Neda Maghbouleh: Hitting Home

Professor Neda MaghboulehU of T Mississauga Sociology prof studies migration, minorities and moms’ groups

Professor Neda Maghbouleh from UTM’s Department of Sociology says she is enjoying a sweet spot of satisfaction that she attributes to the string of successes she’s had of late: her first book, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian-Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race, is being published by Stanford University Press and has been called “groundbreaking,” and the recently funded research projects she is working on have the potential for significant social impact.

“I feel like I am in the ‘pink cloud’ of happiness right now, where my new projects haven’t hit roadblocks yet,” says Maghbouleh, who is currently following three streams in her research.

First, Maghbouleh is embarking on a new collaboration with Professors Melissa Milkie (UTM) and Ito Peng (UTSG) with funds awarded this fall by a rapid response, targeted opportunity to study Syrian newcomers and integration.

This project is supported by a joint initiative through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Their research team will focus on assessing parenting and integration stress among Syrian newcomer parents whose children have integrated into local schools at the elementary- and secondary-school levels.

There is urgency associated with this undertaking because preliminary results must be reported by early 2017, but Maghbouleh is confident with the research team’s proficiency, and the wealth of experience each brings to the project.

“Melissa is an expert on parenting stress, Ito specializes in social policy, and I have the background in migration,” says Maghbouleh.

“We also have an amazing team of graduate students, who are fluent Arabic speakers; three of the four team members are also relatively recent migrants from the region, too. Having their on-the-ground expertise and ability to connect with our participants is crucial to the project.”

Maghbouleh says this Syrian-related project will help inform the other project she currently has on the go: she was awarded U of T’s Connaught New Researcher Award in the spring of 2016, and is using the funds to pursue a second research pursuit around Toronto-based moms’ groups, a culture she finds fascinating.

“I was radically interested in how some of the issues around integration and inequality might play out in moms’ groups, but also about the bigger, civic engagements that then flow out of them, like neighbourhood-revitalization projects or getting involved with parent boards in their communities,” says Maghbouleh.

“Can we put a dollar value on these ‘civic externalities,’ to be able to then funnel more resources towards supporting parents in that first year, and be able to say this is actually something beneficial to society that would not just improve individual households, but improve all our lives, too?”

Her third project, which is in collaboration with Professors Ariela Schachter in the Department of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and René Flores in the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, intends in part to map the borderline between “Middle Eastern” and “white,” and how someone is coded as one versus the other.

This particular topic really hits home for Maghbouleh, who has been studying race and ethnicity since her undergraduate days in the early 2000s at Smith College in Massachusetts. She says it was coming to Canada three years ago from the US that was literally a defining moment for her personally and professionally.

“As I was building out the book project from my dissertation, the core insight of the book was animated by the moment when I crossed the border in Canada to accept the job at U of T,” says Maghbouleh.  She explains that as an Iranian American who grew up in Oregon, when filling out any federal government forms in the US, they reclassify people with origins in the Middle East and North Africa into the “white” box. However in Canada she is classified as a visible minority, categorized technically as West Asian.

“Through nothing that I did, the second that I crossed that border my own racial category changed on my immigration form,” she says.

She says that her book mediates the “contradictory experiences of groups like Iranians,” who are legally classified as white in the States and presumably enjoying some of the entitlements traditionally seen as attached to that particular categorization (better access to housing, more promising job opportunities, etc.), with the hate crimes and on-the-ground racism and discrimination that Iranians have actually encountered.

With three major projects in progress, and a Research Opportunity Program (ROP) about mothering that she is working on with two UTM students, Maghbouleh is definitely keeping busy.

But back to that “pink cloud,” she is thrilled to be where she is both at work and at home.

Along with her active professional life, she is balancing family life in her newly adopted home base in Toronto where she lives with her husband, also an academic in Sociology based at UTSC, and a toddler, who has the distinction of being the first family member born in Canada.

“I never thought I would live in a place like Toronto, and I am so proud to raise my daughter here,” says Maghbouleh. “My imagination both for my work and for policy is just constantly sparked and inspired by being in a new country, and this is exactly where I want to be.”

By Carla DeMarco