Tag: College of Liberal Arts

Discovering & Reconnecting to an Ancient Culture: An Interview with Bianet Castellanos

Discovering & Reconnecting to an Ancient Culture: An Interview with Bianet Castellanos

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Beginning in high school, Bianet Castellanos had an interest in the history and the culture of the indigenous people of Mexico. That particular history wasn’t easy to explore.

Growing up in San Joaquin Valley of California, all she learned about Latinos in history was the Mexican American War and the conquest of the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas. And that’s all she could find in the library.

As an undergrad she became interested in the art of the indigenous people of Mexico. But art history seemed to focus on European traditions and there too, she found very little written about Mexico and South America. Her instructors focused on the Renaissance. “That wasn’t what I was passionate about.”

Professors at Stanford convinced her to study anthropology, instead of art history. And that was the beginning of a journey eventually leading her to a position as an anthropologist and core faculty member in the American Studies department, focusing on indigenous communities in the Americas.

Castellanos began by spending months learning the Mayan language at Stanford, followed by spending her summers working with a Maya community in Yucatán. She smiles as she recalls discovering years later, there was a large community of Yucatán Mayans much closer to home, in San Francisco. She needn’t have traveled to Mexico to learn the language.

“This story is just one of the interesting ways in which we imagine indigenous people to be rooted in one particular place because that’s where they’re from. But we forget there are also diasporas.”

Castellanos still travels to Mexico and has spent over 20 years working with the same communities and developing relationships there. She also works with Maya immigrants in Los Angeles. Among other insights, studying both groups allows her to explore “how race is constructed across time and space.”

Racial systems in the United States are very different from those in Latin America and Mexico. The experience of being indigenous gets reconfigured in the U.S. as indigenous migrants settle into this space. “When they are defined as Mexican or Latino, their history as indigenous peoples is erased.” Castellanos has found that for “indigenous people in the U.S., race impacts their lives in subtle but significant ways.”

Race in the U.S. is based on blood quantum. You’re defined as indigenous mostly based on how much blood you have, your bloodline. Castellanos explains that in Mexico indigeneity is based on language. If you are 5 years or older and speak an indigenous language, then you are classified as indigenous.

Informally in Mexico, race is also determined by your phonotype, your dress, and where you live. “In Yucatán, how you dress can determine whether you are defined as indigenous or not.“ So in coming here, indigenous people are exposed to very different ideas about race and its impact on their lives.

“These ideas do not easily translate across cultures.” Castellanos had to find “basically new vocabularies – and I’m not talking about just words,” in order to tease out how race is understood in Mexico and in the United States.”

“Excavating that history is really important for Mayans migrants and their children to feel that they are valued.” Castellanos’ work helps them do that.

When asked to consider the future of her work, the political climate comes sharply to the front. It won’t just affect her work. Castellanos is also deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the communities she is working with, both in this country and in Mexico.

“If Mexico pulls out of NAFTA, that’s going to have repercussions for all Mexicans, especially for indigenous communities, because they … have the fewest resources available to them.”

“Most of the people I work with are in the service industry and tourism. If there is any kind of impact on tourism, it effects how they can feed their children. So you can see the repercussions of the United States government’s stand against Mexico, how that’s going to effect people in their daily lives.”

She’s also concerned about the Maya migrant community in Los Angeles due to the political climate against immigration. Some of them are documented, but some are undocumented. Changing policies will have a huge impact on these communities.

“You have a lot of families that are mixed status, where somebody has their green card or is a citizen but other family members do not.” Sometimes the kids are citizens and the parents are not.

Just like other immigrants throughout history, migrants come to the United States for a better life. Some are escaping violence due to sexual orientation, or other dangerous situations. It’s complicated, but Castellanos feels “the policies that are being proposed don’t take into consideration those issues at all. The translation is that they end up harming a lot of people and creating a lot of structural violence.”

“A lot of these folks are just living at the margins. What are the lasting, generational implications for families who are living in an already precarious status and then having to undergo these experiences and shifts in policies?”

“In the media people are talking about how these protestors are politically motivated. Yes, they are politically motivated but not because it’s a Democrat or a Republican, but because these policies are going to affect people’s lives. These are not just protests for protest’s sake. People are protesting who have never protested before because fundamental rights are at stake.”

