One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient Mediterranean studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.
This month’s installment of the series features Hardeep Singh Dhindsa, a third year Classics PhD student in the UK and art historian of Early Modern Europe whose work interrogates the role Classics has played in the development of (white) British identity.
I’m a 3rd year Classics PhD student in the UK and I’m an (art) historian of Early Modern Europe.
My work centres (White) British identity and the roles Classics played in the past that led to where we as a country are today – an island riddled with racism unable to adapt to a world where we are no longer the world superpower.
I want to note now that I don’t think Classics has played a central role in this. One of my critiques of reception studies is that it (un)intentionally inflates the influence of Classics at the expense of contemporary political culture. But nevertheless it has played *a* role.
Since I am one of the handful of BIPOC classicists in the UK, I feel like I have the tools and lived experiences that can allow for a nuanced critique of Empire and Classics that the vast majority of White scholars lack. In essential terms, I am willing to offer my emotional labour in exchange for some progress.
In hindsight, maybe a PhD in History would have been more favourable than one in Classics, since I may end up contributing to the very thing I argue against through the very finite label of ‘classicist’, especially since I do not see myself as one, but I’m here now and I’m part of this discipline for better or worse.
My doctoral thesis focuses on the eighteenth century and the phenomenon of the Grand Tour – an aristocratic rite of passage that saw Britons head to Italy after their education and returning to take on whatever political position they took a fancy to.
The tour lends itself as a unique case study that conflates the contemporary socio-political juggernaut of the ever-expanding British Empire with an interest in the classical world, especially since the tourists from the new mercantile middle class who wanted to assimilate with the landed gentry became wealthy through colonial capitalism, be it through the slave trade, the trade of raw materials, or funding colonial warfare. Part of that process of assimilation was engaging with the ‘polite’ pursuit of a classical education and the cultivation of taste as evidenced through the purchasing of antiquities.
In Italy itself, I explore several themes that factored into the British experience abroad. I look at what they were expecting to see when they arrived, their thoughts and opinions on the antiquities that they had only seen on paper, and their critiques of the modern Italians who were unfit to be custodians of Ancient Rome’s legacy. In all of these instances, Britons’ racial identity played a formative role in their lived experience of the Grand Tour, an identity that was dictated by contemporary imperial discourses centred on the categorisation of the human race(s).
I choose to look at the eighteenth century for several reasons, the most significant being that it was the period that immediately preceded the advent of race science. As such, it’s a period of a slow homogenisation of the definition of whiteness, and this forms the undercurrent of my thesis.
Often taxonomic, always contradictory, the various hypotheses of whiteness acted as a push-and-pull lens through which the world could be understood. Sometimes it meant Europeans were the most developed race, sometimes it meant Europeans were the least degraded race, but the denominating condition of all of these theories was that Europeans were white.
This precursor to race science, however, does present a problem in that I must apply the label of ‘White’ to a group of people who didn’t have a fixed definition of ‘White’ and probably wouldn’t agree with my definition at all. It’s too much to detail here my methodology on how I will be applying whiteness to British Grand Tourists, but the first chapter of my thesis outlines how Critical Whiteness Studies and Marxism can be utilised to encapsulate whiteness through a series of models which take into account its variety of iterations.
Journey to Studying the Ancient World
What made want to study the ancient world was its powerful hold on my original research interest during my undergraduate degree – Italian Renaissance art.
As someone who enjoys falling down rabbit holes, I found pleasure in diving into the origins of humanism and classical historiography while writing a purely art historical thesis on papal propaganda and the politics of water distribution in Roman cinquecento fountains. I guess that’s why I have also always worked on classical reception and have such strong views on how it should be done. It’s not classical culture itself I study, but rather how it had been received strictly within the context of a different time period that has its own political and cultural nuances.
My first encounter with a more traditional classical education came during my third year, when I did a study abroad programme in Rome. Unlike in the UK, the field of history of art also included classical art, so I had the unique opportunity to be introduced to Classics in situ. That in itself has informed the importance of lived experience and spatial politics in my work.
My masters degree married my two interests and I looked deeper into the influence of classical culture on Renaissance Italian culture. This was in 2018, two years after the Brexit vote, and a lot had changed.
Visual identity politics played an important role in British politics at the time so I was naturally thinking of how identities could be codified through race. I eventually wrote a thesis on how Aeneas’ Asian origins were a source of anxiety for White Europeans, and I explored the various ways his ‘Asianness’ was either mitigated or removed entirely. That all led me to my doctoral project, where I now look at the same theme of racial identity and classical culture, through a much more personal lens.
The Future of Classics
For the future of the discipline, I hope to see one thing in particular: less White classicists profiting from the recent ‘trend’ in anti-colonial and anti-racism work within the wider Humanities.
From releasing books, booking out lecture theatres, and proposing funded projects, it seems like the well-intentioned liberal classicist is becoming the very thing they claim to be fighting against, a gatekeeper.
Rather than amplifying our voices, they are using themselves as a middleman and amplifying their own voice to raise ‘awareness’, using their white privilege and tears when they are called out on it and redirecting attention to their good work instead of the plight of BIPOC scholars. Perhaps it’s the weight of white guilt that leads to this.
Either way, I hope BIPOC scholars can have a sense of autonomy in this field, and this blog series is a huge step in that direction.
You can find out more about Hardeep’s work here!