By Lori Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Team
/ Published February 22, 2021
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Peifer)
Growing up in Selma, Alabama, Elizabeth Peifer’s earliest views of the world included congenial Southern hospitality mixed with the brutal realities of racial injustice. Living in the seat of the nation’s civil rights movement, she witnessed firsthand cultural exchanges that shaped her career.
Dr. Peifer holds a Ph.D. in European History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has more than 20 years of university teaching experience in World History and European Studies. She also served as Director of Faculty Programs for the Associated Colleges of the South.
Growing up in the South impressed upon Dr. Peifer how the past colors the present and inspired her to specialize in studying culture and history. She is currently an assistant professor of Regional and Cultural Studies (Europe) at the Air Force Culture and Language Center specializing in contemporary German society and culture. Her teaching and research interests include radicalism and extremism, cultural heritage protection in conflict; public memory and national narratives; and genocide studies.
“My husband and I received our degrees in the same field. We finished at the same time, so we knew we would be competing for the same jobs no matter where we went. When I left for college, I wanted to leave behind small-town life and experience the world. I married a naval historian who had lived all over the world. When we met, his parents lived in Rome, Italy, and his family was scattered across the U.S. and Germany. So, I never dreamed we’d settle 45 minutes away from my mother!” she laughed. “But Montgomery has been good to us, and we love the Maxwell community.” Her husband began teaching at Air University in 1999. It took a few years, but eventually, the couple found themselves both teaching at Air University.
As part of AFCLC, Peifer specializes in German society and culture. “People often ask how a someone with such deep Southern roots got interested in German history, but I’ve always seen a connection in how both cultures feel the weight of the past in everyday life. The impact of the past on the present is inescapable.”
For Peifer, cultural understanding is a process. She sees things differently now than she did when the small-town perspective was all she knew. Curiosity fueled her journey in the issues and ideas of the world, but she understands “how easy it is to embrace stereotypes.”
“So many of us walk through life with blinders on. Sometimes it is simply a way of coping,” Peifer said. Unfortunately, she has found that motivation for others may often be fueled by hatred or extremist ideas.
“I started out studying leftist movements of the 1960s and what motivates somebody to step out of their comfort zone and start marching in the streets. I spent many years studying social movements and political activism. Recently, I’ve focused more on right-wing extremists. I’ve learned a lot, but there are no easy answers,” Peifer said.
Things are not always as they seem, she admitted.
“In high school in the 1980s, I was invited to join a local civic group’s youth affiliate. I liked what they said they stood for, and the members were all respected members of the community. They encouraged us to recruit new youth members, and I brought a good friend of mine, who happened to be a person of color, to a meeting. I was taken aside and politely informed by the adult sponsors that it was a ‘whites-only’ organization,” Peifer explained. She said the experience made a significant impact on her life.
Now she studies the subtle codes and symbols that racist and extremist groups use to identify themselves but go unnoticed by most mainstream society.
“When you don’t see these things clearly, they can sneak up on you,” Peifer said. “I didn’t know back then how segregated social groups work, and I know how terribly naïve that sounds, but I think that’s the experience of many people. When you’re trying to think the best of people, you aren’t looking for the signs and the clues of the worst in people.”
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