“So this is the kind of work we need to be moving forward with – it’s important. There are some of us doing it, but we need more support for more of us to do it.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2017]

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The Paths of Greater Resistance: An Interview with Zenzele Isoke

The Paths of Greater Resistance: An Interview with Zenzele Isoke

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

Simply stated, associate professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, Zenzele Isoke researches resistance.

More specifically, Isoke is “looking at the multiple ways that black women create political spaces in cities, to enable different forms of resistance.”

The Oxford dictionary defines resistance as “the refusal to accept or comply with something.” Isoke explores the many ways in which black women ‘refuse to accept or comply with’ the status quo of racial, gender and sexual subordination in cities.

Over time, and in different places, black women have come together to “reconfigure the meaning and practice of the city for black people.” Using the arts, spoken word, educational programs and other activities, they organize and reshape their communities.

In her book, Urban Black Women and Politics of Resistance (2012), Isoke examined several of the different forms of resistance black women have used to re-imagine their communities:

  • Political Homemaking – These are forms of “community mothering” such as re-Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance - book covertelling histories in public forums, and using words to re-configure black people’s understanding and practice of living in cities.
  • Activism and the LGBT community – These groups have come together to challenge extreme forms of social violence, especially the premature deaths of black people.
  • Hip-Hop Politics – Black women use hip-hop feminism to create connection across difference among black communities and communities of color. Hip-hop provides a means of coming together and documenting the forms of violence committed against black people.

Although black women have been effecting change in their communities for a very long time, their resistance has not always been recognized as political activism. Isoke tells us that “a lot of black female agency has been ignored or seen as ‘behind the scenes‘ work”.

Black women’s resistances evolve over time, as needed. “These are short lived assemblages” says Isoke, “in which they come together, they challenge an issue, work together for a period of time, and retreat back.”

“Whether it’s a movie night, a clothing exchange, a rant fest, or poetry,” Isoke explains, “they come together and re-emerge in different places. So it actually changes across their life span. You have black women coming together across multiple differences to create different forms of political spaces all the time within cities.”

Isoke is interested in these histories and all the ways in which black women do this work. But she sees that these efforts are often ignored or devalued.

So it is important for black women to find ways to come together, as she says, “to provide affirmation of each other’s political efficacy, leadership potential and each other’s ‘being-ness’”.

“A lot of it has to do with the way black women see ourselves. Being able to see ourselves as creative, to see ourselves as artists, being able to see ourselves as intellectuals.”

Coming together in support of one another helps to reaffirm black women’s efforts in this work. However, it is also, says Isoke, “an important part of the way black people are able to survive the onslaught of racism, racial terrorism and gender violence that our lives are marked by.”

As a part of understanding how black women work towards change in cities, Isoke is seeking to more fully understand the differences in black identity for women.

“Whether in the US or elsewhere, what does ‘blackness’ mean,” she asks, “when they evoke ‘blackness’ as a way to make sense of their resistance?”

For example, Isoke described how the Twin Cities has people from many different places who identify as black. These include people from Somalia, Ethiopia and parts of the US who are “all coming together and recreating blackness. It has a different meaning [here] than in, say, Newark.”

Exploring these differences further, Isoke has talked with hip-hop producers, MCs and spoken word artists in Dubai to learn what blackness means to them.

She wanted to understand how participating in hip-hop as a cultural form allows the women in Dubai “to articulate new meanings and properties of blackness.”

There are women in Dubai who are Palestinian, Sudanese, Algerian, and Emirate people. Although they all identify with blackness, they are all very different.

Isoke examines how hip-hop brings these women together to communicate and explore what blackness means for them. Hip-hop provides a way of communicating across differences and a channel for sharing themes of resistance.

“This type of scholarship provides young people, particularly people of color, a pathway in which they can also find their voice and find their meaning in relation to academia, and the larger world.”

It’s taking time but these efforts are making a difference. “Black women need to understand the ways in which our political and cultural work is actually changing and having a tangible and observable impact on urban spaces.”

When asked what she feels the impact of this work has been for these communities, Isoke has a powerful answer:

“The observable impact comes from folks who manage to overcome the really ‘death-dealing’ consequences of racism in their community.” She sites the police violence, institutionalized bias in the educational institutions, “you know, the school to prison pipeline.”

