Each month this academic year, the Africana Studies website will be featuring a different faculty member affiliated with the program. Our inaugural interviewee is Dr. Chinyere Osuji, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology. Professor Osuji’s research interests deal with understanding racial inequality and reactions to interracial couples throughout the African diaspora. We are pleased to present the following conversation between Africana Studies Director, Prof. Keith Green, and Dr. Osuji.
KG: So, Chinyere, I’m going to start with two obvious questions that visitors to the site may want to ask: how do your pronounce your name, and does it have a special meaning?
CO: My name should really be pronounced CHEEN-yair-ay with an emphasis on the first syllable. My last name is Oh-soo-gee.
My parents came to the US from Imo State, Nigeria in the 1970s. We are members of the Igbo tribe and Chinyere means “God gave” in the Igbo language. It is actually a very common name in Nigeria. My last name is close to “profitable yam planter.” Yam has been very important historically in Igbo culture.
My students call me Dr. Osuji or Professor Osuji.
I understand that you have been at Rutgers Camden for about two years now. What has your experience been like? How did you end up applying to and choosing Rutgers Camden?
I was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania when I applied for the Assistant Professor position in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice. I liked how the faculty was producing stellar research and I wanted to be a part of this community. I received news that I had gotten the job on my birthday. It was by far the best birthday gift I received that year!
I have had a wonderful experience here at Rutgers Camden. I enjoy being at a world- class university that has a local feel to it because of the small campus size. My students have been eager learners and the faculty and staff here at Rutgers Camden are top-notch.
You have very specific interests in how racial inequality is perpetuated across societies, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. How did you become interested in this topic?
As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I had friends with origins in Colombia and Puerto Rico and was shocked to learn that there were black people in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I took a class on Africa in World Perspective and was amazed that thirteen times more slaves were taken to Brazil than the U.S. After doing a Fulbright studying African immigrants in Spain, I went to Harvard where I studied race and ethnicity across the Diaspora, studied a semester of Portuguese, and became hooked on all things Brazilian. After getting my Master’s degree, I went to UCLA to work with Edward Telles, the leading sociologist of race in Brazil. I earned my PhD at UCLA n 2011 and am a proud Bruin.
What’s the most surprising thing (or maybe just one of the most surprising things) you have learned throughout the course of your research?
For the last several decades in the U.S., we have had a narrative that race relations are improving and racial inequality is on the decline because of increases in interracial marriage and multiracial individuals. In addition, we have had a very laissez-faire, colorblind approach to policy in which race is not a legitimate basis for policy.
When you turn to Brazil, you see that substantial intermarriage and race mixture over centuries has co-existed with vast racial inequality. In fact, in Brazil, you see that anti-black racism can drive some individuals to seek out marriage and family formation with the lightest individuals and avoid partnering with the darkest Brazilians.
Since the transition to democracy in the early 1980s, the black movement in Brazil has pushed for black consciousness-raising and race-based affirmative action policies in a variety of spheres, which have been upheld by their Supreme Court. Despite race-mixing that has been taking place since Portuguese colonization, it is only now because of policy changes that black Brazilians have a seat at the table and are not just preparing the food for it.
Do you have any upcoming classes, projects, or trips planned related to your area of study?
Yes!! I am teaching a course on Race in Latin America this fall in which we talk about blackness not only in Brazil, but also the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and even Cuba. In Spring of 2016, I am taking additional students on a Spring Break Learning Abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where they will learn about race in Brazil.
When you’re not teaching, researching, and writing, what do you like to do?
I watch entirely too much TV (The Originals, Empire, and Downton Abbey are some of my favorites). I enjoy cooking for friends and family, preferably with a good Malbec. I also like to spend time with my awesome and hilarious brothers and sisters in Christ.
I recall talking to you a couple months ago about Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street. You said it was one of your favorite books. If you had to recommend one book for your students to read, what it would it be and why?
Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. Social scientists always say that race is a social construction, and this book allows the reader to de-center US blackness to show how people learn it, negotiate it, and straddle other forms of blackness, that we never hear about. This makes it easier to see how race and blackness are shaped by the societies and time periods we live in. Also, like myself, she is Igbo, so there is some Nigerian-pride there.
It’s been great talking to you, Chinyere. Thanks for being our inaugural faculty spotlight!
Thank YOU for the honor of sharing my work with the Rutgers community!