As the Sultan Qaboos bin Said chair of Middle East studies, the director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American studies program and the faculty director of the Decolonizing Humanities Project, Professor Stephen Sheehi not only holds multiple titles in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, but also plays a significant role for minority communities at the College of William and Mary.
“I would consider myself a scholar of Middle Eastern and in particular Arab culture, visual culture, literature — particularly photography and thought,” Sheehi said.
Sheehi’s academic pursuits, including his most recent book “Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine,” are a result of his own life experience and identity. Sheehi noted that being Lebanese Arab American was an integral part of his identity and that negative stereotypes of Arabs in American media inevitably shaped his self-perception.
“I’m a Lebanese Arab American,” Sheehi said. “I was racialized in this country, now known as the United States, which is a settler colony. And an intricate part of the United States is its racial hierarchies and racial structure. So it was inevitable that I could only come to see myself through that racial hierarchy.”
With this lifelong exposure to the effects of settler colonialism on himself and his community, Sheehi took his activism to the College, where he helped create the Decolonizing Humanities Project. This school-wide initiative focuses on settler colonialism and its role in the implementation of structural racism and sexism within the College.
He described the group as a humble project, with the first year focused on the participating faculty getting on the same page to conceptualize the project’s extent.
“A couple of years ago we started the Decolonizing Humanities Project as a faculty initiative,” Sheehi said. “It was just a place for faculty to get together and start to interrogate the way we teach and the settler colony known as the United States.”
Sheehi further elucidated how the College’s deep historical ties to settler colonialism motivated him and other faculty members to begin unpacking how this colonialism continues to bleed into the College’s teachings.
“Here we are as professors teaching at the second oldest university in the United States, a university with a title from the king and queen on Indigenous land,” Sheehi said. “This was ground zero of the settlement and the destruction of the indigenous people of what is now known as North America. So how is it that we as faculty reproduce the myths of settler colonialism even in our own work, even if we’re teaching about China, Lebanon, South Africa, Argentina? In what ways are we, in this university, reproducing settler structures in the settler colony now known as the United States? So that is where the project came from first.”
Sheehi defined settler colonialism as a specific form of colonialism in which colonists not only steal Indigenous land, but also inhabit and disengage from their country of origin.
“The difference between just settler colonialism and colonialism is that settler colonialism is the people the settlers disengage from their home country and start to identify themselves through the settler colony itself,” Sheehi said. “For example, British English might have come to the United States, but then they didn’t call themselves English anymore. They start to identify themselves differently. And the second stage of that is in stealing the land and eliminating the Indigenous people on the land that they’re colonizing.”
Sheehi further explained how settler colonists began to claim indigenous land as their own as a means of justification for encroaching on indigenous lands.
“They also then tend to project themselves as natives to that land,” Sheehi said. “So Americans are like, ‘You’re a native Californian, you’re a native New Yorker.’ You see yourself as the actual owners and Indigenous inhabitants of that land.“
Sheehi further asserts that this type of colonialism, ever-present in the United States, is what makes activist work like Indigenous land acknowledgments so important to decolonization work at the College. The Decolonizing Humanities Project is the reason why the College began the use of land acknowledgments at school functions and even on course syllabi. However, he emphasizes that acknowledgments alone should not be viewed as the end goal.
“I think the problem is that institutions of higher education like William and Mary, which is not exclusive to William and Mary, tend to think building a monument or having a land acknowledgment is the endpoint,” Sheehi said.
Sheehi instead looks ahead to the bigger picture of what impact decolonizing the humanities should have.
“We are not able singlehandedly to dismantle the settler colony,” Sheehi said. “What we can start to do is think about ways in which we can elevate Indigenous voices.”
Sheehi has also reflected on his own thoughts regarding the difficulty of achieving decolonization. According to Sheehi, decolonization should not be evaluated in surface-level ways.
“How do we not allow ourselves to be satisfied with diversity efforts only?” Sheehi said. “Decolonization does not address this structural ornamentation; it’s not just about representation — even though it’s important to have folks of color at the table. But it’s also about perhaps thinking about ways of redoing that table itself. I’m thinking, ‘In what ways do people of color globally build a new world that will fight against the realities of racial capitalism, climate change, and cis-heteronormativity?’”
Sheehi is currently teaching a class on decolonization, in which he and his students discuss anti-colonial movements and thinkers. Sheehi describes the intentionality he takes in constructing each of his classes and incorporating lessons about settler colonialism within his curricula.
“Every class that I teach always opens up with a reading about settler colonialism during the first week,” Sheehi said. “Every class that I teach, no matter what the context is, always starts with locating ourselves within the settler colony of the United States.”
Beyond being a professor at the College, Sheehi also serves as the new director of the APIA program, with one of his current points of focus being fostering the Asian American community. During the 2022 Homecoming weekend, the APIA department hosted a karaoke night that was well-received by the alumni and students. When describing the event, Sheehi credited the department’s students’ dedication and hard work for the event’s success.
“It was that willingness of the students to make a suggestion and the willingness of the faculty to be like, ‘Yo, that’s an awesome idea’ that works together,” Sheehi said, emphasizing the importance of developing an APIA community through friendship despite constant activism efforts. “And what happened? We had the most baller APIA homecoming on Saturday, which was karaoke.”
Professor Sheehi intends to both continue his work in decolonization through his teachings in the AMES department and provide more opportunities for the APIA community to grow. His final point of emphasis was the love he had for the APIA community and the AMES program, both central to his own identity.
“APIA is my love right now, and I adore it,” Sheehi said. “But there’s also this other half of me, which is the AMES component, and they come together very easily for me.”