On November 16, 2017, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) began its annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. I was thrilled to have my first NWSA conference oriented around the 40th anniversary of the prolific Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement, a call for radical Black queer feminist practice.
This year’s NWSA meeting was unapologetically activist-oriented, with plenaries connecting the CRC’s aims to the current Movement for Black Lives. Scholars noted the continued relevance of the CRC Statement in its ability to address the overt racism of the Trump presidency and color-blind racism of #AllLivesMatter. The spirit of intersectional resistance that permeated the conference can best be described in one passage from the document:
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” (CRC Statement, 1977)
#Blacklivesmatter co-founder Alicia Garza and abolitionist, feminist activist and scholar Angela Davis kick-started the conference in the Keynote Address, discussing the urgency of Black radical feminism in the Trump era. In a plenary session, original members of the CRC, including Barbara Smith, Margo Okazawa-Rey, and Demita Frazier, spoke alongside intersectionality theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw about the importance of reclaiming intersectionality and embodying a Black feminist politic. In still more sessions, scholars whose work I have been reading since I was an undergraduate student discussed theorizing radical, “unruly” feminist ethnography and reimagining possibilities for reproductive justice.
I was overwhelmed in the best possible way.
Throughout the weekend, I couldn’t help but note my gratitude at feeling a sense of political urgency at an academic conference. Too often, activism is pushed to the margins of the social sciences, delegated to a fringe panel on public sociology and absent from plenaries and major events. This raises questions about the role of activism in the academy and the politics of representation.
Professors (and even graduate Teaching Assistants) have recently come under attack for their progressive politics. As educators, what does it mean to embody our radical, queer, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist consciousness in the classroom? Can we imagine a world in which activist-oriented scholars of color, women, and LGBTQ+ folks are not marginalized in the academy for their politics, or, as often happens, accused of conducting “me-search” for their “activist agenda”?
Here’s to hoping ASA’s 2018 meeting, “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions,” will centralize the importance of theory translating to feminist praxis. See you all in Philadelphia!
Jamie O’Quinn is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests center around sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity, and social inequality. She is currently researching state efforts to regulate young people’s sexualities.
Andi Mack, a television show that features three generations of Asian American women, premiered on the Disney Channel earlier this month. The lead character “Andi” is a thirteen-year-old, mixed-race girl, who lives with her barely-middle-aged grandmother, and—spoiler alert if you haven’t watched the first episode—her mother, “Bex”, short for Rebecca, who looks and dresses, as if she could be in her early thirties.
The premiere of Andi Mack is noteworthy because Asian Americans in mainstream American entertainment are so rare. When they do appear, Asian Americans are usually “white-washed,” replaced by white actors or actors of mixed-ethnicity, most recently in ‘Doctor Strange,’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell.‘ In the few American films where there are Asian American protagonists, like “Better Luck Tomorrow,” “21 and Over,” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,”Asian American women are veritably absent and silent; they exist to develop men’s characters. Click here for full post.
Earlier this month, first-year graduate student, Rafiul Alom Rahman, shared some of his insights on how gay men from small towns in India adjust to life in larger cities, living in what he terms a “self-imposed exile.” He notes that:
For gay and bisexual men from small towns who flock to urban centres for higher education or employment opportunities, the city has much to offer. But, as my friend suggested, this also comes at a cost—an exile from one’s roots in an alienating city.
Rafiul goes on to describe the variety of ways that gay and gender-nonconforming people who relocate to larger metro areas like Delhi must utilize the anonymity of the city, as well as online spaces such as YouTube and gay dating apps, to explore their identities. With this growth comes a comfort in participating in public events, such as the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. Rafiul states that:
Delhi’s LGBT movement, like that of many major cities in India and, indeed, globally, has been criticized for its lack of critical engagement with questions of caste and class, among other things. For the first time ever, 2015 saw a public articulation of caste in the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. A gay man and a Dalit, the assistant professor had hailed the “coming out” of three young Dalit queer individuals, Akhil Kang, Dhiren Borisa, and Dhrubo Jyoti, at Pride. “Our pride is incomplete without acknowledging and celebrating our caste identity as Dalit queer individuals,’’ they had said. The first Telangana Pride March that took place last year also made a point of drawing a connection between the anti-caste and queer movements—it was flagged off by Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah and led by members of the local hijra community.
Splitting his time between his village and Delhi, the assistant professor says life in the big city has been both a boon and a curse. “It is better than what it could have been if I had stayed in the village. But at the same time, you feel a sense of rootlessness. And living in semi-closets is never fully liberating and freeing. The bigger anxiety is of what will become of us in old age, especially living away from family and with no children or spouse,” he says.
