Ruha Benjamin teaching class

What I think: Ruha Benjamin

March 29, 2018 9:30 a.m.

Ruha Benjamin facilitates a discussion in her undergraduate seminar "Political Bodies: The Social Anatomy of Power and Difference." From left are students Julian Perez and Tabitha Lumour-Mensah.

The day after the Feb. 14 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton, divided the 17 students in her undergraduate seminar "Political Bodies: The Social Anatomy of Power and Difference" into two groups. They would debate — one group for, one group against — a fictional $20 billion proposal before Congress to test all public school children for the genomic markers that researchers have used to identify the potential for violent behavior.

Benjamin gave the students 15 minutes to devise a persona — neuroscientist, politician, parent, social worker, criminologist, whoever they wished — and to craft a three-minute statement by that person, citing research and anecdotal material reflecting their perspective and lived experiences. Benjamin, assuming the role of real-life Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), presided over the hearing.

This confluence of real-time headlines, research and data with speculative scenarios is just one hallmark of Benjamin's teaching and scholarship. She specializes in the interdisciplinary study of science, medicine and technology; race-ethnicity and gender; and knowledge and power. She joined Princeton in 2014 and received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2017.

Raised in the Bahá’i faith, Benjamin was born in India to a mother of Iranian heritage and an African American father. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was 3, then to South Carolina when she was 9. She earned her bachelor's degree in sociology and anthropology from Spelman College and her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California-Berkeley. Among her frequent speaking engagements is a 2015 TedX talk on discriminatory design, "From park bench to lab bench — What kind of future are we designing?" She is the author of "People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier" and editor of "Captivating Technology: Race, Resistance and Carceral Technoscience in Everyday Life" (Duke University Press, forthcoming 2019). She is featured in "Reimagining Science and Technology," a new episode of the Department of African American Studies' podcast series "AAS 21," hosted by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies.

These musings are from a Feb. 20 interview.

I've been practicing teaching since I was 5. My version of play was sitting with my friends on my grandma's porch, which was covered with that green grass-like carpet, in Los Angeles. I had a chalkboard, I'd write out math problems on little slips of paper that they would have to answer. I didn't have many friends.

My grandmother was the director of the South Central office of the Los Angeles County Department of Adoptions. One of the things she worked on was removing the financial barriers that often got in the way of black families adopting children. She taught me that kinship is not simply biological, but deeply social, in the way we choose to treat one another. This is something black people have had to do because of the deliberate attack on our families for centuries in this country. With incredible grace and care, my grandmother cultivated an extended family and community.

Ruha Benjamin as a young child with parents and sibling

Ruha Benjamin (far right), her parents and brother gather for a family photo in the driveway of her paternal grandmother's home in Los Angeles on the day they arrived from India, 1981.

There was a woman who worked at the local Bahá’i radio station in South Carolina who would shower me with love and admiration. When I was in her presence I felt like I could do anything. The way she carried herself was very noble, she always wore African style clothing, beautiful jewelry, head wraps. I started to associate this sense of self-love and feeling good about yourself with the ability to shower other people with love. Her radio moniker was the Jazz Lady. Now, especially when I interact with black girls, I try to channel the Jazz Lady.

The two core tenets of the Bahá’i faith, oneness and justice, go hand in hand. The oneness of humanity is this idea that we have all these differences — language, religion, race, gender, nationality, you name it — but there is also a lot that we share. In order for us to experience that oneness and build any kind of unity, there has to be justice. The question of how we do that, practically speaking, is directly related to my scholarship and teaching.

My first experience of feeling the embodied shame of racist treatment in this country was when I was about 9. I was listening to an elderly black man in South Carolina recount a story of him being called "boy" — as an adult — by another white adult. There's a kind of residual trauma even if you're not the target of bigotry. I started to feel what it means to have an entire system that justifies this kind of disrespect and dishonor. I remember crying, but with a seed of righteous anger that I still carry with me.

In sixth grade in South Carolina, I remember raising my hand over and over, and a teacher just ignoring me for an entire school year. I don't remember what she was trying to teach me but I remember that sense of being disregarded and being overlooked. Just this week I was giving a talk to an auditorium full of teachers, 97 percent white, and four women continued to have a full-blown conversation as I was speaking, deliberately ignoring me until I called them out.

Students in Ruha Benjamin seminar

Benjamin said she envisions that the students she teaches will go into many professions with a "set of tools that's going to help them understand and read their reality with more precision and then empower them to be able to change it in a way that's going to be better for everyone.” Shown from left are undergraduates in her "Political Bodies" course: Nivanthi Karunaratne, Elena Tsemberis, Abby Jean-Baptiste, Hila Ghersin, Joaquin Garcia and Harrison Davis.

For my students to think well, they have to be able to get into other people's shoes. Role-playing does that. Thinking about what the back story of this person is that would lead them to have a particular view builds a kind of empathy but also helps them understand how knowledge is socially constructed. Sociologists are always using theater as a metaphor for society. So I say, we're not going to only borrow the language, we're going to actually use theater as a method of knowledge construction.