“It’s the folks who managed to come out of urban spaces and were able to create a different kind of life for themselves by being politically and civically engaged. That’s where the impact comes, for me.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2016]

Living Our Own Story: An Interview with Moin Syed

Living Our Own Story: An Interview with Moin Syed

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

There is an old, familiar saying, “we are the hero of our own story” (Mary McCarthy). But what if our story was written with someone else in the lead role?

Professor Moin Syed, from the Department of Psychology, knows that the script for our story has already been written for us. He is researching a concept called the Master Narrative, which is particularly powerful in American culture.

“The American dream: success through hard work, determination, going to school, going to college, choosing a major, getting a career, getting married, having a child, buying a house – that’s a Master Narrative. It’s a script that tells us how to live our life.”

Syed tells us that we adopt the story and these plans unconsciously making them our own. We compare our life against the script, usually without even noticing we are doing so. For most of us, the Master Narrative is a pretty good story line to follow. But what if we don’t fit the plan? What if we don’t want to follow this script?

If you don’t fit the Master Narrative, it becomes a challenge for you. Syed explains, “There are all these societal level attitudes and belief structures that we as individuals have to interact with.” There is an expectation of what being an American is. There is even “an idea about what a prototypically American looks like and what a foreigner looks like”.

People who are different from this image spark curiosity. It can be as simple as having what is perceived to be an unusual, “foreign-sounding” name. But always being asked about their background can be unsettling. It repeatedly sets them apart as “other.”

Syed knows first hand what this is like. He is often asked where he is from. He says that when he “answers ‘California’, they say, ‘where do you really come from?’ The implication is that you are not really an American.” Syed tells us this is referred to as “Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome.”

Referencing the Erika Lee profile (October 2015), Syed recalls how her family has been here for generations. But, he says, “I assume they still get that question, and often from people whose ancestors came here more recently.”

“Curiosity seems innocent but can sometimes not be perceived that way.” Syed tells us that “It’s an unconscious form of prejudice. . . They don’t understand why the person takes offense to such an innocent question.” People think the victim is being too sensitive, too politically correct. But Syed explains, “the perpetrator doesn’t understand that the target goes through this all the time.” They’re continually being reminded that they don’t fit the script.

Being out of step with the Master Narrative also means that you have to repeatedly find your place. Syed tells us that every time people change contexts — for example from home to high school and then on to college, etc. — they need to adjust to the new expectations. Being different from the expected image makes this process harder.

There are also a lot of conflicts that arise about attitudes towards cultural heritage and the difference between these and mainstream American culture, especially for kids from immigrant families. These kids have to find their way between sometimes-conflicting expectations.

“It leads to differences of opinion between parents and children about what the child should be doing. So this is really an identity issue.” Syed adds that, “If they are experiencing family conflict, they are doing more poorly in class,” which he says, “is not surprising.”

“If you look at the entire population of college students in this country, 75% of them could be considered non-traditional in some way. Our idea of a non-traditional college student has changed. The 18-22 year old, living on campus, white, middle class, that’s a very small percentage now. Our college students aren’t getting more diverse, they’ve been more diverse for a long time. There are a lot of people who come from poverty. They’re underrepresented, but they’re here.”

Cross discipline efforts are needed to more fully understand our students and to find the best ways to educate them. Syed wonders, “How do we teach about intercultural, interracial relations? How do we teach about our own history?” He reminds us how Erika Lee didn’t learn about her family’s part in American history, until she was in college.

“The purpose of grand challenges is to bring people from different disciplines and perspectives together, but this still relies on getting them together.” Interdisciplinary work is especially difficult, he explains, because of very different ways of thinking.

As an example Syed looks at how psychologists and sociologists are talking about the same things, but from different types of analysis. “When you can’t even agree on what constitutes evidence, it becomes very difficult to solve grand challenges.” But he and his colleagues are trying to bring some of these different disciplines together, “a little more.”

Syed is excited about a new project he is working on in collaboration with Colin DeYoung in psychology and Valerie Tiberius in philosophy. This work is focused on the development of virtue and on personality development. “One of my really passionate interests is trying to understand the different pathways of college students . . . different ways in which they try to figure out how to make a good life.”

