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Andrene Wright & Michelle Bueno Vásquez Discuss CAWP-awarded Project & Non-Electoral Politics 

Ph.D. candidates Andrene Wright and Michelle Bueno Vásquez first met during the prospective student visitation weekend at  Northwestern. Their connection was a factor in Bueno Vásquez choosing NU’s political science doctoral program two years ago, she said.  

Now, the scholars are collaborating on “The Face of a Movement: Colorism and Racism in the Evaluation of Black Women Leaders,” which studies the impact of skin tone and hair texture on the perceived capabilities of Black women leading social movements. In 2021, the proposal received a Center for American Women and Politics Research Grant for demonstrating promise to translate insights into action in promoting women’s political power. This has allowed the scholars to support their project. However, to Wright and Bueno Vásquez, the project will not only benefit action, but also the political science discipline that has traditionally prioritized electoral politics. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: How did “The Face of a Movement: Colorism and Racism in the Evaluation of Black Women Leaders” come about?

Michelle Bueno Vásquez: I knew I always wanted to do an experimental kind of design and Andrene was on board. So it originally was going to be about candidate evaluation using these measures and we ended up shifting the focus a little bit. Because right when we were still thinking of this, a lot of new work had recently come out exploring hair and texture and candidate evaluation. So we were kind of bummed but it was really cool to see other scholars doing it, particularly Nadia Brown and Danielle Lemi. Then we decided to shift the scope a little bit from doing work on the candidates to working outside of formal politics, “in the streets”, with those leading social movements. We thought it was interesting that the two big social movements that you hear about now, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too, are both created by Black women. And yet both movements have kind of evolved to symbolize you know, these socialites who experienced sexual violence at the hands of  Harvey Weinstein, for example.  On the other hand, there are Black men who were subjects of police violence, mainly Black men, and particularly George Floyd. These are different faces that have kind of represented the movement when the actual source was Black women. So how does that translate to leadership evaluations?   

Andrene Wright: The only thing I would add is that, yes, we both are doing very similar theoretical work in our respective areas of research. But I think more than anything, doing this kind of collaboration has also been fun for both of us because collaborating on ideas and learning more about each other, learning more about the work that we do, has really made this work a lot of fun. So more than anything I think that this has also just been a really fun project to do. We're both incredibly interested in this subject. 

Q: How did your experience at Northwestern or the political science department inform this project?  

AW: For me, I was more interested in knowing more about Black Political behavior, mainly Black women’s political behavior. Because in my second year, I had done this great project in Chicago studying Black women's attitudes towards Chicago’s first Black woman mayor. And so not only has Northwestern fed me an opportunity to do that work by not only being in Chicago, but we also have some amazing faculty who do very similar work in Black political behavior that has fed my curiosity in ways that I didn't think was possible. So I think Northwestern, not only the faculty, but even the location, has served me and this scholarship. 

MBV: If you say to someone down the street, “What do you think about hair and politics?” They might laugh. They might think it's something that's ridiculous or has nothing to do with politics, that appearances don't have anything to do with politics. But of course, as Black women, Andrene and I know that that's not the case. We know that the way we present ourselves as black women impacts our professional lives deeply. And the way we present ourselves is a political choice in every space we enter as Black women.   

Northwestern is a place where faculty — and not just those who are Black women — faculty see that, and Dr. Tillery saw that. So when I presented this paper on hair texture with an experiment for different hair textures, and whether or not women with this kind of hair texture had these kinds of political views, he took it seriously. He took it seriously and then recommended that Andrene and I cook something up on the topic. So I guess, yeah, my experience at Northwestern informed this project in the sense that Northwestern is a great breeding ground for ideas, for new methodologies, and for just creativity in general. We weren't necessarily in the pursuit of reinventing the wheel or anything. We both have this new idea and we're approaching it in a new way. It's a very natural progression of what we've learned here at Northwestern. 

Q: Andrene’s dissertation focuses on Black women mayor’s role in African American politics and Michelle’s dissertation focuses on conceptualizations and measurements of intersectionality and political implications, namely Afro-Latinad and Black feminism. How do your individual projects and research interests inform “The Face of a Movement” and vice versa?  

AW: In my thesis, I did Black women mayors in Chicago. Chicago was very unique in that both runoff mayoral candidates were Black women. And so that was where the beginning of my Black women's political behavior theses, the theoretical work, the research — is where that all started.  

I think that everyone who is familiar with Chicago and Lori Lightfoot, can definitely say that she's gotten a lot of attention for her appearances as well. I think she's been around in memes and she's been around on Twitter and with her short hair, with her baggy clothes. Appearances matter greatly. We've seen a lot of these things happen again in the scrutiny of Michelle  Obama — we can go on for days. And I thought it was really interesting how after I was done doing that work, and doing that work with Black woman mayors, particularly with Lori Lightfoot, how we then made this work, with the appearances of how Black women are perceived. And so my Black woman mayors project is a three-part paper dissertation series that really just focuses on Black woman mayors and African American politics; How they present themselves, the rhetorical strategies that they use, and how those strategies are being perceived. And overall, I just consider myself a scholar who is committed to unearthing Black women as political agents and the agency that they hold. And so this project, both my dissertation and this project with Michelle, are just one or two examples in which I do so.  

MBV: We both prioritize Black feminism, but it definitely comes out in different ways. My individual research is very different from the project that we're working on in the sense that I'm studying Blackness transnationally across the Afro-Latin diaspora, with a focus on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and the case study of the Dominican Republic. My dissertation is looking at how U.S. interventions and occupations in Latin America can alter racial rhetoric, and export U.S. white supremacy into the places of occupation and lead the U.S. to escalate to military intervention. So I'm looking at the U.S. occupations of the Dominican Republic and looking at how, during the occupation, racial hierarchies were instilled in the country in the form of the U.S. Census, and how these racial hierarchies had to be used by Dominican elites in order to leverage their being fit for self-governance.  

