Research as a Form of Activism: UNC Asheville Sociology Courses Explore Inequalities and Solutions

October 20, 2020

For students in Assistant Professor Megan Underhill’s sociology courses, the work of changing the world starts with a deeper understanding of the problems that need to be solved. Students in the courses Whiteness: Interrogating Power and Privilege; and Class, Power, and Inequality; are spending the semester examining the histories and intersections of various types of systemic inequalities in the U.S., and exploring solutions moving forward.

“The first thing that we do is we interrogate what social class is, and then we move to thinking about all the different ways in which people’s lives are affected by social class,” Underhill explained of the Class, Power, and Inequality Course. “As we’re looking at these things, we’re also investigating how different populations are affected; so, what’s the experience of LGBTQ people like during the pandemic right now? Who are impoverished and homeless for instance, or what does income inequality look like when we factor in things like race and gender? What is the scope of wealth inequality in the United States how does it vary by race?”

The course doesn’t stop with exposing and examining class and power inequalities; for UNC Asheville students, especially, there needs to be more, Underhill said.

“In particular students at UNC Asheville are very social justice oriented, and so they feel fired up. They want to know what they can do,” Underhill said. “Learning about this is part of the process, and that’s what I tell all of my students. I say, ‘you know, the only way that we ever know about this inequality that exists is via research, so I know that you’re sitting here and we’re reading these studies, and you’re thinking sometimes that they’re really boring and I don’t like the way that they’re written, but fundamentally research is a form of activism.’”

It’s a class that fits perfectly with senior Gillian Maurer’s academic focus on the intersection of social activism and art.

“What the class is bringing to the table for my experience is really grounding a lot of the discourse that is happening socially right now in specific policy,” said Maurer, who is double majoring in sociology and art. “As someone that’s pretty heavily involved in protests right now and in doing community outreach in the Asheville area, there’s a lot of discussion in those spaces that gets bolstered by what’s happening in the class in the discussions being had in the class… It is providing an academic framing for that.”

What is Whiteness?

Much like her course on class, Underhill’s Whiteness: Interrogating Power and Privilege course starts by asking questions and examining history.

“We’re first exploring what is whiteness,” Underhill said. “It’s a theoretical concept, and it is a system of power. Whiteness as a system of power has become institutionalized historically via the pursuit of exclusionary state policies, as with the Naturalization Act of 1790, which directly made it a connection between citizenship and whiteness. We examined from that point forward, in broad strokes and chunks of time, racialized state policies that have enriched white individuals socially, politically, culturally, etc., creating this structure power that we have today: the system of white supremacy.”

“It’s really hard to describe what whiteness is, because it encompasses so many different things,” said senior sociology major Aidan, who is biracial. “It’s an identity, it’s a social structure, and a location, it’s a status group, it’s a system of power and privilege, it’s an ideology. One thing that we’re really learning about is that to be white is to be normal and the standard and to be an unmarked race.”

Reflecting the current makeup of the UNC Asheville student body, the majority of the students in Underhill’s class identify as white.

“I think that a reason that the class is really beneficial to me as a white person is because it challenges things that are just really thought of to be common sense for people in the U.S., and for white people in particular,” said Emily Weatherspoon, a junior sociology major. “Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but it’s always a good uncomfortable. I think an important part of being racially aware is not just being aware of the struggles of the oppressed group, not just being aware of the things that people of color are going through in the U.S. today, but also being aware of how the dominant white group has created those problems and is invested in keeping them.

“Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to confront one’s own privilege,” Weatherspoon continued. “But I think that the discussion format of the course is really helpful for that because there’s a lot of space to process what these things mean.”

Moving Forward

As the students delve deeper into understanding privileges and inequalities in the United States, they’re also looking to apply their knowledge to finding and achieving solutions. Underhill directs her students to pick a particular social issue, work towards becoming an expert in it, and then look towards of the community who are working locally on social change initiatives, such as food redistribution and reparations.

“We can do things. So, what are we going to do?” Underhill said. “What I try to end the class with is, now that you’re aware, now what?”

“I think for a lot of the students in the class, and myself included, this will help us in activist work, and will be more effective agents and activists trying to create social change,” Aidan said. “We’ll have a better understanding about what communities need and how we can help.”

Weatherspoon can also see how her class is helping to prepare her for her continued graduate studies and future career. “I’m not 100 percent sure what I want to study in grad school; I’m really interested in the intersections of race gender and sexuality on body image,” she said. Her career dreams include becoming a professor and writing a book that addresses deep sociological concepts at a level accessible to general audiences.

Maurer sees ways that they’ll carry their sociology studies into their future plans, as well, although their initial post-graduation plans, which included performance art, have been waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, they hope to continue their current work including their research into the opioid crisis, socially minded fine art, and mural painting projects in town and out of state.

Maurer emphasized, however, that this course isn’t only useful to sociology majors. “From a liberal arts perspective, this is something I wish was talked about in way more classrooms, even if it wasn’t under the context of this specific curriculum, and I feel is lacking in a lot of classrooms,” Maurer said. “I’m really appreciative of my particular luck and privilege in finding a way that this fits the exact academic path that I need to take, and I just wish it was more widely accessible within the institution.”

Underhill will be offering additional courses in the intersections of race, class, privilege and inequality next semester, including a course on urban sociology, a service-learning sociology course, and the sociology of race. For more information on courses offered in the Sociology Department, visit their website.