Dr. Zine Magubane, Smith Scholar, On Race and Gender

Twelve years ago, Robert and Salua Smith established the Robert P. Smith ’58 International Fellowship so that Roxbury Latin could bring visiting scholars to campus each year, enhancing our curricula with their insightful perspectives on our increasingly complex world. Over the years, these scholars have educated us on such topics as economic globalization in Africa, the political and economic effects of climate change, the modern Middle East, Latin American literature, and the legacy of World War I. Last year, Dr. Evan McCormick’s experience at the Department of Homeland Security and research on U.S. foreign policy informed his semester of teaching RL’s Contemporary Global Issues course on borders, of all kinds. This year, Roxbury Latin was honored to welcome Dr. Zine Magubane, Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston College, whose research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and post-colonial studies in the U.S. and Southern Africa. As Smith Scholar, Dr. Magubane taught the spring senior elective titled Race and Gender. Here, Dr. Magubane answers questions about her research and the many ways in which she is challenging RL boys to think differently about classifications of race and gender.

What is the topic of your scholarly research?

I’m a sociologist by training. I started my work doing research on apartheid in South Africa, which was embedded in the logic of racial classification—assigning everyone to a race. And I noticed that many of the ideas about assigning people to categories that were used by the South African government were actually borrowed from the United States. The system whereby they put Africans into separate areas, for example, was borrowed from the system used to put Native Americans on reservations. That was my initial interest. And then as a sociologist I just became interested in the specific role of sociology as a discipline, in helping to popularize ideas about classification of persons, as well as providing what I like to call in sociology speak, epistemological logic. In other words, we tell ourselves: ‘classification by race doesn’t come from politics, it comes from nature,’ even though it comes from politics. The book that I’m writing now is about the history of the idea of race in sociology.

You presented two wonderful Halls to our entire community this semester. Can you describe the topics you covered in these Halls? 

My first Hall focused on how I came to be interested in my area of research. My parents were born in South Africa in the ’30s, and apartheid was only formalized in 1948. Over the course of their lives—and again when we came to the United States—their racial classification changed. I described how political race was in South Africa, through the lens of my own family and my own life.

The second Hall was about a Roxbury Latin graduate, William Baldwin, who was Director of the Southern Railroad right after reconstruction. Baldwin developed this very complicated relationship with Booker T. Washington. The two of them did some things really well; they believed that slavery should be ended for sure, and they believed in a free market system. But Booker T. Washington still held very strongly to the idea that everybody must have a race, and that the society should still be hierarchically organized on the basis of race. William Baldwin had a very complicated relationship to that particular piece of history.

I wanted to underscore that the history of this school also follows along the history of the idea of race. Roxbury Latin is older than the Westphalian state system, and the nation of Haiti, and the Declaration of Independence. What an interesting way to think about the history of your school as unfolding with the history of this idea.

At RL, you are teaching seniors in a course titled Race and Gender. What topics are you covering with your students, and what texts are you incorporating into the course?

In the course we discuss how people become assigned to racial categories, and also categories like male and female. America is very unique in the way that race and gender historically came together to produce the category “black,” and it had to do with the category “enslaved.” Historically, the way in which people became classified first as “enslaved” and then later as “black” was transmitted through the mom. This followed what was called the “womb law.” If your mother was classified as a slave, you were classified as a slave. This was because so many people had fathers who were not only free but also English. In English common law, your status followed your dad, so all of those people who were classified as black and were enslaved would have been free in England. In fact, they were free in England, and in France, and in the French colonies. We also discuss how people become classified as men and women. In colonial times, we had to classify men and women so that you could know who the men were, because that was how you determined who would inherit property.

So this course investigates history to ask the question: Why do we need to classify people? We look at other societies in which gender is not the most important classification. In many African societies, age hierarchies are much more important. In fact, a person can be socially reassigned to do “male” things even though we would classify them as women. So that’s how race and gender come together in the course. We look at both of these not as categories from nature, but assignments that come from politics; we ask How do we develop not only the categories, but also our ways of understanding them?

I had the students read one of my favorite books in the world: Racecraft, by Barbara Fields. But we also read a lot of popular press, like the New York Times for example. We read a wonderful article by the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling about what she called the “seven layers of gender.” Increasingly, though, as the students developed their knowledge, we read articles from the Times to show how even learned people fall into some of the traps in categorization. For example, there are many appeals for blood donors in the Times that rely on a racist logic not supported by science, that people need to donate blood to people of their own race. So we read pieces of press with a critical eye as well.

What have you enjoyed about teaching at Roxbury Latin?

The boys have been so open-minded. They’re willing to roll with it, and they have really engaged with questions about what all-boys schools would do if there really was “no there there” when it comes to gender. We discussed many other real-time things, including a local case of a student who wanted to have no gender classification on their Massachusetts driver’s license. In fact, the boys were always bringing things to me. They’d say: This thing just happened. What do you think about it? Sometimes we would just deviate in class and talk about what was going on the world. When Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union’s child changed her pronouns to she/her/hers, we were in the middle of the semester, so we just shifted and talked about that one day. The students have been really open-minded in all of these conversations.

I also enjoy their senses of humor. They’re incredibly funny. We laughed all the time. I think it’s because they’ve known each other for so long. They tease each other and they’re not afraid to make mistakes in front of each other, which made it a refreshing environment. In my other life I teach college and PhD students. By the time people get into a PhD program, they’re so afraid of looking stupid in front of other people that sometimes class discussion is so boring. My RL students were not afraid to say wrong things, and it was very refreshing.

What do you hope the boys take away from this course?

Their final assignment has been really fun. I told them: “Given all you’ve learned, what interests you in the world, and how will you work on it?” They are all very interested in popular culture, and so many of them are looking at popular music, popular movies, TikTok… and these are the places where ideas about race and gender are made. They’re first made by sociologists, but they become hegemonic—meaning people come to unthinkingly believe in them—within the context of popular culture.

Long after this course, the students are going to forget most of what I told them, but I hope they remember two important things: First, I hope that every single time they read the newspaper they will spot what I call “racecraft,” which is kind of like witchcraft. How are pseudo-scientific and false ideas worming their way in there? Second, I hope that instead of using the word “race” they will remember to use the words “census category.” Because that’s what it is—race is not a thing from nature. If the students remember to do those two things, my work is done!