Asma Barlas was reappointed program director for the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity last week and has begun planning the department’s future. Barlas, who is also a professor of politics, served as the center’s first director when it was founded in 1999.
Senior Writer Kathy Laluk spoke with Barlas about her reappointment and her goals for CSCRE during her three-year term.
Kathy Laluk: As the center’s founding director, how does it feel to be reappointed to the position?
Asma Barlas: The center was mostly an idea on paper [back then]. We had wanted to develop a new curriculum on [African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American] people. … For the longest time, I was working on the center when it was just an idea, but now I have three faculty colleagues, we have an office space, and we’re delivering a wonderful curriculum.
KL: What goals do you hope to achieve as program director?
AB: We want to rethink our curriculum to keep it current with current trends. We might develop new programs out of this. Our greatest challenge will be to retain faculty. For that, it has to be a campuswide effort. We’re competing against institutions [that] have more resources and lighter teaching loads. We want to consolidate the center, to have faculty who are committed to being here for a while and to keep developing and defining our programs into new ideas. That’s my vision for the future.
KL: As part of the search process, you had to give a presentation to the college. Tell me a little about that.
AB: For me it was a good opportunity to give a presentation about my scholarship on this campus. My work has been primarily on scripture hermeneutics. My work is on the Quran, and … I’ve been working on issues of religious violence and the body.
KL: Are there any ways specifically you think you can retain professors in your area?
AB: There have to be multiple initiatives because no one unit can carry the whole responsibility. We’re hoping that this new strategic committee on diversity that [President Tom Rochon] has formed … will have concrete measures in that to help us retain our faculty and students.
KL: Why do you think it’s important to study culture, race and ethnicity?
AB: [The original committee and I] were basically asked to devise an ethnic studies program, but we felt that ethnicity hides as much as it reveals. … Ethnic studies is really about ALANA people in the United States. The reason it’s important to study them is because they were here before white folks got here. White people and people of color share a certain history that is not always easy to speak about, but it is nonetheless a common and shared history that has shaped certain institutions, structures and ideologies in our society. The reality of the world is that it’s multiracial … our students need to understand that this isn’t just a “problem of people of color,” but that to live in the world knowledgeably, you have to understand your own history in relation to the histories of other people.
KL: Where do you see CSCRE going in the next three years?
AB: I’m really bad at mapping out where we’ll be 10 years from now [laughs]. But where I see it going is opening up more and more space on this campus for students to understand the ways in which lives are interconnected, particularly in the moment in history of the United States, where people are fooling themselves into thinking that race doesn’t matter or who are being socialized into colorblind racism and who think it is a post-racial movement. [I hope] to be able to interrogate all of those ideas so that it’s not just a conversation that happens amongst a small group of people, but it is actually more mainstream conversation.