College campuses have a long history of social activism and the Claremont Colleges are no different. However, in academia, engagement in social issues has long been seen as a humanities and social sciences pursuit—something for the politics or sociology majors of the world. In an effort to challenge this assumption, Harvey Mudd College established the 2016 Nelson Distinguished Speaker Series, “Now! Social Justice and STEM,” which hosted its second speaker on Wednesday, Oct. 5.
Deepa Kumar, an associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University, presented to a full auditorium in the R. Michael Shanahan Center for Teaching and Learning about Islamophobia and the War on Terror. Her talk, “In Search of Monsters to Destroy: Racism, Empire and the Endless War on Terror” explored the construction of racist narratives around Muslims and Arabs to further the goal of empire building in the West.
In reference to the “Search of Monsters” outlined in the lecture’s title, Kumar said, “There’s always been a process of othering. When human beings want to do something evil the only way seems to be to dehumanize the other. It justifies violence. It justifies conquest. It justifies genocide.”
Kumar further explained the ways in which media about the War on Terror and the development of language around terrorism since the 1970s has been manufactured to promote a threat consciousness in the United States. She argued that the cultivation of fear based upon racist tropes enables the U.S. to advance the presence of national security without attracting public scrutiny.
“Because of the name of the series, I expected the talk to have more of a STEM focus,” math major Kashvi Tibrewal PO ’18 said. “I think with math and science it’s easy to forget that you’re learning can have a real impact and I was excited to see what that might look like.”
Despite the subject of the discussion being different than expected, members of the audience felt like the Kumar’s lecture gave them the knowledge to recognize and address issues of injustice.
“I was a little inspired to want to do more,” Sydney Huynh, a senior at nearby Ontario High School, said.
Huynh’s classmate Austin Prieto also felt that Kumar’s talk would inspire students to mobilize their education, in STEM fields and beyond, for social change.
“Most of the activist groups and interest groups are formed during the college years so I think that this really enforces that opportunity for us. I think that some of us would like to get behind whatever we can,” Prieto said.
Kumar urged inspired audience members to take action by looking critically at policy by combatting the dehumanizing language around the war on terror. She ended the night with a particularly provocative statement about not voting in the upcoming presidential election.
“Every time we vote for the lesser evil, we move the lesser evil slightly to the right and the greater evil even further right,” Kumar said. “The solution is not to vote, but instead to build social movements from the bottom up.”
Next month, the Nelson Series will host Chicano performance artist and activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña on Nov. 3 and law professor Dayna Matthew on Nov. 17.