Sixth-year doctoral student Brandon Robinson discusses the complexities around LGBTQ youth homelessness, emphasizing that the circumstances that lead to youth homelessness are “beyond” family rejection:
Most discussion surrounding these disproportionate numbers focuses on family rejection, that lesbian, gay, and bisexual homeless youth are often kicked out or run away from home because of family conflict about their sexuality. Indeed, 73 percent of gay and lesbian and 26 percent of bisexual homeless youth report that they are homeless because of parental disapproval of their sexual orientation. Service providers indicate that 68 percent of the LGBTQ homeless youth they work with experience family rejection. These statistics paint a picture of homophobic and transphobic parents – many of them religious – casting their child out onto the streets. However, as a recent Huffington Postpiece captures, the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth are complex. LGBTQ homeless youth are also disproportionately racial/ethnic minorities, and they often come from family backgrounds of instability and poverty. Perhaps then there are other factors compounding these experiences of homophobia and transphobia?
Both second-year doctoral student Vrinda Marwah and professor Sharmila Rudruppa have pieces discussing the new legislation on surrogacy in India.
Since the 1990s, India has seen a fall in the labour force participation of women, and a rise in informal sector jobs that are characterized by poor pay and difficult working conditions. This is not to say that surrogacy is the answer to the problems of this class of women; if anything, research has also shown that these lives, lived on the margins of society, are too precarious to be greatly improved by one, or a few, lump-sum payouts alone. And yes, the working conditions for surrogates in India leave much to be desired.
However, bans are certainly not the answer to these problems. Bans create black markets and greater vulnerability. We know this from the kidney trade. And they also take away an economic option from working-class women, without doing anything to ease the crippling precariousness that characterizes their lives. All bans do, then, is alleviate our conscience with the thought that we have acted, when actually we may have done more harm.
Feminist ethicists have been asking for deeper regulations of the surrogacy industry in India. But on August 24, 2016 the Indian government went ahead and moved closer to deregulating the industry when the Union Cabinet cleared the Surrogacy Bill 2016. The new bill bans commercial surrogacy altogether, but leaves the door wide open for altruistic surrogacy where no money shall be exchanged between birthing mother and commissioning parents. This new bill will lead to far deeper exploitation of indigent women who are now expected to labor for free.
This is not to say that the practices of global surrogacy have been egalitarian. In various fora, along with other feminist ethicists, I have argued that surrogacy in India has been based on unfair labor conditions for surrogate mothers. The regulations to date had privileged clients over surrogate mothers; provided no enforceable guidelines on the number of embryos to be transplanted; no guidelines on the number of times a woman could be hormonally hyper-stimulated for the purposes of commercial pregnancy; no choice for the surrogate mother to carry her pregnancy to term or opt for an abortion, or even choose how to birth her contracted child; and finally, very little ability to bargain for better wages or working conditions.
On February 25th, the Department of Sociology and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies had the pleasure of hosting Professor Jane Ward for a public job talk on her most recent book, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight Men (New York University Press, 2015). The talk entitled “NOT GAY: The Homosexual Ingredient in the Making of Straight White Men,” traced the historical relationship between same-sex behaviors and practices and the construction of (white) masculinity, particularly addressing arguments around the increasingly more common phenomenon of “heteroflexibility.”
Her entire talk is available on YouTube via the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies:
As evidenced by the packed room (with undergraduate and graduate students spilling out the door!), Dr. Ward’s work has inspired a lot of excitement, thoughtfulness, and reflection. Additionally, Dr. Ward shared some of the reactions to her work, with critiques (surprisingly) mainly being directed at her by self-identified gay men. Overall, the talk and subsequent discussion were a useful and important intervention in how to think about white “heterosexual” masculinities and what implications and/or possibilities might exist for men of color’s sexual identities.
Over at Racism Review, fifth-year doctoral candidate (and UTAustinSoc editor!) Shantel Gabrieal Buggs has shared some findings from her dissertation in regards to dating practices, race and racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement:
As every good social scientist knows, words mean things. The language around, and produced by, movements like BLM – particularly in regards to discourses of race, racial inequality, state-sanctioned violence, and racism – has influenced the ways in which the multiracial women in my study discuss race, racism, and inequality in the context of their intimate relationships. Several women have described using their own stances on the issues BLM addresses as a means of selecting potential dating partners. This finding suggests that BLM and other widespread social justice movements are having significant impacts on how people are navigating racial politics on an interpersonal level. This is particularly pertinent during a time where U.S. media and popular culture is especially focused on issues of racism and state-sanctioned violence.
