We met with Georgetown University’s highly influential political scientist, Nadia Brown to talk about how Black women and LGBTQ+ communities are changing politics today. Enjoy!
Dr. Nadia E. Brown of Purdue University (and now, Georgetown University) discusses how Black women think differently about politics, the impact of talking and listening in ethnographic research, the convergence of political science and anthropology, and finding the right tools to answer the big questions in your field of study. She concludes with a look into LGBTQ+ communities of color and their role in changing politics today. Dr. Brown shares her insights with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
Go get a education. That's the way that you will succeed in life, and it's not an education for you, it's an education for your whole community. So you have the ability to uplift black Americans by getting an education and doing something that will uplift the race.” – Dr. Nadia Brown
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, it’s Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com. And once again, we have a wonderful guest today. Today it is Nadia Brown, who is working right now at Purdue University and is soon to move to Georgetown. And what we would love to hear from you, Professor Brown, is how you got started.
How did you decide to go into political science when you were an undergraduate? ’cause a lot of the people who are watching this will be trying to make those same decisions. So tell us a little bit about your background.
Nadia Brown: Sure, so it’s kind of a long-winded story, hopefully you’ll be able to edit some of this down to...
Jed: We’re fine with that. Go ahead. Bring it on.
Nadia: So I grew up in New Jersey, and I’m a product of family who came to the North from Great Migration. And my grandfather came from South Carolina where he fled racial violence and economic marginalization and discrimination. And so he always told my brother and I who are 11 months younger, 11 months apart, that go get a education. That’s the way that you will succeed in life. And it’s not an education for you, it’s an education for your whole community. So you have the ability to uplift black Americans by getting an education and doing something that will uplift the race. So I thought the best way to do that was through politics. And at one point I thought I’d be... I’d run for office or I’d be an elected official given the stories that I heard my grandfather tell and his only insistence that we be politically engaged.
So I’ll give you an example. When I was a kid, David Dinkins became the mayor of New York City, and this was a big deal. He was the first and only black person to be the mayor of New York City. And my grandfather made my brother and I, who were in elementary school, sit down and watch this historic swearing-in ceremony.
And while my brother got up to go play after the speech was over, my grandfather let us leave, I just was glued to the television and I had all these questions and I wanted to know more about the political process. And so that kind of set my wheel spinning on why politics is so important and why was it that in our own lifetime, I was watching a first. That seemed like it should have happened much much sooner. So that’s what got me interested in politics.
And I thought kind of naively that the only way to go into politics was to be a political science major. And so, I major in Political Science, again still thinking that I’m going to go into politics. And I was told, if you want to go into politics, the best thing to do is go to law school. I took my first and only common law class and quickly realized this was not for me, but instead I was drawn more towards the research side. I was interested in learning how it is that we know what different groups need or require and how they’ve... And to engage politics and how they have different political behaviors and different policy preferences. And that’s really where I realized that I was a political scientist, not a politician.
Where was the first place you got that research experience and saw how professors don’t just teach, but they also do research?
Nadia: So I was fortunate enough to take a Honors type class. I don’t think it was an honors class. I think it was just a really under-enrolled research class.
Jed: That happens, right?
Nadia: In hindsight, as a professor now, I see the makings of all this how it might have happened, but it was an upper division research class, that had only for students in it at my Undergraduate at Howard University. And the professor switched gears, I think pretty quickly to make this a hands-on learning experience. And at the end of the course, she recommended that I apply to the Ralph Bunche summer institute, which again is as a program housed by the American Political Science Association in honor of Ralph Bunche , who was the first black person to get a PhD in Political Science. Later becomes a Nobel Prize winner, worked for the State Department, helps to negotiate some peace treaties in the Cold War, and it was all through research. And I was like, “This is even better than being a politician. It’s doing actual research.” Yeah. So anyway, I go to the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, it’s a summer program that’s held at Duke University under the auspices of Dr. Paula McClain. And I learned all about conducting research. And at the end of the project, at the end of the program, I created my own project on what makes black women behave differently or think differently about politics. And that for me was the watershed moment where I knew that I wanted to... That it was a fruitful career to study black women in politics.