He wonders “How do college students develop the best way they can, opposing that idea that there is one path and one way, or that there is a good way and a bad way?”

Part of the answer, he believes, is that we need to find a way to “support students from diverse backgrounds to have positive experiences and to feel that the way they are doing college is an okay way to do college too.” Recognizing that “There are many different definitions and different cultural definitions of what a good life is.”

[Header Image Credit: Amelie Hyams, 2015]

Revealing Unknown History: An Interview with Erika Lee

Revealing Unknown History: An Interview with Erika Lee

The Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) is proud to present these profiles highlighting our faculty’s outstanding research and community engagement around grand challenges.

by Amelie Hyams

When people learn that U of M professor Erika Lee (@prof_erikalee) teaches history, they often tell her they are “history buffs.” Professor Lee is not a history buff.

“That’s not the kind of history I do.” She explains, “I am not interested in just factual narration or memorization of little ‘tidbits’ of our past. I AM interested in asking the hard questions – how does the past connect with what’s going on today?”

Immigrant StoriesIn addition to being a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts, Lee helped to found the Asian American Studies Program in 2004 and has served as the Director of the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) since 2012.

Raised and educated in California, she describes herself as a “Chinese American, 3rd or 6th generation, depending on how you count.” You’d expect her to have known a lot growing up, about the history of Asian Americans. She was shocked to learn how little she knew.

Lee remembers sitting in an undergraduate history class at UC Berkley. The professor was talking about the anti-Chinese movement, a time when Americans were greatly divided over Chinese immigration. Debates eroded into violence against Asian Americans, national condemnation of Chinese immigration, and expulsion of Chinese people from cities. This eventually led to a ban on Chinese immigration.

As her instructor spoke, Lee sat there thinking, “I have never heard this, [not even] within my family. I’m a history major. How come this is the first time I’m hearing this?”

“It made me realize the way we teach American history . . . really glosses things over and leaves things out.” Lee works to share the unknown stories from our past so that the next generation of Asian Americans will know about their part in history.

Asian America has grown dramatically in the past 50 years and become much more diverse. Lee tells us “there are [now] 24 different ethnicities under the Asian, Pacific American umbrella.” She wonders, “How does old Asian America and new Asian America fit together? . . . Where do they fit into a changing America?”

Lee attempts to reveal this unknown history and connect it to global history, slavery, and western Book cover for "The Making of Asian America: A History"expansion. In her new book, The Making of Asian America: A History, Lee connects the issues of the past and present into a wider perspective.

“When we think about immigration history, 2 words come to mind . . . Ellis Island.” Few Americans are aware of Angel Island, an immigration station off the California coast that processed nearly 1 million Asian immigrants between 1910-1940. A great many immigrants came from Europe, through Ellis Island. However Lee feels, “Our mission is to look at the broad diversity of immigration past and present.” And how immigration has shaped America.

Immigration has also transformed Minnesota. First settled by Swedes, Norwegians and German immigrants, we now see a huge change. Lee tells us “We actually have a larger population of refugees, compared to other states. We have the largest Hmong and Somali populations here . . . sometimes the largest populations outside of the homeland country.”

Each immigrant group is interested in their own experiences, Lee finds, and usually only their own experiences. But she feels that it’s “by making these comparisons about similarities and differences across groups and over time, that we can better understand the role of immigration in making the United States . . . and our on-going complicated relationships.”

October 2015 marks 50 years since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This act is still being debated. Lee is familiar with the concerns: “Was it a landmark move towards civil rights law? Or was it a law that helps explain how we still have an undocumented immigration situation today?”

Discussion of immigration raises some divisive questions, “Who is included? Who’s excluded? Who do we let in and who is a threat? Do they assimilate? Are they a benefit to the economy or a drain?”

Lee also reminds us that throughout history there have been those who have tried to “raise the specter of immigrant menace.” We still see this today. However, “History shows us that those xenophobes were out of step – not representing the true spirit of America.”

“Historical perspective is needed to better understand the roots of where we are now and . . . how do we fix some of these issues?” Lee feels it’s in “… looking at the between-ness” that you’re able to see the full picture.

[Header photo credit: Amelie Hyams]