Thus, Black Lives Matter provides multiracial women with a means of framing their commentary on racism, racial inequality, and violence. Often, these women describe trying to find a “middle ground” in which to exist politically, so as to not fall within the so-called “extremes.” This middle ground calls to mind the notion of mixed-race people being a “bridge” between communities. The “middle ground” also suggests that to be on the extremes is to identify too closely with blackness or to not be “beyond” race. Thus, many women expressed contradictions over the course of their interviews; for several women the tensions around race and racism are issues of “diversity” and something that these women perceive black people to be “ethnocentric” about. It is telling that the multiracial women who believe that the concerns of BLM are solely concerns for black people are women who are not of black descent. However, women of myriad mixed racial backgrounds – including those who are not part black – noted that the issues the movement highlights are concerns for us all.
Christine Williams is among those interviewed by Kaleigh Rogers for Motherboard about Sexual Harassment in STEM fields:
“There’s no evidence that the incidences of harassment and discrimination are increasing. In fact, some of the senior women scientists I’ve interviewed insist that sexism was much more entrenched and blatant 20 years ago than it is today,” Christine Williams, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches workplace sexual harassment, told me via email. “However, what is increasing is public acknowledgment of these problems—more people are aware of these issues.”
Earlier this month, an Australian CrossFit athlete named Khan Porter posted a video to his Facebook page. The video opens on Porter in a gym. He sashays to the Beyoncé hit “Single Ladies.” Suddenly, mid-routine, Porter performs a 264 lb snatch: He lifts a cartoonishly huge barbell above his head in one swift motion, then drops it with a triumphant thud and picks up dancing where he left off.
The video has more than 1.7 million views. Porter has since followed up with a second post, saying, “I posted my video because I think the way the public reacted reflects a pretty cool shift in preconceived notions of masculinity and think that’s grounds for starting some more positive conversations about what it means to be ‘a man.’” The post goes on to address the connections between masculinity, mental health, and suicide.
Porter’s video and follow-up post have both received an outpouring of support online, from comments on Facebook to features and praise on Buzzfeed, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and espnW. Many commenters—including Porter himself—have likened the video to actor Channing Tatum’s recent appearance on the reality series Lip Sync Battle, in which Tatum performed a drag rendition of Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).” The video of Tatum’s performance went viral, too.
It is tempting to embrace Porter’s hope that the widespread love for his video reflects a sea change in contemporary conceptions of masculinity—a move from rigid, fragile identities to more flexible, durable ones. But while it is true that masculinities are always in flux (Kimmel 1996), masculinities scholars debate the extent to which these changes are liberating for women and marginalized groups of men. Is the response to Porter’s video as revolutionary as these media outlets profess, or is it a mirage, tricking us into believing that patriarchy has fundamentally changed? Masculinities scholarship suggests that the video reveals the elasticity of an institution like patriarchy. It can stretch to change form or appearance, but its hierarchical structure and resulting inequality stays the same.
Sociologists Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe (2014) have devised a useful concept for understanding the continual shifting of masculinities. For Bridges and Pascoe, hybrid masculinities refer to the “selective incorporation of elements of identity typically associated with various marginalized and subordinated masculinities and—at times—femininities into privileged men’s gender performances and identities” (2014:246). In other words, men enact hybrid masculinities when they include bits and pieces of identities associated with marginalized “Others” into their own identity projects. These Others can include men of color, working-class men, rural men, queer men, and women, among others. Bridges and Pascoe argue that even though all kinds of people use hybrid masculinities, it is men who have the most privilege (i.e., white, straight, wealthy, cisgender) who are freest to enact these identities while still being seen as appropriately masculine.
Porter partially acknowledges this when he points out that gay men are not allowed the same flexibility in constructing hybrid masculinities as straight men (though it should be noted that this point also serves—intentionally or otherwise—to stress that Porter himself is straight). However, two additional privileges help make Porter’s hybrid identity “acceptable” to a broad audience. First, he has what Pascoe calls “jock insurance” (2003:1427), meaning he conforms so closely to the standards of hegemonic masculinity that he can behave in conventionally nonmasculine ways without having his masculinity questioned. These standards include traits like athletic prowess, attractiveness, and sexual skill. Porter’s website states that he is a professional CrossFit athlete. His Instagram account is filled with photos and videos that showcase his athletic ability, muscled build, and signifiers of wealth (e.g., a BMW, an expensive watch, vacation photos). Articles describing the viral video tend to mention Porter’s sexual desirability, calling him “super hot” “eye candy” with a “flawless” physique and “all-too-perfect upper body strength.” These elements of Porter’s performance and its reception work together to ensure that his dance moves do not detract from his manliness.