In my historical analysis, I'm looking at game-theoretic models to showcase how the Dominican Republic at least signaled to the U.S. that they would be willing to cooperate. And a part of this was anti-Black racial rhetoric to distance themselves from Haiti which was the international pariah at the time. I'm also looking at the U.S. Census development, and the addition of the Latino category and how this category was added to the loss of Indigenous and Black Latinos in the US, because insofar as all Latinos would have to check that Hispanic category aside from race, government funding would be allocated to the largest groups within the Latino category, which tend to be brown or lighter-skinned Latino of Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban descent, ignoring the specific needs of Latinos who are Black, Latinos who are Indigenous, Latinos who don't speak Spanish, and other kinds of geographical needs with a focus more on the West than the Northeast where a lot of Black Latinos live. So I'm taking a look at how this operates and who the main players are, which interest groups push for this, and the bittersweet result of having this minority movement that essentializes the minority to fall under this umbrella where the majority within the minority benefits from the minority in the minority counting as Hispanic. Then lastly, I'm looking at how BLM changes ideas about race in the Dominican Republic. I did this through a digital ethnography of Twitter. Looking at this one specific hashtag that was an offshoot of the BLM hashtag on Twitter that only applied to the Dominican Republic and the Dominican diaspora as a space for Dominicans to share their experiences and log kind of an oral history of their colorist experiences in the Dominican Republic in Dominican culture. And throughout all of this, I'm kind of pushing the boundaries of methodologies used to measure race, changes in race, and the kind of categories we use and questioning these categories. 

Q: Social movements, especially those organized by Black women, have complex and sometimes even adversarial relationships with political institutions and structures. How does the project possibly approach this dynamic, as it recognizes social movements as increasingly relevant avenues for political participation? 

AW: This is at the crux of what we're trying to see. Social movements, in the way we understand them, do have adversarial relationships with formal institutions such as governments. There's a lot of literature out there that talks about how for those who are unheard in government, their next form of action in order to be heard is through “the streets”. So the way I feel like this work reckons with that and the reason why I also think it's excellent for the political sciences in general, is because we often think about leadership in a kind of formal sphere, especially for literature on Black candidates, and most of it is Black candidates and Black elites. And so there's a kind of formula and a kind of understanding, where none of that is there for leaders in social movements.  

As you know, and as we see, there are Black women who are leaders in these social movements, too. And so at the crux of our research, and at the crux of what we're doing, we're seeing how the literature, and our understanding of how black women politicians are perceived, behaved, and appraised in politics are either reiterated or challenged in informal politics and/or social movements.  

MBV: What this project does, is that it creates a kind of parallel between social movements and political institutions. So much so that we actually use measures for formal politics to measure how people feel about their leaders outside of formal politics. Perhaps why internal politics and social movements aren't regarded as impactful as voting or elections, is because they're harder to measure. It's really easy to go on to the Annual National Election Survey website, download a dataset, and then create a regression. That’s easy. So guess what, there's a lot of research out there on voting in elections, on things that you can get from the ANES. Where there isn't a lot of research on is how people can conceptualize leadership and social movements. You're gonna need to control things, you need to target confounders, which is part of the reason why for us it took us a couple of years to really get our experimental design done and ready to go, in addition to you know, the pandemic and other responsibilities.  

So what we did is we took this project to the experimental lab here in the political science department. We took the project to the Center for the Study of diversity and democracy lab represented there as well. And during these phases, we got some great feedback that allowed us to really tweak our project and get it to the place where we wanted it to be. So in a discipline that traditionally prioritizes a study of interests and political institutions, pursuing a project that emphasizes leadership and social movements, it feels like we're finally catching up to the contemporary timeframe. We all know that politics happens outside of these buildings, outside of people wearing suits, so it begs the question,  what about those politics? It just really feels like we've got our fingers on the pulse and we're pushing the literature to catch up to where we are now.  

Q: The CAWP Research Grant states that recipients were identified as promising to yield insights that can be translated into action to increase women’s political power. How do you envision your project being mobilized into political action?  

MBV: Thanks to this incredibly generous grant from CAWP, we can now broaden our scope beyond just our survey experiment. So now we have the funds to perhaps interview Black woman activists and Black woman political leaders, and ask them how their identities and how their aesthetic choices have played a role in their leadership. How have they not played a role? Basically what their political leadership looks like, and more than anything, just make sure that their voices are represented in our research. Because yes, our survey experiment is like our controls and treatments are: these imaginary people have these aggregate faces that I made, using the face labs, face average error, and then hair that I photoshopped onto these different faces. So they're not real people. But at the core of what we're studying is there are real people who look like this. There are real people who are Black women, who are leaders of community organizations, social movements, and grassroots organizations. So part of the way we're going to get back to that activism is to include their voices in our research. 

AW: I can definitely see this project as something that can be public-facing and Michelle — you're 100% right. I think so often in a lot of literature that we read, we do a lot of theory work and measurements. But so little do we ever depend on the actual voices of folks who are out there on the streets and there's so much to learn about folks who are just living their lives and doing activist work. I think that there's an opportunity in this paper for us to really bring that here. And I think it's something that again, the discipline would benefit from greatly. And so I think that that's one way that we could definitely try to bridge that gap. 

Interview by Yunkyo Moon Kim (WCAS '22)