Getting Inside Race
The Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity celebrates 10 years of opening minds. by Lorraine Berry
The week of October 15, 2009, a justice of the peace in Louisiana refused a multiracial couple a marriage license. Ten months into the presidency of a biracial man, in an era pundits have declared “post-racial,” such overt acts of racism seem shocking.
This year, as Ithaca’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity (CSCRE) celebrates its 10th anniversary, members of its faculty reflect on the ways in which understanding race from a global perspective is a challenge and how the center is teaching students to negotiate the complexities of a diverse and interconnected world.
“All the talk of ‘postracial’ alludes to our lack of clarity about the changing racial terrain,” says Sean Eversley-Bradwell, an assistant professor at the center. “What we know about race and what we do with race are in constant flux. Today, we find ourselves at a moment in history where ‘race’ is being understood and utilized differently. My students are keenly aware of this shift. The flip side, however, is that students are far less aware of its historical legacy and how race continues to influence one’s advantages and disadvantages around education, wealth, life expectancy, incarceration, etc.”
In just 10 years, CSCRE has become an integral part of academic and cocurricular life on campus, offering two minors, African diaspora and Latina/o studies; hosting a monthly discussion series; and sponsoring a variety of events.
“The two minors are the only academic programs on campus that focus on the experiences of African American, Latina/o American, Asian American, and Native American people,” says Asma Barlas, professor of politics and director of CSCRE. “I find this quite incredible, given the past history of the United States, which has — regrettably — included a history of slavery and dispossession of native peoples. I also find it incredible that we — at IC and in the academy more generally — should have so few courses on race, given the ways in which the historical legacy continues to structure the experiences of both people of color and white people, right up to the present.”
The CSCRE curriculum is filling in the educational gaps at IC, and students are interested. “Since their inception,” says Paula Ioanide, an assistant professor with the center, “our African diaspora and Latina/o studies minors have seen a tremendous amount of growth. They give students exposure to interdisciplinary methods and issues generally marginalized in curriculums. We explore connections between constructions of racial identity and life chances, and how policies and economic structures perpetuate inequality on the basis of race and gender. But we also focus quite a bit on social movements and cultural expressions generated by African American, Latina/o American, Asian American, and Native American people in order to show that practices of dehumanization have always been contested, and that people continue to fight for dignity and self-determination.”
The center’s discussion series complements the curriculum by continuing the dialogue outside the classroom. Prominent academics, activists, and artists from around the world are invited to campus and paired with IC faculty. Audience members do not listen passively. “It’s not just a talking heads kind of format but a highly interactive one,” says Barlas. “Sometimes our events have lasted well beyond the two hours officially allotted to them.” In the last four years, series topics have explored “Global Fury/Global Fear: Engaging Muslims,” “The Prison Machine: Race, Torture, and the State,” “MLK and the Politics of Resistance,” and “Race and Immigration.”
Miranda Hallett joined the CSCRE faculty this year. While her work focuses on the experiences of Latina/os in the United States and immigration, she also teaches a course that examines how white is as contested a category as black or Latina/o or Native American.
“Being White has been a popular course so far, as students are often curious to know what there is to say about whiteness. They think of it as a non-identity, as an absence of race rather than a racial category in itself,” explains Hallett. “This provides an opportunity to look at whiteness as a racial category that those who invented the idea of race applied to themselves. We talk a lot about the historical process of negotiating who gets to be white and who does not by looking at scientific research, legislation, census categories, Supreme Court decisions, and so on. One of the most interesting elements we discuss is the case of Mexican Americans in the United States, who, after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, were declared white by law but were never socially recognized by Anglos as fellow whites.”
While IC students are the immediate beneficiaries of the program, CSCRE’s outreach is global in scope. Barlas is an internationally recognized expert on Qur’anic hermeneutics and Muslim sexual politics. As a consequence of that work, she has been asked frequently to write and comment on Islam and feminism. She describes her work as “trying to contest the link between religious knowledge and the oppression of Muslim women. The idea that Islam sanctions this abuse is quite common, and one of my objectives is to show how wrong this claim is. I do this by looking at a wide variety of the Qur’an’s teachings.”
In an August 2009 Guardian op-ed, Barlas responded to the question of whether or not Western feminism can rescue Muslim women. She pointed out that while it is not imperialistic for westerners to want Afghan women to have rights, liberating women was not the pretext for invading Afghanistan.
“There is no reason to assume that change in Muslim societies can only be imposed from the outside; to the contrary, I believe it can and will come from Muslims themselves,” she writes. “However, for that to happen, enough Muslims will need to realize that much of what passes as Islam — whether it is wearing a burqa, sex-segregation in public/private, stoning to death, or killing a woman in the name of ‘honor’ . . . is not mentioned in or sanctioned by the Qur’an.”
In other words, change must come from within. And that’s exactly what CSCRE is trying to accomplish at IC. While the scope of the center is huge — studying racial and cultural differences in all their manifestations—its mission is focused on helping each student to understand — and question — the sociopolitical constructs that categorize people according to race.
Learn more about CSCRE at www.ithaca.edu/cscre.