Wellesley Offers New Interdisciplinary Minor in Comparative Race and Ethnicity

November 4, 2016
Comparative Race and Ethnicity

“As Wellesley students prepare for leadership and service at the College and beyond, their ability to understand and analyze racial/ethnic dynamics is crucial,” said Markella Rutherford, associate professor of sociology and one of two advisors for a new interdisciplinary minor in comparative race and ethnicity (CRE).

The new minor will allow students to create a structured yet individualized plan of study from interdisciplinary courses that offer rigorous and complementary approaches to understanding race and ethnicity, Rutherford said. Students will also have an opportunity to forge connections across disciplines and to compare how people experience racial and ethnic differences around the world.

During an information session on October 13, six faculty members from various disciplines discussed the importance of understanding that race and ethnicity are not just categories of identity but manifestations and instruments of social power—whether economic, political, or cultural.

Cord Whitaker, assistant professor of English, explained that students in CRE courses will analyze the dynamics of race and ethnicity by comparing different perspectives and identifying when and how people in positions of power manipulate the perspectives of those they influence.

“These are the tools crucial to careers in law, medicine, biomedical engineering, politics, social service—and yes, even the academy,” said Whitaker. “From secondary education to mergers and acquisitions law, from humanitarian missions to public relations, mastering the analysis of race and ethnicity gives you a leg up on those who take interactions—and others’ stories—at face value.”

Ophera Davis, lecturer in Africana studies, echoed those comments. “Academic training on inequality and race relations can inform future decisions and has the capacity to be a real asset when students make career choices,” she said.

Students who wish to pursue the minor are required to take two of six gateway classes, three of which will be offered this spring: AFR 213: Race Relations and Racial Inequality; SOC 246/AMST 246: Salsa and Ketchup: How Immigration Is Changing the U.S.; and SOC 251: Racial Regimes in the United States and Beyond. The remaining electives for the minor can be selected from among the other gateway courses or from an approved list of approximately 80 additional courses from 18 different departments.

Discussions about the new minor began in spring 2014, when the College organized a task force on ethnic studies in response to student requests for more courses in this area. Richard French, then associate dean, commissioned a working group, which submitted an executive summary of recommendations to the provost’s office at the end of the semester.

In response, new hires were made in American studies and anthropology, and faculty began building the framework for the CRE minor. Rutherford, who served on the working group, suggested that the Department of Sociology house the minor because it already offered courses on racial formation, social inequality, and global migration that analyze the meanings of race and ethnicity as socially and historically situated phenomena within global power relations. (The American studies program will continue to create new courses that focus on U.S. ethnic studies.)

“Comparing racial regimes globally and historically allows students to see that global dynamics are influencing racial issues in ways that are not always incorporated into dominant national narratives about race,” said Rutherford.

For example, American slavery during the 18th and 19th centuries grew out of global capitalist thought that viewed slaves not as human beings but as a solution to the need for industrial labor and the production of raw materials.

Other examples are the American civil rights movement and the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, which both drew upon a considerable exchange of ideas among activists who saw their work as both national and global in scope.

“I think the Comparative Race and Ethnicity minor is a wonderful addition to Wellesley’s already long list of minors,” said Isabelle St. Claire ’17, a peace and justice studies major. “If this had been offered to me as first year, I certainly would have taken more classes on race, ethnicity, and identity.”

“I’ve enjoyed taking classes that focus on the experience of a particular racial group, but I think it’s even better now that students can approach these classes with a rigorous interdisciplinary framework, which allows them to critically analyze how race has shaped the experience of all populations,” said Christina Phelps ’17, a sociology major. “Wellesley students have a lot to learn from the CRE minor, but I also think that the students, with our increasing focus on intersectionality, will bring a lot to this new framework for thinking about race.”

Students wishing to declare the minor should contact Rutherford or her fellow program advisor, Peggy Levitt, Luella LaMer Slaner Professor in Latin American Studies and professor of sociology.