I brought my sons, 16 and 14, to the 10 a.m. showing of the movie "Black Panther" the day it opened. They came home and of their own accord decided to rent "Marshall." I played it cool ... but was secretly like “yesss!" Heroism on the screen gave them a craving for heroism on the ground.

The best cup of coffee I ever had was at an Ethiopian restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. I've loved coffee all my life, but I'm not a coffee snob. I only just got an espresso machine two weeks ago. I'm like, where have you been all my life?

We need humanists and social scientists involved in designing technology. We have to carefully think about the values and biases that we're unwittingly building into the design of these things. If we're not thinking carefully, based on the precedent of how we know human societies work, we're going to reproduce our worst habits.

We think an algorithm is an objective decision-maker, but human beings decided how that algorithm will make those decisions. In 2016, the first international beauty contest judged by AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms chose 44 winners from 6,000 entries: nearly all were white and only one had dark skin. A 2016 ProPublica study compared two individuals up for parole — a white man with a seasoned criminal record and a young black female who had stolen a kid's bike — using the algorithm-driven questionnaire prisons use to determine a risk score about whether parolees will commit a crime in the future. The black female came out as high-risk; the white man as low-risk.

I practice hot yoga four times a week. It changes my relationship to time. It physically feels like my brain is stretching apart, creating more mental space so that everything I need to do will get done. It calms me.

On Feb. 25, 2016, my sister-in-law was killed when an individual came into her workplace, Excel Industries, in Hesston, Kansas, and opened fire. We have this vocabulary of exceptionality and “isolated incidents.” Through my teaching and research, I'm constantly trying to push myself — as much as I’m devastated by the tragedy — to look at patterns and context. I know that these tragedies will continue to happen if the root causes and the fundamental divides and issues that lead to them aren't addressed.

What keeps me hopeful is teaching — in classrooms and community settings. I work with the Princeton Public Library, the organization Not in Our Town, and Princeton Public Schools among others. I'm energized by young people who are not satisfied with the status quo and through sharing my knowledge and passion with them, I feel like I'm passing it on, and that keeps me going.

Students laughing in class

Benjamin said she likes to "infuse a little bit of the personal into my teaching so my students feel connected to me as a human being, not just as a professor." From left are students Chinenye Azoba, Liam Fitzgerald and Jade Williams.

I have an alter-ego, Rushana, who has been my extroverted accomplice for many years. She’s the one who gives all the public lectures and knows how to do all the small talk in group settings. One of the things that brings her inexplicable joy is when I open my Outlook calendar and there’s nothing listed, because then she gets the day off!

I want my students to infiltrate every field.  I see the students in my undergraduate lecture course "Race Is Socially Constructed: Now What?" as going into many different professions — anything from technology to the sciences to the arts. I want them to do whatever they really love to do and go into that with this set of tools that's going to help them understand and read their reality with more precision and then empower them to be able to change it in a way that's going to be better for everyone.

For students to really learn something, they have to feel something about the material. Images can do that. I collect them to use later in lectures. One example is from the 2015 news story about how the North Miami Beach Police Department was using six mugshots of black male criminals for target practice. Something about that is just so grotesque; even when I teach in high schools, the teachers tell me that's what the teenagers talk about afterward. Out of everything else, they say, "something is wrong with that."

If I could tell incoming first-year students at Princeton one thing, I would say, don't expect the experience to be gift-wrapped and handed to you. Whatever you want your college experience to be, you have to shape it. If you don't like something that's happening, your job is to work with your peers and make it the experience you want to have. Along with that, the real world doesn't start in four years after Princeton; this is the real world. That whole idea of the orange bubble? Forget it.

I try to infuse a little bit of the personal into my teaching so my students feel connected to me as a human being, not just as a professor. I'm trying to break down these walls between what's personal and what's scholarly and what fits in these different boxes, because there's so much to learn from the traffic between them. We are building knowledge together and so I approach my students as collaborators.

When things get really hectic, reaching out to my girlfriends helps give me perspective. What’s the saying? “Behind every successful woman there’s a group text hypin’ her up.” Absolute truth!

Speculation is a process of re-envisioning and hence revising the past, present and future. It involves questioning taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world is put together and fashioning counter-narratives. It is a stubborn refusal to accept the dominant stories of how things were, how they are, how they will be. I consider social science and speculative fiction complementary modes of thinking. Whereas social science offers tools to read reality, speculative fiction cultivates an imagination to change it.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some good questions. Who and what get fixed in place to enable progress? What social groups are classified, corralled, coerced and capitalized upon so others are free to tinker, experiment and engineer the future? How are novel technologies being used in carceral approaches to governing life well beyond the domain of policing? How might technoscience be appropriated and reimagined for more liberatory ends? How, in short, can we design our sociotechnical systems differently?