Student Member Spotlight: Stephanie M. House-Niamke
On February 10, 2023, Membership and Outreach Committee Member Greer Hamilton sat down with Stephanie M. House-Niamke, a current Ph.D. in Sociology student at West Virginia University to discuss her research interests and academic journey. If you are interested in participating in SSSP’s Student Spotlight, please email Greer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original interview was cleaned in Trint. It was first reviewed by Stephanie and then by Dr. Amaka Okechukwu, Chair of the Membership and Outreach Committee. The interview transcript below has been edited for clarity and condensed for brevity.
Greer Hamilton (GH): Can you introduce yourself, Stephanie, and tell us a bit about who you are?
Stephanie M. House-Niamke (SHN): Yeah, so I am Stephanie House-Niamke. Thank you all so much for doing the spotlight. I really appreciate it.
I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and raised mostly in southwestern Virginia. So, I consider myself to be an Appalachian girl. My dad is a community organizer. My mother works in the education system. Most of my family are educators and are working in K-12 education in some capacity. Momma is an accidental feminist. That's just the nature of who she is. She's not intending or trying to be feminist. That's just who she is.
And so, I think they have always really taught me to look at life through my own lens of the Black woman, like with race and gender. And by most people's standards, the Black population in the U.S. is still religious. And so, there's an element of religion as well that has always kind of sparked my interest. And so, some of my professional interests align with what I grew up with and what I was always interested in.
The work that I do concerning the Black church, gender and sexuality, racial inequities, is about how do we make the changes in a societal way. I think it's so easy to get caught up in just presenting our research and our work to the ivory tower, so to speak, and we forget about the folks that could be impacted by our work. And so, the biggest measure that maybe I'm on the right track with that is my grandmother came to see one of my research exhibits, and she understood it. She had questions, she valued it. That's important to me as the granddaughter of a coal miner. I care about making my work accessible to folks who are not sitting in these very elite spaces and who aren't spending hours upon hours like we are reading and writing constantly.
GH: I want to dig into your doctorate work right now. So, your focus is on how Black Christians interpret white religious iconography. What made you interested in studying this?
SHN: Going back to the fact that I was raised in Appalachia, I watched my grandmothers. One of my grandmothers was Catholic, the other was Baptist. And I was like, y'all are worshiping a God that doesn't look like you. Most people, even if you're not active in church settings or anything like that, people know that picture, that very popular image of white Jesus with his hands in prayer form. And I was like, how is it that you're finding that this God is setting you free in some capacity in the world, when you go out into the world, the very people who are oppressing you look like that God? And so, it just didn't connect for me as a teenager. And so, it's just one of those things that you don't ask [laughs]. But I was not going to ask my grandmother Hey, what's going on here? But I had a lot of questions about it. And so, when I got opportunities to write about it, I started writing about it. And it just kind of built out into this project. But that's where it specifically came from, that dissonance of like who you're worshiping and who you say is supposed to be setting you free doesn't seem to be aligning.
GH: What are the research lenses that you bring to your work?
SHN: I try to have an intersectional research lens. What I love about the trend in academia right now is that we're building more space for intersectional lenses to our work. And so, of course, the Black church concerns race and it concerns religion. But I'm also interested in the gendered differences and experiences amongst the congregations, within the leadership, etc. And so, I end up using a womanist lens, which is inherently intersectional because they consider race, gender, class, ability, etc., along with the faith perspective. But I think it's very womanist, in that I'm trying to center Black women first and I want to understand their experiences first and foremost and then see how their experiences compare, contrast, and relate to other people's experiences. But in general, the womanist frame is about centering Black women first in the way that feminism attempts to center women in general. Womanism takes a step further and says, Let's center Black women first. And then the idea of liberation is still for everybody.
GH: What are you hoping for in the long term that your work will contribute to?
