By Jayna Morris
Assistant Editor, NKU Magazine
Joan Ferrante remembers when Northern Kentucky University was a young, budding campus with just a few buildings. It was 1973, and she was a bright-eyed 18-year-old sociology student.
Ferrante didn’t realize it then, but her career at NKU was destined to last far beyond graduation. After spending four years earning her bachelor’s in sociology, Ferrante began teaching research theory classes in 1978, and continued to do so, adding a new specialty—race—after her mentor, Dr. Prince Brown, Jr. widened her academic horizons.
It was 1996, and Ferrante remembers sitting in the middle of a public lecture by Brown, now an NKU Emeritus sociologist where he spoke about the Black-American Indian alliance that created the Seminole Nation. The government mandated that the Seminoles be divided. Those members who had Indian mothers and fathers who of African descent were classified as blood Seminoles; those who had Indian fathers and mothers of African descent were classified as Black. This artificial division disqualified Black Seminoles to claim compensation for lands taken.
“When I heard that lecture, I suddenly got what race was,” Ferrante says. “Race is a construction. Race is all about relationships divided without regard for family ties. So then I took off and built on that vision.”
Ferrante stayed away from teaching about race up until that lecture. But now, and for the last two decades, she teaches her students about the social construction of race and ethnicity in the U.S., particularly how our system of racial classification discourages identification with more than one race.
“The biggest thing about race in America is that offspring can be a different racial classification than their parents,” Ferrante says. “We allow that. That is the story of race in our country.”
She uses former U.S. President Barack Obama as an example.
“From a sociological perspective, President Obama is our first president who appears Black,” Ferrante says. “At some point, we decided that certain ancestors—those from Africa—are key to identity and life and dismissed ties white-appearing as irrelevant. Americans must acknowledge that, to create race, those in power deliberately divided family members into categories based of skin shade and hair texture, ignoring actual ancestries. For this reason I mourn the creation of categories. This is a national-scale story with themes of loss and separation and abandonment. It is one in which some family members—by virtue of being classified as white—experienced (and continue to experience) a greater number of opportunities to secure success relative to family members classified as nonwhite.”
Her frustration with the racial classification system led her to co-author “The Social Construction of Race in the United States” with Prince Brown. And as she says goodbye to NKU in May 2018, the book, “How to Have a Conversation About Race,” is expected to be published.
For this book, she’s working closely with Kirsten Hurst, a creative writing student, who is part of a larger creative team of 11 students who have read and re-read her soon-to-be-published book to make sure the information is being absorbed by students in the way she intended.
“Since I was 28, I’ve always had students working with me,” Ferrante says. “It’s been a long career. I hire students to learn and collaborate, not just to work for me. And I try to invest what I make from my books back into my students.”
The former Frank Milburn Sinton Outstanding Professor Award winner always has students on her mind. Since 1992, the royalties from “Sociology: A Global Perspective” and “Seeing Sociology: An Introduction” have helped support the Beyond the Classroom scholarship through the Office of Education Abroad.
Ferrante also keeps herself busy off campus. She currently works as a program evaluator for a literacy grant award that went to Newport Independent in September 2015. The grant helped purchase laptop computers for students and also to set up wireless hotspots throughout Newport.
And she created Think Sociology, a website that shares teaching resources with sociology colleagues across the country.
She’s loved her time at NKU, but, as she says, she wants to try something new.
“I’ve been on this campus since I was 18 years old,” she says. “I want to try something different than NKU because I’m too comfortable here. I might be a visiting professor somewhere or write action learning books and make the transition away from traditional textbooks. I will miss my collaborations with NKU students; they offer me a valuable lens to evaluate the worth of the ideas I teach. When students find those ideas meaningful and use them to make applications to what they see in the world around them, I have confidence that what I teach matters.”