Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies discuss the ways their research changes their everyday life

Berkeley Connect Ethnic Studies & African American Studies students recently got to hear two professors talk about their work on a very personal level.  In a conversation moderated by Professor Na’ilah Suad Nasir, faculty members Evelyn Nakano Glenn (Ethnic Studies) and Brandi Catanese (African American Studies and Theater, Dance & Performance Studies) talked about the way their research has shaped and changed the way they view the world every day.

Professor Glenn’s research focuses on comparative analyses of Asian American, Chicano, and African American movements, as well as women of color in domestic services. Drawn to the latter topic by her personal history, she found that very little research had been conducted on it. “My grandmother was in domestic work in Alameda, and I knew that many other Japanese women were as well,” Professor Glenn noted. Professor Catanese, too, was influenced by her personal life when discovering her field of interest. She had double-majored in Theater and African American Studies and became particularly interested in the politics of black performance. “As a person of color in a hyper-racialized world, there are roles I’d love to play that I would never be cast for,” she remarked. Pondering why she couldn’t play roles for which she was qualified was one of the factors that led to her current research.

“How has your work changed the way you experienced the world?,” Professor Nasir asked the two. For Professor Glenn, the interviews she did with caretakers gave her a deep respect for the work they do and highlighted her own shortcomings as a caregiver to her dying mother. For Professor Catanese, it was the way she now watches movies. “My friends will often say, ‘Can’t you just watch the movie?,'” she admitted. “It also makes watching certain shows more complicated – shows that I know are crap, but give me pleasure because there is representation.” Her current example? Black Entertainment Network’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

Next the professors were asked, “Is there anything on the news that connects to your area of research? How has research changed the way you look at the news, particularly the depth and lens with which you see it?” For Professor Catanese, what came to mind was the non-indictment of white police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of African American Michael Brown. “The supposed post-racial moment allowed for racially-coded words to be used without the words ‘black’ or ‘white’ ever being said,” Professor Catanese said. “Using the phrase post-racial leads to zero accountability. All you do when you say that ‘we don’t use that vocabulary’ is to silence those who want to talk about race.” She expressed similar frustration with the #AllLivesMatter coverage.

The professors, both of whom attended UC Berkeley as undergraduates, also talked about about their decision to go to grad school. Professor Glenn admitted she wasn’t entirely sure. “When I was an undergraduate here, I had one female professor and no professors who weren’t white. I had no real role model, and it wasn’t until I got to graduate school I realized how daunting my decision to pursue academia really was.” She laughed then. “It took me a while to get going. If there is any moral to this story, it is that it is possible to be a mediocre grad student and still be successful.” Professor Glenn is now a member of the American Sociological Association, an exclusive national organization, and founded UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender. “You can go at your own pace,” she advised students.

“By the time I got to Berkeley, I had female professors and professors of color. It was an African American Studies course that inspired me. I loved being an actor and director, but I had questions I wanted to explore,” Professor Catanese said of her own journey. “My main identity was theater, and African American Studies enhanced that identity. I knew I had questions and I wanted to be in a space where I was pushed to answer them.”

Professor Catanese also echoed Professor Glenn. “The pressure to compare yourselves to others is so high, but it allows others to control your agenda,” she said. “Find the strength of mind to block it out and set your own agenda. Your work is for you, for your family, and for your community.”

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant