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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Art, Scholarship and Social Justice with Vilna Bashi, PhD

Racism is a human rights issue and eliminating racism is essential to UN Sustainable Development Goal 16: peace, justice and strong institutions and Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reducing inequalities. But what is done globally to combat this problem?  Vilna Bashi, PhD, aims to blend her work as an artist and sociologist to explore answers to this question. Bashi is a sociologist and the Osborn Professor of Race, Ethnicity, and Global Diversity in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. She was also a Faculty Fellow at the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, developing new forms of global networks and collaborative research initiatives at Northwestern Buffett.

Vilna Bashi

Some of the networks I'm trying to build with the help of the Buffett Institute, is to bring in social scientists, activists, and artists who are all interested in social justice issues, to talk about how we can go across some of these boundaries in a more unified way and where we can cross pollinate, share resources.”

– Vilna Bashi, PhD Osborn Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University and Northwestern Buffett Faculty Fellow

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Racism is a human rights issue, and eliminating racism is essential to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions as well as Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reducing Inequality. But is enough being done globally to combat this problem? And what is the role of multilateral institutions and a human rights regime? Well, today's guest weighs in on all of this and more. Vilna Bashi is a scholar and an artist who has dedicated her career to the field of human rights specializing in race, ethnicity, migration and global inequality. She's a sociologist. She's the Osborn professor of Race, Ethnicity and Global Diversity in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University, here. She's also a faculty fellow here at the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, where she's developing new forms of global networks and collaborative research. Her book, The Ethnic Project, was crowned by the Zora Canon as one of the best books ever written by an African-American woman. And among many other honors, she has received the American Sociological Association's Cox Johnson Frazier Award for Lifetime Scholarship and Service. Welcome, Vilna. It's just great to have you. Thank you for joining us.

Vilna Bashi [00:01:51] Thank you very much for having me here.

Annelise Riles [00:01:53] Tell us a little bit about you. First of all, how has your own background shaped your interest in anti-racism as an international human rights issue?

Vilna Bashi [00:02:04] I want to probably start with my first time actually becoming an activist, and I was 16 years old and I self-diagnosed nerd. So, I always been a little bookish and I skipped two years of high school. So I was a college freshman at 16, and I learned about Cesar Chavez organizing farmworkers in Florida. My family moved there from New York, where I was born and raised. And I went to see the documentary film The Wrath of Grapes. And when I learned the horrors of what migrant workers have to suffer, I immediately and interestingly, I started with art. I was making posters and banners, and we would stand out on Farallon Avenue in Tampa and try to educate people about how farmworkers were suffering and how we needed to contribute to organizing efforts so that they could make a decent living without having to die from the pesticides that they would spray while the people were in the fields, sprayed the human beings, as well as the grapes, with these horrible chemicals. And probably because also I'm a child of immigrants and first in my family to go to college and black and female, I have always been sensitive to how the status quo is not terribly inclusive or doesn't understand how unequal our society is. And so, it was ingrained in me that very early on that like I could see injustice where maybe a lot of people either weren't seeing or weren't paying attention. And the bookish-ness, combined with my empathy toward people who suffer injustices, that attention to global inequality, in fact, that first activist moment included all that migrants and global inequality and racism and injustice. And that's what I bring to my scholarship as well.

Annelise Riles [00:04:25] That's an incredible story. And you mentioned your scholarship and you also mentioned art. And Vilna, I've been dying to have you on this podcast because it's really about people who break boundaries, who cross important boundaries in the service of the Sustainable Development Goals. And of course, you break all kinds of boundaries. But one is the boundary between art and social science. Can you tell us a little bit about how those two passions come together for you in your life?

Vilna Bashi [00:04:56] It's very difficult to be in academia and cross that boundary, so I haven't found that higher ed disciplines are very porous across those lines, like in sociology. Yeah, you know, sure, you can do a little history. You know, you can look at political economy, but they're really much more open in the social sciences to adjacent disciplines and not so much to something that they seem very far away, like art. And then I think in art, similarly, yeah, art history, it's okay. But like the producers of art, I don't know that there's a lot of dialog across disciplines, so I'm literally still struggling to put those things together. I feel really fortunate to be at the institute that Robert Buffett put together because I think that's the kind of place I can do some more of this kind of work.

Annelise Riles [00:06:01] I couldn't agree more that it's really, really hard to find space for this, but what is it that keeps drawing you back to art? I mean, what is it that art brings to social justice and inequality that sociology or the social sciences can't always get to?

Vilna Bashi [00:06:19] I've been a sociologist for decades now, and in recent years, sociology has been much more welcoming to the idea of being a public sociologist. But generally speaking, in higher ed, what's valued is the way professors talk to each other. So, we have to write books for each other and we publish in journals that are read by other professors. And so the dialog between us and the public, it's kind of nice, but it wasn't the kind of thing that would get your tenure, which for people who are listening, who aren't really knowledgeable about how I read works when you go up for tenure that people are looking at your history of scholarship and teaching and service since you got your Ph.D. and you either get tenure or you get fired. And so the idea that you have to produce scholarship that allows you to survive that obstacle of getting tenure means that you are often very limited in the kinds of things that you're able to do. So, the recognition of public sociology is really, really important because it's saying that the people in our discipline are more interested in what we are doing out in the world, how we communicate ideas about what's happening in society to the people who have interests, either in the status quo or changing it, and less in the ivory tower and more in the community centers and conference rooms and on the streets, so to speak. And so that's an important thing. The other thing is that it's great to have the written word and of course my books and whatnot will live on after I'm gone. But that's not the only way to communicate. And I think art can send a message that other kinds of materials just don't. And one of the things I'm interested in is trying to convey social justice messages through visual media and not just studying visual media, but making it myself. One of the reasons I'm interested in glass art, for example, is like all over the world, you can see stained glass where first it's an architectural feature normally of a religious group that's telling stories, the history of the religion. Often times it's related to both suffering and celebrations in that tradition. But. I think this is a medium that's really underused, and I intend to use it to talk about extra religious, social and historical moments where we really could rethink where justice was denied.