Second, Porter is a white man. Compare Porter’s experiences with those of Odell Beckham, Jr., star wide receiver for the New York Giants, to understand the advantage his race affords him. Beckham, who is Black, is also known for dancing. He grooves in the end zone after a touchdown and in videos posted online. He also posts photos on his Instagram account that show displays of tenderness and affection toward other men. These behaviors seem aligned with what Porter sees as a transformation in socially-accepted performances of masculinity. However, the response to Beckham’s hybrid masculinities differs dramatically from the response to Porter’s. Rather than celebrate Beckham’s identity, online commenters and media organizations have responded by interrogating his heterosexuality. Streams of comments on Beckham’s Instagram describe his sexuality as “suspect” and explicitly insist that he’s gay.
For instance, a photo of Beckham hugging longtime friend Jarvis Landry (a wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins) drew dozens of comments like the following:
blessings_catchings He’s really gay people and it’s not because of this pic.
alexryansanch Looking very suspect.
marley_chapo He kissn his neck
Compare this response to the praise heaped on high-profile friendships of white celebrities. The so-called “bromance” of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon, for example, has been celebrated by the media for years at no cost to public understanding of their manliness or heterosexuality.
These attacks on Beckham’s identity have taken a toll on the football field. Numerous sources including the Giants organization have stated that players have targeted Beckham with homophobic language all season, occasionally spurring confrontations with other players. Before a December game against the Carolina Panthers, players reportedly taunted Beckham with “gay slurs” during pregame warmups. Beckham went on to strike Panthers cornerback Josh Norman repeatedly on the head during the game, resulting in a one-game suspension. Panthers players continued to undermine Beckham’s masculinity after the game, publicly feminizing him with words like “bitch” and “ballerina.”
American culture regards NFL football players as paragons of masculinity and toughness. If anyone should be able to leverage “jock insurance,” it should be an NFL football star. Yet when we compare the radically different responses to Porter’s and Beckham’s enactments of hybrid masculinities, we can see racial disparities in the effectiveness of jock insurance. White men, it seems, have more space to construct hybrid identities (e.g., showing affection to other men, dressing in drag, dancing to Beyoncé music) than men of color.
Though well-intentioned, Porter’s “strategic borrowing” (Bridges & Pascoe 2014:252) of elements of black femininity may actually work to obscure and reinforce systems of patriarchy and white supremacy rather than dismantling them. Bridges and Pascoe write:
By framing middle-class, young, straight, White men as both the embodiment and harbinger of feminist change in masculinities, social scientists participate in further marginalizing poor men, working-class men, religious men, undereducated men, rural men, and men of color (among others) as the bearers of uneducated, backwards, toxic, patriarchal masculinities. Even as young White men borrow practices and identities from young, gay, Black, or urban men in order to boost their masculine capital, research shows that these practices often work simultaneously to reaffirm these subordinated groups as deviant, thus supporting existing systems of power and dominance. (2014:253)
Applauding Porter’s identity while criticizing Beckham’s reinforces racial disparities in public conceptions of manhood: Porter appears bold and enlightened for engaging in behaviors for which Beckham is painted as deviant. Porter’s video and accompanying statement celebrate the freedom of white men to play with masculinity, but they will do little to dismantle systems of oppression that punish men of color for the same behaviors. Rather than subvert the structural inequalities of patriarchy and white supremacy, Porter’s appropriation of elements of femininity and black culture amount to—in the words of sociologist Michael Messner—“more style than substance” (1993:724).
Bridges, Tristan and C. J. Pascoe. 2014. “Hybrid Masculinities: New Directions in the Sociology of Men and Masculinities.” Sociology Compass 8(3):246-258.
Kimmel, Michael. 1996. Manhood in America. New York: The Free Press.
Messner, Michael. 1993. “‘Changing Men’ and Feminist Politics in the United States.” Theory and Society 22(5):723-37.
Pascoe, C. J. 2003. “Multiple Masculinities? Teenage Boys Talk About Jocks and Gender.” American Behavioral Scientist 46(10):1423-38.
Katie Kaufman Rogers is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the areas of gender, race, and sexuality. You can follow her on Twitter at @katiearog.
On November 16, 2015, Dr. Gloria González-López participated in an author-meets-critics panel discussion about her new book Family Secrets: Stories of Incest and Sexual Violence in Mexico. The event was hosted by the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and Erin Burrows, the Prevention and Outreach Specialist for Voices Against Violence, moderated the panel. It was a lively and necessary discussion where three panelists – Dr. Angela Valenzuela and UT Sociology doctoral students, Erika Grajeda, and Juan Portillo – offered their “compassionate critiques” of Dr. González-López’s work.