SHN: I mean, I want Black people first. And I think in general, I want my work to contribute to Black people and how they see themselves and how they consider their own collective power to change the institutions that they participate in. If we are going to continue to be one of the most religious groups in the United States, I'm hoping that for Black people, it's a space for them to say, hey, if I'm going to participate in this, in this institution such as church, I have some say in what that space looks like and operates like, including the imagery and iconography that is around. And then that's kind of step one, right? If I can have some say in what the images are, I can also have some say in what's being taught in these spaces, right?
I see myself at some point shifting to do more work with Black church leaders and different ministries within Black churches to say, how do we switch this so that that the way that you're teaching, whatever it is you're teaching, is more from a liberatory perspective. And so, it's about teaching children, teaching teens and even teaching adults, because we don't stop learning as adults that there's more here than “just do this, thou shalt not do this, do this.” And then how do we continue to push that as a collective institution to push for social change beyond the religious context? So, we're thinking about the prison industrial complex. We're thinking about the school-to-prison pipeline. We're thinking about education in general. We're thinking about the conversations we have around sexuality, including homosexuality, including trans identity, immigration, our civic engagement. This sparks a conversation that says, if we empower ourselves, what are we doing? And I don't think that my work is necessarily reinventing some brand new wheel. I think it's just continuing to build on the work that's already been done. I think that's really what I'm hoping that will contribute to over time.
GH: What would you say is the best part of graduate school?
SHN: Ooo. It changes. I think some days it's like I literally get the opportunity to just sit here and read and learn about all these different things that I find fascinating and interesting. Some days it's, oh, I don't have to get dressed and go to work today. I can be in my hoodie and sweatpants and still be very productive. I think it's the relationships sometimes, like the community that you get to build. For example, I get to meet you, right! And you are clear across in another part of the country. But we're able to meet and get to know each other. Even though this process is incredibly difficult, I consider this to be a great privilege, to have the opportunity to do it and do stuff that I hope will make a difference to somebody someday.
GH: What do you think you're hoping to do when you graduate from your program?
SHN: I've gotten a bit of a taste of what I want to do. I taught at Princeton University last summer, and I've taught before that. But I think Princeton was my first experience teaching all Black and Brown students, a lot of them first-gen, a lot of them low income. And it was my first time being able to teach and be 100% myself. I didn't have to do a ton of code switching. I didn't have to do a ton of explanatory commas throughout the lecture or the lesson or the discussion because there was some common understanding of the lives in which we lead as marginalized and minoritized people. And so, I want that experience. Obviously, I have no issues teaching students who don't look and identify like me. But I think I really want to teach the college age. I just feel like they’re so eager to learn and figure out what they want to do. And I really want to hopefully be a part of like helping to guide them or mold them or just be a sounding board for them as they grow and change and shift and think about what they want to do. It's amazing.
GH: You are a member of the Critical Race and Ethnic Study Division. Curious about how you first heard about the Society for the Study of Social Problems and what made you want to join?
SHN: I was part of SSSR, which is the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. And while religion is obviously a big, big component of what I do, I think the activist in me was looking for some organization that seems to speak to that side of my research and that side of my personality. And so, a colleague of mine in my department, she has attended conferences in the past and she's farther along in the process than I am. And so, I was like, what's SSSP? And so, she's like, oh, the Society for the Study of Social Problems. And it just kind of sparked my interest. And I was like, this seems to be in line with what I've been looking for. It's kind of the other half of the equation for me. And so, this conference will be my first SSSP conference that I'll get a chance to attend in Philly. And so, I'm excited about that. But I think again, I started doing work around critical race theory six or seven years ago. I found spaces that specifically spoke to that when I was studying policy and education. But now that I'm in sociology, I think I was like, I'm in a different space that really speaks to what we're asking as sociologists. And so that's what got me interested.
Resources based on the interview:
- Join Stephanie on April 14 to learn more about Black Baptists' interpretation of the White Jesus Phenomenon. Register here.
- Stephanie’s webpage
- Beyonce´ Spotify Playlist
- Jazmine Sullivan Spotify Playlist
- Megan Thee Stallion Spotify Playlist
- Pod Save America [Podcast]
- Books by Louise Penny
- Books by Michael Connelly