Annelise Riles [00:09:24] You're making stained glass, Vilna?.

Vilna Bashi [00:09:26] I just got a kiln for my art studio. So, yeah, I do have an art studio here. And we're installing it this weekend. That's been one of my life dreams. And so I started to, like, put some art in my books and writings. But yeah, really making art and again, figuring out how I'm doing that as a social scientist. It's territory that I'm really unfamiliar with, and so I'm looking forward to really engaging with the art community coastly and like here in the Midwest to try to find like-minded people. Some of the networks I'm trying to build with the help of the Buffett Institute is to bring in social scientists, activists and artists who are all interested in social justice issues, to talk about how we can go across some of these boundaries in a more unified way and where we can cross pollinate, share resources. And I guess I'm doing it a little selfishly, too, because, yeah, I don't want to be alone trying to break down these boundaries.

Annelise Riles [00:10:39] Absolutely. And, you know, we're just so grateful to you for doing this. It's delicate work. It's complicated. I'm just struck listening to how there isn't even yet a good language for this kind of work.

Vilna Bashi [00:10:52] I don't think so. Yeah, it's been tough and I'm seeing why. There's a lot of work to do to get those things together, and it's also a matter of how we validate things. So understanding that the place of art in society, unless we're talking about fine art, which has a sort of canon. Same with social science, which has a cannon, and there's a way in which different kind of language, different kinds of visual art and different kinds of people who are doing these things need to have more of a voice, I would say. And that voice has tended to be undervalued.

Annelise Riles [00:11:35] Another boundary that I always think of you crossing, Vilna, is the boundary between national political and social issues and international political and social issues. And your acclaimed book, The Ethnic Project Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, is sometimes framed as a book about the United States, but I think it is a book that deserves a global audience and raises issues of transnational concern. So, how would you speak to an audience that is perhaps not so U.S.-centric about the significance of the book.

Vilna Bashi [00:12:12] With that book specifically I give a brief history of the idea of race and how it traveled the globe, and how North American racial thought and racism are special versions of this kind of thought and this kind of racism. And I show how all kinds of racial thought can have certain concepts and categories, and there's a structure to the way race works in a particular setting. So the beginning of the book is very global and talks about how race actually works. And then the rest of the book is a case study of the United States. So I look at how we have understood ethnic groups in the U.S. from the time of the American Revolution to now. And what we think of as ethnic groups, I argue, is what we have always thought of them racially. And so I show how this racial paradigm or the structure of race has worked in the United States. If you jump on a plane, you will be in a different racial structure and you might actually change races. If you could jump in a time machine, you could do the same thing. And so I show basically the time machine of the U.S. and how each ethnic group had to learn what the racial structure was and is and be incorporated into it. And my previous work on international migration was a different version of that. In The Ethnic Project I show how one country absorbs a bunch of different people. And in the first book, I took the same people and I show what happens to them as they go into different racial paradigms around the world. That book looked at Caribbean migrants from English speaking countries and how they fare in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. And so, my vision looks at the U.S. as a player in the global field. And it's funny because I feel like it's always challenging to get students, for example, when I teach, to really understand the U.S., the place of the U.S. in the globe or their place in the U.S. like I'm always trying to think more broadly. And so I believe that that is almost natural to me, I think in a very worldly way. And I live like a global citizen. Like I'm even flummoxed at the idea that we took the planet and we drew lines on it, and then we tell each other, "Well, I'm so sorry. Your mother was standing in the wrong place when you came out of the womb, so you get no rights here." That's insane to me, but I don't think most people think of countries that way.

Annelise Riles [00:15:23] Absolutely. So let me ask you about the role of international institutions then. You've had a lot of involvement with the U.N. and you're going to be going to COP 27 as a member of the Northwestern delegation. What do you see as the role of international institutions in addressing these kinds of inequalities? And why are you interested in bringing your work to the COP 27 framework? Focusing on the environment specifically.

Vilna Bashi [00:15:52] I mean, there are people who are losing their livelihoods, losing their homes, losing the land base of their island nations, for example, let alone looking at the disasters that have happened that directly relate to the way we've been treating or mistreating the environment. So there's a great deal of environmental racism that can be talked about in that set of issues. So those are the kinds of things I'm going to be drawn to in order to learn more. And also, I have to say one of the things I'm interested in working on is understanding how oppression and domination work historically and throughout the globe. In sociology in particular, we tend to talk about race and gender and class as important and intersectional, but we don't always look at the ways different kinds of oppressions are connected and have things in common and are used in a more universal way of oppressing people and creating hierarchies of people. And that's what I think is happening there. So anything I can learn about those kinds of issues, that's where I'll be headed.

Annelise Riles [00:17:18] Vilna, you're an inspiration, a model, really, truly an example of, I think, what the future of a principled and just and creative and intellectually vibrant university can be. So, thank you for all you do.

Vilna Bashi [00:17:32] Thank you so much.

Annelise Riles [00:17:36] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at Buffett.Northwestern dot edu.