Interview with Kiara Wyndham-Douds, 2022 Graduate Student Paper Award Winner

Kiara Wyndham-Douds, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, was the winner of the 2022 Graduate Student Paper Award. Kiara’s innovative research agenda examines mechanisms that create and sustain racial inequality in contemporary American society. Their current research focuses on the intertwined nature of race and space to investigate the spatial production of racial inequality in suburbs. We reached out to ask them to discuss their research, and we’re including their responses below. Thanks to Kiara for participating in our interview series!

What were the main findings of your paper?

My paper – “The Diversity Contract: Constructing Racial Harmony in a Diverse American Suburb” – examines the dominant racial ideology in a highly racially diverse and affluent suburb of Houston, Texas, called Fort Bend. I conducted 109 in-depth interviews with residents and community leaders and found that, rather than adhering to colorblindness, the dominant racial ideology identified in other settings, residents adhered to what I call the diversity contract, a local racial ideology. Key elements of the diversity contract include the belief that the community is racially harmonious and has no racial inequality. Residents also contend that the community is racially exceptional and morally superior to other places. Though seemingly race conscious, the diversity contract ultimately functions to obscure racial inequality and uphold white domination.

What motivated you to study this particular research topic?

Theoretically, I’m interested in how systems of racial domination are created and upheld across different kinds of places. Racial diversity has mainly been studied in urban communities, but I wanted to know what kinds of dynamics exist in diverse suburbs. Personally, I grew up in Fort Bend and experienced the diversity contract firsthand. I didn’t have that framing or terminology for it before doing this study, but I knew that something distinct from colorblindness was going on there and wanted to understand it better.

What surprises did you find as you conducted your study?

Although I entered the field interested in racial beliefs and ideas, I wasn’t prepared for just how clear and widely shared the narratives of the diversity contract would be in the community. As soon as I began interviews and ethnographic fieldwork, I heard them everywhere! This clear expression of the community’s “story” about itself was an important preliminary finding that shaped my subsequent data collection. I was also surprised by a set of consistently used narratives and metaphors about suburban living. In Fort Bend as well as a second suburb that serves as a comparison site in the book I’m writing, I was struck by the way suburbanites discuss life “in the bubble” (but that’s another paper!).

What impact do you hope that your findings will have?

I hope my work helps show the ways that racial domination is upheld through different mechanisms and with different language in different places – including in highly racially diverse communities that claim to be racial utopias. This reality is not news to many residents of my study site – particularly residents of color – who know it through lived experience, but I hope my analysis is useful to community residents fighting for racial equity there and in communities like it. And theoretically, I hope to convince people that racial ideologies are fundamentally spatial and encourage investigation of ideologies in other kinds of places!

How do you plan to build on this work in the future?

My fieldwork led me to a broader interest in the production of racial inequality across suburban space. I’m exploring this through new projects on municipal incorporation, zoning ordinances, and suburban developers.

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