June Hwang brings her full personality — a Korean American woman, a Northern Californian, and a scholar of German and Jewish studies with a specialty in film — to the role.
June Hwang came to the University of Rochester in 2007, fresh from earning her Ph.D. in German Studies, majoring in Film Studies, from the University of California, Berkeley. “Rochester was a place where I could continue the work I was trained in,” says Hwang, but “also a place where I could broaden my horizons, since the humanities at the University are designed to be interdisciplinary.
Today, Hwang, associate professor of German and film and media studieswill put this experience to good use in her new position as Director of the University Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.
As Hwang explains, “My work focuses on the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and class. I am delighted to build on the work of my predecessors to highlight these intersections and integrate them into a larger conversation at the University.
Hwang, who calls Northern California home, is the daughter of Korean immigrants. After earning her BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University, she spent her time in the United States, Germany and Austria, including two years studying in Germany at Universität Konstanz and two more at Freie Universität Berlin.
Q&A with June Hwang
How did your background prepare you to become a director?
It has everything to do with the fact that I am a Korean American majoring in German and Jewish studies. I have always been aware that my past is not necessarily that of the majority. All of the ways that I experience gender, class, my own upbringing, and my daily life have been influenced by the fact that I am also Korean American, having been born in this country to immigrant parents. I grew up in Northern California where there are a lot of Asian Americans. Even if they are fourth or fifth generation, they are still considered Asian Americans, which says a lot about what we consider to be American. And in Germany, a lot of my experiences involved coming into contact with people who were in similar positions – they were German Turkish and German Korean, for example. Gender, class and race are inseparable. There is nothing about my experience as a cis woman that is not relevant to my experience as a Korean American as well.
The name of the institute has changed several times over the years. Do the name changes reflect an evolution of the institute’s mission?
This not only reflects changes in academic research, but also how our current culture understands these concepts. We started in 1980 as the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Studies. At the time, the main objective was to challenge preconceived ideas about the roles played by women in history and in society. The shift to gender and women’s studies has been a growing recognition that gender is complicated, and not just a pair of women and men. Then we changed our name again in recognition of the fact that gender and sexuality are interrelated, but not the same thing. We are constantly looking for where we are and where we can go. What are the things we don’t think about? Each name change signifies the things that are important, both to the people participating in the program and to the community as a whole.
Tell us about the importance of institute work in today’s social and political climate.
There is growing recognition that addressing issues of race, gender, sexuality and class is absolutely essential to addressing social inequalities and injustices. And that requires long and difficult conversations. To do this, we need a safe space. By this I mean a place where people feel comfortable having their assumptions challenged, not just about what others are doing, but what they are doing to reinforce or challenge those injustices and inequality. It is particularly important to think about how these issues intersect. It’s about not treating race as one thing, gender as one thing, and disability as another. Too often these issues are further marginalized by being separated.
Give us an example of something that must make us feel uncomfortable.
Our goal is not necessarily to represent all possible viewpoints. On the other hand, we provide a space where people can challenge their ideas. And I believe we should allow every idea to be challenged.
For example, we have just organized a seminar on reproductive justice, a subject that goes far beyond the right to abortion. We talk about reproductive justice rather than reproductive rights, because reproductive rights have become a term that is essentially about limiting rights. Reproductive justice is about how governments and other social institutions have tried to control what it means to be a good parent and what it means to raise children and who decides how we raise children. The ways we think about reproduction, bodies and families have everything to do with our rights as individuals.
The institute has a long list of professors, from all corners of the university. How does a science teacher, for example, help advance the institute’s mission?
Gender and sexuality issues are part of all disciplines. In science, it could be something like, who participates in studies. In the past, researchers only used men as test subjects. It was long assumed that the results of these experiments were applicable to everyone, which we now understand is not the case. And it has everything to do with how these researchers think – or rather don’t think – about gender and sexuality in their research.
You continue to teach and conduct research in your field, while leading the institute. When you find the time, how do you relax?
I consume a questionable amount of popular media, including sci-fi novels, Korean dramas, and the occasional Netflix binge. I also enjoy wandering aimlessly, especially in urban spaces. I grew up in cities, so those are the spaces I feel most comfortable in. I like the things you stumble upon when you don’t have a goal. For example, you suddenly find a new park or a street or a store that you have never seen. I appreciate how I can just let my thoughts and my body drift, without thinking too much. I will say that I have absolutely no sense of direction, so it’s not really difficult for me to wander around. Without GPS, that’s pretty much my default mode.
Events explore the life and legacy of Susan B. Anthony
University of Rochester scholars present The World of Susan B. Anthony, a series of events aimed at reminding this generation of the challenges and customs that defined the lives of Anthony and other women at the end of the Nineteenth century.
Category: Society & Culture