Growing up in Iowa, Illeana Brothers once heard someone refer to "the little colored girl." But she was not aware that the reference was to her.
Later in life, she became aware of the implications of having a black grandfather and a racially mixed heritage. She learned from her relatives and friends about the “brown paper bag” test — having one’s skin color compared to a brown paper bag to determine whether one is “light enough” to qualify for an education, employment and other social advantages, or “black enough” to be accepted into the African American community.
As a student in the USC College Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program, Brothers researched this unofficial litmus test, drawing on her firsthand experience. She assessed the test’s usage relative to one’s social status.
Brothers will present her findings at the Third Annual Graduate Liberal Studies Joint Student and Alumni Symposium to be held June 26-28 at Stanford University. Kinette Cager, Michael Lujan and Chris Wittenberg of MLS also will present their research at the symposium.
Graduate liberal studies program students, alumni and faculty from 10 universities worldwide will participate.
“Because of the volume of many fine submissions this year, we had to be quite selective,” said symposium organizer Linda Paulson, associate dean and director of the Stanford Master of Liberal Arts program. “We made our decisions based on the clarity of the project and the ‘fit’ of individual projects into coherent panels.”
Paulson congratulated the USC MLS program for having so many representatives selected.
“To have four students selected is a great vote of confidence in our MLS program,” said Susan Kamei, USC College associate dean of advanced and professional programs and MLS program director. “To have their papers selected for presentation at this stage of their studies speaks to the quality of the work they are doing and to the investment that the MLS faculty makes in them.”
In preparation, Kamei and Jim Kincaid, holder of the Aerol Arnold Chair in English, professor of English and chair of the MLS faculty board, are conducting a mock symposium for the presenting students.
Last year, Brothers and Cager listened to presentations at the second annual symposium, which boosted their confidence to submit proposals for this year’s event.
Cager will present her paper, “Why Women Wear Hats.” A hat-wearer herself, Cager was curious about the staying power of the hat-wearing culture, and how it has survived when most of post-modernity has abandoned classic haute couture in general and hat wearing in particular. She studies the psychological implications of the hat as a fashion accessory and its broader implications with issues of women and fashion.
Through his work in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Lujan has developed an interest in the interaction between law and society. After learning about “folk law” in an MLS course, Lujan began investigating how different folk groups establish customs for obeying laws, and how law enforcement develops practices for enforcing laws according to cultural standards. Using law enforcement data and a case study, his research explores folk law in Los Angeles.
In another MLS course, Wittenberg became intrigued with cellular telephone technology’s effect on societies’ lexicons. He is evaluating how such technological advances affect the spread of a certain lexicon across the globe, as well as other aspects of cell phone usage.
Wittenberg said, “To be chosen to speak at this symposium with my classmates is one of many rewarding experiences I’ve had in the MLS program, which gets me outside my day-to-day comfort zone.”
“I’m so excited to be giving a presentation this year,” Cager added. “I encourage my fellow MLS students to attend the symposium and share in the process.”
The USC College Master of Liberal Studies program offers multidisciplinary graduate studies for professional development or personal enrichment. Evening seminar-style classes once a week are designed for the working professional. MLS Students also receive individual mentoring from USC College faculty and enjoy camaraderie with diverse classmates.