On Feb. 27, 2018, renowned journalist, award-winning writer and media consultant Carol Jenkins hosted a dynamic panel discussion at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. The panelists for “Urgent Conversations: Sexism, Misogyny and Patriarchy, Where Do We Go from Here?” included journalist Susan Chira, attorney and commentator Wendy Kaminer, social justice advocate Carol Robles-Román and cultural anthropologist Dr. Bianca C. Williams.
As the lone academic on the panel, Williams, associate professor in the anthropology program at the CUNY Graduate Center, provided insights into her work, experiences and perspective in academia.
Growing up, Williams says she was always fascinated by issues of race, racism and power. After being accepted into Duke University NC, she studied the course catalog and found many of the courses that addressed those issues fell under cultural anthropology. Originally planning to go to law school, courses about power, race and gender affected her deeply. She remained at Duke through graduate school, completing her doctorate and earning a certificate in African and African-American studies.
Work by critical race theorists and black feminists shaped Williams’ career. Her research to date has been on black women and happiness, particularly trying to understand how black women can stay emotionally well in the context of racism and sexism. As she’s progressed in her studies and career, many black feminists have guided, mentored and advised her—both through direct interaction and through their writing. She continues to study work from diverse disciplines and finds cultural anthropology allows her to bring those disciplines together.
“Black feminism and anthropology together allow people to understand, affirm and validate how the most marginalized see the world,” Williams says. “They usually have some of the best analysis of how power works, because they have to navigate disempowerment on a regular basis.”
Williams taught at the University of Colorado Boulder for eight years—seven of those in ethnic studies—where she was driven by the students’ hunger for knowledge and commitment to exploring new topics, some of which were shocking to them. During that time, she served on diversity committees and spoke about attracting and retaining faculty of color.
Research and Teaching
Williams’ teaching addresses issues of intersectionality: the ways black women experience power and black feminism. She explores storytelling and narratives.
“I found that black feminist lenses allowed me to take anthropology’s emphasis on ethnography, storytelling and narratives, but also include emotion as a data point,” says Williams. “Take people’s emotions and personal narratives seriously and use them to understand how they experience the world, power and disempowerment.”
Her position at the Graduate Center began in August 2017, and she admits teaching only graduate students is a bit of an adjustment.
“I miss some of the undergraduate energy. They come in eager to discover,” Williams notes. “The grad students are amazing. A lot of them have lived these other lives before their graduate training, so they’re bringing in different types of knowledge that are experiential in the world and bringing it to the discipline of anthropology.”
Williams’ recently published book is The Pursuit of Happiness: Black Women, Diasporic Dreams, and the Politics of Emotional Transnationalism (2018). She studied a group of women who used travel and the internet to work through and around the limitations they felt that racism and sexism in the United States placed on their happiness. It follows a group of African-American women who repeatedly traveled to Jamaica, West Indies, where they experienced a sense of belonging, but also became aware of the forms of privilege they had as Americans.
In line with this topic, she’s currently teaching a course on affect, race and gender. “I have a mix of psychology students, ethnomusicologists and sociologists, so it’s really cool to hear how the different disciplines are thinking about emotional wellness,” Williams says.
Last October, Williams wrote a blog post on #MeToo. During the Feb. 27 event, she shared some of her experiences in academia dealing with the urgent issues of our times. Much of the event’s discussion directly connected to her work in examining how power operates and how we can create change. She spoke about cultural transformation and the need for everyone to be vested in wanting change—keeping power dynamics at the center of the conversation.
When it comes to structural change, there needs to be discussion of how boys and men can re-envision masculinity. In turn, she says those who want to see positive change must consider how to create an inclusive sense of community.
“What I appreciated about that panel was having lawyers and journalists,” Williams says. “It’s important for us to have these cross-disciplinary and field conversations in the academy.
“There continues to be an assumption that there are these disconnects or distinctions between the public and the academy,” she adds. “Based on my organizing with #BlackLivesMatter over the past three years and on what I’m seeing happening at conferences, there are less divides between the public and the academy than people assume.”
Having events with audiences that include people from outside academia pushes academics outside of their bubbles and calls on them to use nonacademic language so that all in attendance may understand.
“Having an audience with a variety of backgrounds really helps there be a cross-dialogue,” Williams says. “The other folks on the panel had a lot of good insight on legislation and policy. My goal was to try to emphasize a way that these conversations around consent and violence are deeply cultural.
“While it’s very important that we have legislation that supports getting justice for victims and survivors of violence, a lot of this conversation around misogyny, #MeToo and patriarchy is going to take every day cultural challenges,” she adds. “These urgent conversations, particularly around #MeToo and patriarchy, are important because we really need to consider what the steps are toward equity.”