about our choice of name, but we still stand by it.

The importance of having POC-only spaces is often overlooked, but there is a dire need for more of them in Classics. We all have our personal communities and support systems as people of colour; and larger networks such as the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus (AAACC) exist, but often, first-year students struggle to find these groups, since they are rarely advertised through university departments, which remain our first point of contact with the wider field. The isolation that we have to face before we find these communities can be almost unbearable once we realize why we don’t “fit” into Classics the same way that white people do. What makes matters worse is that there are people within classical academia that don’t see the need for such spaces. Instead of uplifting POC voices and supporting marginalized students, some scholars take the decolonisation movement as an aggressive challenge against their beloved discipline – and it is a challenge, a necessary one. When we sustain a whitewashed narrative of classical antiquity, we deprive ourselves of the richness and diversity of the ancient world. We cannot continue to model our ideals on a false perception of ancient societies, a perception fabricated as a tool for the British empire. To truly understand the ancient world, we need to decolonise it, and students such as myself cannot do that without the support of eminent scholars and white allies. When academics and departments work to silence marginalised and minoritised voices speaking out against the prejudices in Classics, they prove that there is something inherently wrong with the field as it currently stands.

Through LCOC, I found a platform to discover BIPOC scholars within Classics doing groundbreaking research on race, decolonisation and plenty of other important topics in ancient world studies. We felt so embraced by the larger community of classicists of colour, and have had the help of so many supportive academics and institutions, including several scholars who have agreed to give guest lectures on their own time and effort. Since we have a pastoral focus and host weekly welfare sessions – some of which are designated as POC-only spaces – there have been some heartbreaking moments in which other classicists of colour shared the struggles they faced throughout their educational journey, but the fact that we had all found each other and that we understood each other was beyond my wildest dreams. Needless to say, after all these incredible conversations, classes did seem a little underwhelming. As the academic year has progressed, one question has become more insistent, without a satisfying answer: why don’t I have any non-white lecturers?

My department has made some progress over the last year, such as hosting the decolonisation conference that led to the founding of LCOC. Some lecturers have made an effort to incorporate the work of scholars of colour into their reading lists; yet others, when asked why they had chosen not to do so, claimed that they simply did not have enough time and encouraged students to come up with their own “alternate reading list” to accompany their courses. Of course, these students would not be compensated for the time and effort put into developing almost an entire syllabus on their own. Additionally, the brunt of decolonisation work unfortunately falls on the shoulders of people of colour, and this can be draining: students of colour are expected to decolonise and participate in a discipline – when their white counterparts get away with only doing the latter – and are rarely compensated for the substantial commitment which decolonisation work requires. If universities want students to be a part of reshaping the academic structure of the syllabus, then it is only fair that they are rewarded for their efforts.

I wish I could end on a happy note by saying that I have found a new zeal for Classics after all these realizations, but that isn’t particularly true. Instead, I have found that engaging with this discipline in an academic context is exhausting. Talking about race all the time is exhausting. Being constantly hyper-aware of my skin colour in an academic setting is exhausting. Over the course of this year, it’s as if I’ve trained myself to pick up on any kind of bias within the papers that I read or the lectures that I attend, and that leaves me very frustrated at times. Reading the work of academics of colour is a welcome respite, but we are few and far between, and the majority of my reading lists are still dominated by white scholars. Even walking by the neoclassical architecture in London hits a sore spot, which makes my university campus a difficult sight at times. Sometimes, I feel like giving up and switching to studying law. However, I am fueled and motivated by my personal vision of a decolonised Classics: an expansive field in which I can make my Sanskritic and Grecian parallels in peace, without having to justify my presence or interests. By studying all ancient cultures as equals, and by valuing the contribution of scholars with a range of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, I believe that we will discover valuable insight into our history as people. If I had to put a positive spin on all of this, then I’d say that Classics has made me more critical of the narratives I’ve been fed my entire life, and it has reconnected me to my racial identity by reminding me just how greatly race factors into everything. By stripping Classics of its imperialist roots, we can take it off its inglorious pedestal and place it back into the context of a larger, richer world again.

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