In this lecture, Sylvia Chan-Malik explores the role of religion and the sacred in the scholarly discipline of ethnic studies, and discusses her experiences as an Asian American Muslim woman in the field. Born of antiracist and anticolonial struggles in the U.S. and beyond, ethnic studies first emerged as a field out of the Third World Liberation struggles at San Francisco State and the University of California in the late 1960s, and has gone on to challenge the nation’s “master narratives” placing people of color, women, and other marginalized communities at the center of history, while leveling trenchant critiques of U.S. histories of anti-blackness, settler colonialism, xenophobia, and racial and ethnic exclusion. While its frameworks and perspectives are increasingly accepted and taught on college campuses, the field has become the object of political ire, targeted as a type of religious and anti-American cultural “blasphemy.” At the same time, “religion” has been largely sidelined in ethnic studies analyses, often framed as “false consciousness” or “the opiate of the people,” producing ES as a largely “secular” discourse. Yet Chan-Malik reveals an alternative — and deeply personal — history of ethnic studies as a form of “sacred struggle” grounded in the “souls” of Black, Indigenous, and woman of color feminists, African American Muslims, liberation theologians, and many others, which she explains enabled her own conversion to Islam in 2003 and her subsequent research on the religion's rich and complex history in the United States. She shares lessons from her almost 30-year engagement with ethnic studies — as student, teacher, scholar, and activist — and argues for a re-centering of “souls” in current conversations around issues of race and racism, both in the classroom and beyond.
Spring 2021 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow Sylvia Chan-Malik is a scholar of American studies, critical race and ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and religious studies. Her research focuses on the history of Islam in the United States, specifically the lives of U.S. Muslim women and the rise of anti-Muslim racism in 20th-21st-century America. More broadly, she studies the intersections of race, gender, and religion, and how these categories interact in struggles for social justice. Sylvia is the faculty director of the women’s and gender studies social justice minor at Rutgers University.
Chan-Malik teaches courses on race and ethnicity in the United States, Islam in/and America, social justice movements, Islam and gender, feminist methodologies, multiethnic literature and culture in the U.S., and 20-21st century U.S. history. She is also a core faculty member in the Department of American Studies, and is affiliate graduate faculty for the Department of Religion.
She is currently working on two new book projects titled “The Soul of Ethnic Studies,” which tracks how religion and spirituality have shaped the evolution of race and ethnic studies fields, and “Insurgent Ecologies: Food Towards Freedom,” which names food justice as a critical juncture connecting movements for racial, economic, environmental, and faith-based social justice.