Jed: Oh wow. So we wanna know like what does make black women different in their view of politics? What did you find? And how do you do that kind of research?
Nadia: Sure, so I started out first using big end statistical data to show black women think differently about politics. And at this point, I was trying to replicate a study that asked for black women, does race or gender trump their identity. So is race a much more salient identity or is gender a much more salient identity? The short answer is no, neither, doesn’t work, that black women are the combination of all of their identities.
So I now use sophisticated qualitative methods to get at why and when and how black women’s identities become politically salient, and it’s not a zero-sum game that sometimes it’s race, sometimes it’s gender. It’s actually always a confluence of the two in different things like motherhood, status, sexual orientation, nativity, class, educational status and background.
"…Black women see the world differently through a different political lens and calculus."” – Dr. Nadia Brown
But the thing that separates these things or most readily seen as differences, are the combination of race, gender, that black women have some different views than black men. And it’s based out of lived experiences, living in a racist hetero-patriarchical society, black women have a different vantage point, to accessing politics of the resources of who gets what, when, and how, and why? And because of that, Black women see the world differently through a different political lens and calculus.
Jed: Interesting. Well, you’ve said a lot and some of it’s going over our heads ’cause we’re not political scientists, you know?
So a couple of things you mentioned, you said hetero-patriotisty or patriarchal society, and one of the variables you looked at was nativity, can you just define those two terms?
Nadia: Oh, perfect, yeah, thank you for reeling me back in. It’s hard to get out of the political science brain.
Jed: Oh, no, no, we’re alright. We’re going to town here.
Nadia: So a White hetero-patriarchal society is basically a society that’s built on a system of cultural norms that prioritizes White, cis-gendered or meaning, biologically-centered or oriented men. And...
Nadia: Within a hetero-patriarchal society, meaning that those that are in hetero-relationships, so male dominating relationships, kind of oversees the governing structure...
Nadia: Of our country and our society. And by nativity, I just specifically mean those... Where you’re from, so where...
Nadia: Where are you native to?
Jed: Like state-wise, like which state you...
Nadia: But mostly immigration status. So I am the descendant of slaves in the United States, that is my native background.
Nadia: But there are others in our Black community who are descendants of Black immigrants who came by choice from the Caribbean, from Africa...
Nadia: From Europe. And so those different backgrounds where your family is from shapes your political history, right? So...
Nadia: Having the choice to emigrate versus a forced immigration, and [inaudible] politics and policies matter a lot.
Jed: I bet it does. Okay, now you also said that you use very sophisticated, qualitative ways of doing your research.
So can you just tell us what that looks like in case somebody wanted to be like your research assistant, you know? Like, what would they do?
Nadia: Oh, yeah, certainly.
Jed: What would they do?
Nadia: So I talk to people, that’s really where...
Jed: That’s what it means, huh?
Nadia: I talk to people and I listen, that’s the sophisticated part, right? So having [chuckle] ears that are attuned to understand the silences and the gaps in what people are saying.
Nadia: So I’ll I give an example, I talked to a Black woman serving in the Maryland State legislature.
Nadia: And I asked her a question around same-sex marriage. And she held up her Bible, and then looked at me in my eyes very intently and put down her Bible. And then ushered me basically to move on to the next question. So her holding up her Bible...
Jed: That answers everything, just...
Jed: You just hold it up. Okay, moving on.
Nadia: Yes, that’s exactly what she did.
Nadia: But in order for me to be able to translate this into academic research as opposed to just saying she held up her Bible, or just leaving that as a blank, it’s to recognize that she assumes that we shared a similar background and understanding of Biblical interpretation of homosexuality. And that as a Black person, and mostly as a Black woman, I would understand her positionality without her having to verbalize it.
Jed: Interesting. Well, did you understand it? I mean, were you raised in a church that you knew the Bible...
Nadia: Yeah, yes, yes, so that’s an interesting part, right?
Jed: So you can understand what she’s saying? You know, she wasn’t wrong. She held up the Bible and you knew what she was thinking, right?
