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transnational racial ideologies and academic representation

In less than ten years, Black Lives Matter has gone from an American movement against police brutality to an international symbol for racial equality. Michelle Bueno Vásquez is researching how this development altered Dominicans’ perspectives on racial identity, a question that lays the groundwork for her research on “transnational racial ideologies.” Bueno Vásquez’s interest in academia stems from her undergraduate experiences, where she credits her Ph.D. student mentor’s faith in her work as a motivator for applying to graduate school. In this interview, Bueno Vásquez discusses her research on racial identity in the Dominican Republic and her desire to be a mentor to underrepresented students in political science and academia in general.

Question: You are currently researching how transnational information flows change ideas of race throughout the Dominican diaspora, particularly between the United States and Dominican Republic. Could you tell me more about that and what you are finding?

Michelle Bueno Vásquez: This is really interesting because it's one of my first times engaging in concept-building. I constructed this concept called "transnational racial ideologies", which essentially encompasses any political ideology, or belief system, that relates to race and that spreads between countries. This is a concept that I think is new in political science and I created it, which is cool.

I'm studying the Black Lives Matter movement, which I think in its inception in 2014 was just a social movement regarding police brutality and the shooting of unarmed Black folk, particularly Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. But then in 2020, yes, it is still related to that policy change of police brutality, but now it's just kind of a symbol for racial equality. Now you see Netflix and Hulu having the Black Lives Matter collection. What does that mean? Are they working against police brutality? No, they just mean uplifting Black voices, they mean racial equality, they mean representation. And now Black Lives Matter has become this racial ideology.

Within my study, I posit that the BLM movement has become a transnational racial ideology, because in the 2020 moment, it's spread beyond the national boundaries of the U.S. to other countries. I'm working through the case study of Dominican Republic where I've seen that there have been some changes in how Dominicans view themselves in their racial makeup, perhaps due to the traction of the Black Lives Matter movement. Case studies require a lot of research within the particular case. Thankfully, I'm Dominican, so I have easy access to the DR and I've always had a lot of interest in studying racial dynamics and history. 

The Dominican Republic specifically had a lot of historical moments that intersected and resulted in state-sanctioned anti-Blackness — and almost Black erasure — where Black ancestry isn't identified. State-makers, elites, rely on this idea of Dominicanidad, which means Dominicanness, like, "oh, everyone's Dominican, we're all Dominican” — so holding nationality above race. But due to the talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been new conversations arising around colorism, which is discrimination within one group. So colorism in the Dominican Republic where darker Dominicans, Dominicans with more Afrocentric features, Dominicans with natural hair, are discriminated against. This conversation around colorism necessitates this idea of race as Blackness and race being an important component alongside nationality.

Q: How are you going about studying this change?

Bueno Vásquez: With the Black Lives Matter movement, I've been studying tweets using this hashtag that Dominicans came up with called #PeroNoSomosRacistas, or #ButWereNotRacist. Using this hashtag, people have been having a lot of conversations around their experiences with inter-Dominican racism, inter-Dominican colorism — this hashtag came right after BLM in 2020 and it was used in conjunction a lot with BLM. 

With the BLM movement gaining traction, people were having conversations around their own experiences with being discriminated against because they were darker or different ideas of cleansing the race that have been instilled in Dominican politics since the 1940s. You see that Dominicans are using language borrowed from the American idea of race and racial conceptualization; you're seeing this upheaval against the anti-Blackness that has been instilled in Dominican society, and it's in large part thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. Being able to borrow this framework and this language helps activate this kind of Black consciousness across borders. 

Q: You graduated from the University of Chicago with a focus on studying the effects of stereotype threat on Black high school students’ political attitudes. What were the results of your study? And how did you get into that work as an undergraduate?

