Since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement over the summer, almost every part of society – from workplaces, to universities, to political parties – have released statements, re-assessed their internal structures and shone a spotlight on black and brown people to talk about their everyday experiences.
‘Decolonising the curriculum’ is a movement that has been around for a few years with slow and varied results. For my department, Greek and Latin, any reform has often been ignored or pushed aside; whether it was the promise of a new module on ‘race and antiquity’, or students wanting to close the elitist language divide, nothing mattered.
“When I decided to study Classics, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to finding a space for a Pakistani Muslim woman in the texts of Cicero and history of Athens.”
The past few months have seen renewed energy from students to cause meaningful change. I study a notoriously white degree, Classics, which has a long and difficult history linked with white supremacy. The works and words of Greek authors and Roman emperors have been used to justify colonialism, model oppressive regimes and bolster ‘whiteness’ as an eternal ideal. From the outside looking in, the discipline goes hand in hand with the traditional white male elite cohort it has historically catered to.
When I decided to study Classics, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to finding a space for a Pakistani Muslim woman in the texts of Cicero and history of Athens. I prepared myself for the inevitable narrow stance through which we would study antiquity. Before I had even started I had accepted I was a stranger being allowed a look into the classical world.
“As I started to read and explore on my own terms, I discovered how closely linked my heritage was to the ancient world. Ever since, I have tried to carve out a space for myself, and relearn my relationship with this discipline.”
Since coming to university I have grown as a person both in my confidence and political resolution. The modules that excited me the most were the ones that mentioned the queer nature of Sappho’s poetry or the foundations of the Asian continent. They showed how the experiences I and others identify with, that of queerness or coming from the Indian subcontinent have been here for thousands of years and will stretch on. But all these ideas were shrouded under the usual cover of ‘Greek and Latin purity’. There is an attitude in Classics, worldwide, that Greek and Latin are the default, with the study of Persians, North Africans and various eastern empires being an interesting fringe study.
As I started to read and explore on my own terms, I discovered how closely linked my heritage was to the ancient world. Ever since, I have tried to carve out a space for myself, and relearn my relationship with this discipline. Pakistan was a treasure trove of ancient artefacts and social history. The legacy of Alexander the Great moving through Pakistan, even leaving his touch on my mother’s hometown Multan, is vast. Early colonists found inspiration in his journey and changed the course of the Subcontinent forever. This intricate history will never be discussed at undergraduate level, leaving students of colour to learn and unpick this historic trauma for themselves.
“It is a bizarre experience to constantly be fighting with a degree you want to love.“
Yet it is white British people, a backwater on the edge of the Empire, that claim Classics as their history. Attempting to have these conversations about diversifying Classics has been a weary task. I’ve had to present articles about Enoch Powell, read presentations about the greatness of imperialism and been told to study something else because my opinion doesn’t belong here.
It is easy to romanticise this activism. The image of a student passionately refusing to present or forging the way for new modules to be introduced. The reality is far more bleak. It is a bizarre experience to constantly be fighting with a degree you want to love, and emotionally exhausting to see constant gaslighting of the handful of black and brown students who study Classics.
“There are glimmers of hope, with a rising movement determined to forge change.”
Every day that the Classical community resists change, I grow to resent it more and more. Imagining a future where Classics is for everyone, not just those with money and whiteness, often feels impossible. Each day it becomes clearer to me how our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has ended up the way he has, bathed in the ideals of a Classics degree from Oxford.
There are glimmers of hope, with a rising movement determined to forge change. Seeing the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ movement going from strength to strength nationwide gives a sense of community and shared goals. In what often seems like a lonely battle, the more stories and students I reach out to, the less alone I feel. For me, it is important to acknowledge my own privilege coming into this degree. I had the opportunity to study Latin and Greek at school which instantly gave me a better chance at fitting into the current environment. However, this should not be the case. The ancient world should not be for a handful of people who can afford to study it or for people who have been told their whole lives that it is their right.
The ancient world did not begin and end on the borders of Greece and Rome. By continuing to ignore the pleas of its working class students and students of colour, it will continue to drive away the people who push these contrived boundaries, and open up a whole new perspective.
Decolonising humanities subjects is far more than putting a few black and brown authors on a reading list; it is an emotional task that has led to many of us reassessing our subjects and our place within it. The ‘Classics’ that was taught to Napoleon, Hitler, Churchill and Boris Johnson are all the same, and yet as a community, we are refusing to face the consequences. We have to keep going – striving for change, and ensuring that Classics has the necessary, vital space for black and brown students.
Asyia is passionate about diversifying the media and uplifting underrepresented voices. @asyiaiftikhar