Nadia: Yes, yes, yes, so that definitely happened. However, as a scholar, I was able to interpret this in saying, “These are the Scriptures where she’s deriving from, this is the kind of denominational Biblical understanding.” And to push back against it, by not just taking it as given, but by saying, there are biblical, different biblical interpretations and ways that Black communities read same-sex marriage, queer identities and non-binary identities that this legislator wasn’t taking into account.
So I don’t just stop there, right? So I have to like show that, yes, I understand this because I share the same... Some same similar backgrounds and identities, but I don’t take it, pardon the pun, as the gospel truth.
Jed: Alright, very nice. So you were talking a little bit about doing your research by listening, interpreting what people are saying. A lot of our early interviews here at AcademicInfluence.com have been with anthropologists.
How do you see your job as a political scientist, similar and different from an anthropologist who’s going out and talking to the same people?
Nadia: That is such a great question. I wanted to be a political anthropologist. And...
Jed: Well, there you are.
Nadia: Yeah, but it’s so... So when I started out back like in the early 2000s, I was told that wasn’t a thing I can do in political science.
Nadia: Yeah. And...
Jed: Well, now you have the chance.
Nadia: Yeah. It has come full circle now, but yeah so I see myself as speaking mostly to political scientists. I’m concerned with governing and legislation and representation. So how I paint myself to be legible to political science audiences are through these big markers in the field of saying, “I study political representation, so I care how legislators do their job and how they link what they do to the communities that they are elected to represent.” But I do so in really different ways, right? Maybe I’m a sneaky anthropologist who just pulled the wool over people’s eyes. [chuckle]
Jed: Yeah, who’s influencing... Yeah, that’s good.
So you are among the community of political scientists, you interact with them, you go to their conferences, you write in their journals...
Nadia: I do.
Jed: You frame things in ways that they can understand.
Jed: But your methodology sounds like it could be, just as easily be an anthropology student’s, does that make sense?
Nadia: Yes, yeah, 100%, 100%. And there’s a small field of political scientists who see themselves as interpretive scholars. We are not at all the mainstay of the discipline, right? Most political scientists are bean counters, we care a lot about large numbers and big data. There’s very few of us that talk to people and actually listen to what they have to say as a starting point for our research.
But for my purposes, I think it’s so important to do that when you have an under-theorized group, a group that political scientists don’t know much about, and a group that there just aren’t large numbers to do big, sophisticated analyses on.
So there are still a handful of Black women who are serving in elected positions. To date there has only been two black senators, two black women senators, and there still has not been a black woman governor in the history of the United States. So doing the work that I do says that you have to go on and talk to people because you just... You would blow up any kind of statistical program trying to run an analysis on one person.
Jed: Now you did say that you started with the traditional, sort of big data stuff. Tell us a little bit about how that worked when you were doing your initial research on black women and their views of politics.
Nadia: Yeah, so we did it. [laughter] So that’s probably how it drove me to do this. I wanted to answer the why questions not the how, and I was really trying to bang a square into a circular hole. It just wasn’t working. But as a political scientist, you have to learn the language of our discipline, of our journals, and you have to be able to read the majority of scholarship. I had to learn it, I had to do it, but I wasn’t able to successfully answer the questions that I wanted to do.
So I ended up self-teaching myself where I had to teach myself how to be an interpretivist, and thankfully I found a community of people who do this and there’s workshops, and I went to continuing education classes to kind of be the researcher that I am now.
But before I was using the tools that all political science programs teach us to be good political scientists. And then I guess by happenchance I now am a lead editor of a journal that publishes mixed methods. So the things in my journal and the politics with identity, it’s commonplace to see ethnographic research. It’s commonplace to see archival research as opposed to just big fancy things in Python or R.
Jed: Oh gosh. Wow. That’s great. So another word that we’re not familiar with, interpretist. You went to seminars and things to learn to be an interpretist. Is that what everybody calls it? If I was an anthropology professor, and I went out and did this kind of archival and what was the other type of...
Nadia: Oh, ethnographic.
Jed: Ethnographic, yes. So archival and ethnographic, that’s what interpretists do, right?
Nadia: So you can. There are also positivist, people that are trying to see the big picture also use these research tools, but I’m more interested as an interpretivist in the meaning making. So how does culture interpret how we see things? I do think that other disciplines call it similar things particularly these cognate fields in social sciences like sociology, anthropology.