The discussion began with Dr. González-López describing why she studied incest in Mexico. She wanted to do something to help her community in Ciudad Juárez, and so she asked people in the community what type of research was urgently needed. A great deal of research had been done on the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, but nothing had really been studied about incest within Mexican families. Heeding this advice and wanting to engage with a community that she cares about, Dr. González-López decided to conduct 60 interviews with women and men who live in four Mexican cities (Ciudad Juárez, Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey) and who had experienced incest. She also interviewed 35 professionals who work on this issue. After gathering these stories, Dr. González-López found it ethically and politically important to tell these stories as they were told to her and to not sanitize the stories. For this reason, she writes Family Secrets through the method of storytelling, where she presents the stories together in each chapter before offering any structural analysis. This method captures the complexities and gray areas of people’s lives, revealing how theories and concepts can never fully encompass the nuances of people’s lived experiences.
After Dr. González-López gave this brief overview, Dr. Valenzuela was the first to offer her comments on the monograph. She commended Dr. González-López for her emotionally engaged research and for her provocative concepts. She also expressed her fear of what this book might look like in the hands of someone like Donald Trump, who may use this book to pathologize Mexican people. However, Dr. Valenzuela believes that not telling these stories is a greater cost, and that Dr. González-López does an amazing job of analyzing the stories, giving the reader a way to contextualize and understand incest in Mexican society. Dr. Valenzuela also read what she thought was one of Dr. González-López’s provocative ideas: “Thus, the undercurrent or continuum that flows through a woman’s unique subjective experience and all women’s commonly shared experiences of sexual violence seems to suggest that consensual heterosexual sex and rape may have more in common than what one may want to accept” (pg. 110-111). Given this finding, Dr. Valenzuela raised the question of what is a healthy sexuality? And what are the solutions to ending incest?
Following Dr. Valenzuela, Erika Grajeda offered her thoughts on Dr. González-López’s book. Erika found the book to be brave, especially in Dr. González-López’s challenge to take on the family as an institution that reproduces incest and patriarchy. Erika also appreciated Dr. González-López’s analysis of internalized sexism, where women in the family may also be complicit in these incestuous arrangements and reproduce patriarchy as well. Erika raised some poignant questions that really made the preceding discussion engaging. She asked Dr. González-López: How is her conceptualization of consent and rape different than radical feminists? How do sexual scripts shape how women and men describe their sexual experiences, especially when discussing consent and coercion? And what is the difference between incest and abuse and what is the role of the state in perpetuating and/or solving these issues?
After Erika’s insightful comments and questions, Juan Portillo gave his reflections and comments on Family Secrets. Juan saw Dr. González-López’s two biggest contributions as her ethical methodology and her feminist standpoint, which combined gave a nuanced explanation of sexual violence. As life is more complicated than our concepts and theories, Juan pondered how do we make sense of sexual violence when the same logics that we use to try to end it are potentially the same logics that reproduce it. Given that we live in a society structured by inequality, Juan asked Dr. González-López if sex is ever completely consensual. He also wanted to know more about Dr. González-López’s choice of language – in her not wanting to use “survivor” or “perpetrator” and her writing about a gender non-conforming participant.
After these three wonderfully engaging compassionate critiques, Dr. González-López gave her brilliant responses to each of the three panelists. In response to Dr. Valenzuela, Dr. González-López pondered, what do we mean by healthy? Who defines healthy? Who is privileged enough to even have sex or be sexually healthy? As for solutions, Dr. González-López discussed that laws around sexual harassment in Mexico may expand to include relatives. She also talked about a research participant, whose mother believed her when she disclosed being raped by her father. This mother believing her daughter was a form of family justice and feminist practice that protected this woman from experiencing emotional damage. Other interesting topics that were discussed during Dr. González-López’s responses were that women are sophisticated, so seeing them as just victims does not capture their full lived realities. Also, life is messy and complicated and our abstract concepts will never fully get at the gray areas of our lives.
All in all, the panel discussion was thoughtful, provocative, and an important discussion. Family Secrets is a painful but necessary intervention into the field of sociology, sexualities, and sexual violence. In not sanitizing people’s stories, Dr. González-López pushes all of us to face the complex realities of people’s lives. Only in facing these messy nuances can we truly begin to find solutions to solving this social problem. It is with Dr. González-López’s compassion and ethical wisdom that makes Family Secrets a timely and important book that will re-shape the field of sociology for the better.
Brandon Andrew Robinson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. His dissertation is a qualitative exploration of the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth in Texas.