Bueno Vásquez: When I started at UChicago, I immediately started studying political science — I just always kind of knew I wanted to study political science, that this is the path I was going to follow. I needed a work-study job at UChicago because I'm a low-income student, so I was able to get a job as a research assistant at this cognitive psychology lab. I actually had a lot of responsibilities, which is pretty cool — kind of stressful, but really cool. That's kind of where I first dabbled in qualitative data coding, interview methods, cognitive interviewing, and survey development. That experience just got me thinking about how people learn. In that lab, specifically, we studied the learning gap between wealthier white children and lower income, mostly Black children. So I got really interested in this education psychology, but also with this political aspect.

When I developed my thesis, I decided to study the idea of stereotype threat, which basically means any person who falls within a stereotype will try to disprove that stereotype if that stereotype is activated. There's a lot of stereotype threat with minorities — with Latinos, with Blacks — having to do with lower academic performance. I wanted to study that and how stereotypes relate to political attitudes, and political efficacy specifically. Then, I created a study where I mainly had a focus group of five high school students in the Southside of Chicago. I asked them about how they felt about their community to study whether their social identity of being Black and within the south side of Chicago affected their ideas of their performance at school. And I found that yeah, some of the students were activated by stereotype threat. I wanted to gauge how they felt about their communities based on the stereotypes around their communities. Then, that gave me an idea of whether they wanted to reject this identity in order to perform better in school, and how they felt about their political efficacy. They basically didn't feel very politically activated in the traditional sense, they didn't feel like they could affect politics within traditional means, but they did feel like they could impact their communities.

So all in all, it wasn't as bleak as it sounds. I think it's a representation of how our political system is set up and how people feel about it, and how our school systems are set up and how kids are absorbing these stereotypes that are fed to them. And, in order to perform, they kind of have to drown out that noise and find some kind of motivation. For a lot of the kids, the motivation was improving their communities  — it's not that they weren't necessarily politically inclined, but within the traditional only voting sense, they had lost hope in that system. I think it was a great way for me to get a sense of the way that young, Black people are shifting towards more hands-on politics, rather than relying on the American system, which has failed us many a time.

You mentioned that when you entered undergrad, you knew you were going to study political science. Did you always know you wanted to enter academia? And what motivated you to enter academia? And how do you hope to contribute to that field?

Bueno Vásquez: This is actually one of my favorite stories. So I knew that I wanted to write a BA thesis but I didn't always know I was going to enter academia. I liked writing, I liked researching, and I was good at it because I worked at the lab. My BA preceptor, Alex Flores, was a PhD student at UChicago, and he was also Latino. He read my work and pulled me aside after one of our sessions and was like, "Michelle, this is really good. Have you considered a career in academia?" And I was like, "No, of course not. Black people don't do that. Latinos don't do that. I don’t come from money, what am I gonna do in academia? I need to be able to take care of my family." And he told me I should really consider it. 

Of course, there were some Black professors — my advisor at UChicago, Michael Dawson, is one of the greats of Black political science. But for some reason, it just didn't seem achievable to me. I didn't think I was the one right of the few that were in academia, especially in a place like Chicago, which felt kind of elite, very ivory tower. My preceptor’s faith in me opened the doors in my mind to even imagine it as a future, and just the fact that someone was so adamant about it.

I hope within my grad school years, I can provide similar mentorship to undergrads who may not know that it is an option, and at the very least provide visibility: you don't see a lot of Black grad students, you don't see a lot of Latino grad students. Being both Black and Latina and being a woman, it's meaningful to me, because that kind of visibility really just changed the game for me and got me here.

I'm really passionate about diversity in academia. It's something that people who are the majority demographic don't really realize how jarring it is to walk into a room and not anyone that looks like you — being the only Black student in class, or being one of the only two Black or Latinx people in your cohort. That kind of stuff is just — it's pretty heavy. And it's fine, I'm not complaining  — I love where I am. Northwestern is great, the community is great, my cohort is great, but I'm just really passionate about diversity. Who are we recruiting and how are we recruiting them? How are we letting kids know that this is an option for them? And I think all graduate schools, all departments could be doing better on this front.


Interview by James Pollard (WCAS '22)