Jed: Okay. They call it interpretists?
Nadia: They call it... Yeah interpretivism. But it’s new. It’s super new. Like since the 1950s. This has not been around as long.
Jed: Now is an interpretist sort of on the other side of the coin as, you called it a positivist, who sees the big picture?
Jed: So interpretist kinda goes down into the individuals and then a positivist looks at the bigger picture. Is that what you’re saying?
Nadia: So the positivist, yes. The positivist usually look at the bigger picture because they have access to bigger data, and they’re looking at some generalizable findings.
Jed: And they’re the ones that are using Python and R that you were talking about?
Nadia: Yes. Yes.
Jed: Okay. And that’s how you started, but you couldn’t answer the questions you wanted to answer.
Jed: Just before you go on, what did that look like? What data were you looking at when you were trying to understand how black women saw politics differently? What were you looking for in the data?
Nadia: I was looking at big survey data, so the National Black Political Election Survey, the American National Election Survey. I partner with positivists and other quantitative researchers, I’m a part of... I was asked to I said yes, but I serve on some survey boards that ask questions, a large number of questions, to communities of color and marginalized communities. Although I don’t do that research myself, but survey data is still kind of the gold standard of political science.
Jed: Most of your colleagues are using that primarily and running it through different programs like R and Python programs.
Nadia: Yes. Yes.
Jed: Very, very interesting. Now one of the other political scientists that we’ve interviewed is Rogers Smith out of UPAN, I don’t know if you know him.
Jed: But he was also the PhD advisor for the provost here at Wake Forest University. And what he said is that his sort of difference from the rest of the field is that people generally look at factors like finances and money and things like that, quantitative things that are shaping the political landscape. And he likes to look at ideas, like the idea of unity, the idea of freedom, the idea... And how just the idea itself can also be a big shaper of a country’s politics. So what you were saying about sort of not being the normal political scientist reminded me of what he said, and I was wondering if you have thoughts about his difference compared to your difference. Because you’re both a little different from the typical political scientist.
How do you see that?
Nadia: I count it a great honor to be in the same sentence as Rogers Smith. This is someone who has changed the landscape of the discipline. He’s President of the American Political Science Association. He’s gone on to do great and tremendous things, and I think that’s the key, is doing something different than what everyone else is doing but asking and answering some of the same kind of big normative questions that we care about in political science.
Smith cares deeply about political behavior and political representation. He does so from a different vantage point, and that’s... You know, I didn’t intend to do this. This was not my life’s goal. Starting out as a kid at Rutgers University, getting my PhD in 2004, it was mostly like, I can’t answer the questions with the tools that I’ve been given, I can’t... And the questions that I can answer with the tools that I’m given, I find to be boring, rather pedestrian, right? They’re missing the mark.
So what I’ll urge everyone to do is to get back deep in touch with what drove you to academia like, what were the questions that animated why you wanted to come into this profession, and stick with that. That’s what I tell my PhD students oftentimes, and particularly now, given the pandemic and there’s such a shortage of money and resources and opportunities to go out and do field work, right. We’re not talking face to face with people.
Jed: Yeah, definitely.
When you get all the rejection letters, because those happen, when you get turned down from all the things, your question has to be this burning thing inside you that you can't stop until you answer.” – Dr. Nadia Brown
Nadia: But I say that they’re not... My students need to be true to themselves, you’re not gonna be successful if you’re just replicating what others have done. And not in a way to stake your own claim, but that it’s not gonna motivate you to get up in the morning and do the work. When you get all the rejection letters, because those happen, when you get turned down from all the things, your question has to be this burning thing inside you that you can’t stop until you answer. And you have to do it the way that makes sense for you. When the data or the conventional wisdom is pulling you in one direction, right? Like Rogers Smith has said, “It’s these big ideas,” right? Theories that are driving him. And that same kind of drive has to be in... For me, for you to be a successful academic, I think that that drive has to be in you. And it might be divergent from the traditional path. And I think that’s okay, that’s definitely alright.
Jed: Actually, it’s great, I mean, it’s worked out for you and for Rogers Smith. You guys have both gone to the very top of our data. Now we of course, use things like Python and R and stuff to figure out who... [chuckle]
Nadia: I won’t hold it against you [chuckle]
Jed: That the pedestrian praise that you started talking about. But it’s fun because then we get to meet people who are changing things and influence things.
So, as we finish out our interview, I wanna know, what are your plans for going to Georgetown? And what do you wanna do there? Are you going to be surrounded by political scientists? You’re gonna be in a different department. So tell us a little bit about the future. You’re one of our youngest influencers. So we wanna know what’s in store for you as you go on in your career.
Nadia: Wow. So I’m hopeful I set the goal for myself to be full before 40. I have three kids, five, three and one.
Nadia: So it seemed like it was going to be a tough going, but thankfully, now I’ve made it.
Jed: Wow, congratulations.
Nadia: So, I’m going in... Thanks. I’m going into the government department as a full professor.
Nadia: And I will be the chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies program.
Nadia: So I will be surrounded by political scientists.
Jed: Yeah, ’cause you’ll be in the government program but you’ll be... Okay, so I didn’t realize that. Now I do.
Nadia: Yeah, yeah. So I’ll be in the government department but also the wonderfully weird thing about Georgetown is that there are political scientists everywhere just in like these different departments in other places. I’ve learned that.
Jed: I mean, I used to be in Washington DC. I mean, that doesn’t hurt.
Nadia: Yes. Yes. So that can’t hurt at all. But what’s next for me, I think is really continuing to push the envelope to include voices that haven’t been examined in political science scholarship.
Nadia: And so I also lead the Me-Too-Poli-Sci Collective and I was pushing for more marginalized voices to be heard and what some of this initial research has taught us... My colleagues, Stella Rouse, Libby Sharo and Becca Gill, is that non-binary folks, gender queer folks, my folks of color are really experiencing sexual harassment and violence in the academy in different ways.
Jed: Oh, no.
Nadia: And I wanna be able to really shine light on this. But this informs my own work, right? Like on elected officials and representation because I think much of what we know about black communities are really based on these heteronormative, cis-gendered reflections of black politics.
And I wanna push us to think about all of the folks that are on the margins, and how they have been fighting for inclusion. And this is again, like a perfect time to be a political scientist ’cause we’re seeing this play out in lifetime right now, right?
Nadia: So those that are on the front of the movement for Black Lives are having this queer inclusive conversation. We are probably going to see Joe Biden pick a black woman vice president nominee in the next week, if not couple of days.
Jed: I hope so. Yeah, couple of days.
Nadia: Yes. Okay, yeah, ’cause convention is around the corner.
Nadia: So I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to showcase my research in national news outlets. But I wanna push us beyond thinking of descriptive representation to thinking, “What does this mean?” So making the connections between what’s happening, marching in the streets to what elected officials could be and should be doing. I’m heartened by Cori Bush , who is now prived to be the representative to the United States Congress from the Ferguson area, right? From St. Louis. I had the opportunity to interview her in 2017, I feel like... I’m counting back the years of my kids, ’cause I did the interview with her with the kids stocking on me [chuckle]
Jed: That’s how I do it too.
And I wanna be able to add a voice to those that are studying these groups to show that it's not just this one-size-fits-all model of black politics, and black women's politics.” – Dr. Nadia Brown
Nadia: And her challenging a legacy candidate, right? And winning and winning on this Black Lives Matter profile. And seeing that happen. So I think we’re seeing the shift of those that have been on the margins of even inclusive democratic politics. And I wanna be able to add a voice to those that are studying these groups to show that it’s not just this one-size-fits-all model of black politics, and black women’s politics. And instead, there’s this confluence of identity that is pushing our nation to rethink traditional models of who should be included and who’s been excluded and how these excluded groups are pushing their ways in.
Jed: Very cool. Oh, my goodness, there’s so much more we could talk about. Well, we’ll keep it to a manageable interview that people can watch and benefit from greatly ’cause I know I’ve benefited. So thank you so much, Professor Brown for your time. We really, really appreciate it.
Nadia: Well, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled again. This is a deep honor. Thank you.