Category Archives: Uncategorized

Abriendo Brecha: Activist Scholarship at the University of Texas

Every year The University of Texas at Austin hosts a conference on activist scholarship known as Abriendo Brecha (Opening a Path).  Abriendo Brecha brings together activistas, mujeristas, artistas, Nepantleras, scholars, and community members whose work is imagesdirected toward social justice and social change.  Celebrating the conference’s 10th anniversary, this year’s Abriendo Brecha’s focused on showcasing different approaches to activist scholarship, and the experiences of those who are involved in such efforts across disciplines, throughout the Americas, both inside and outside the (whitestream) academy.  We invited graduate student Erika Grajada to share some of her reflections attending the conference:

Dr. Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez moderates a panel at Abriendo Brecha X

One of the most important things I took away from the conference is that challenging cultural (and academic) eugenics, as one of the panelists noted, requires that activist researchers think about new and creative ways of knowing (conocimiento), theorizing, and doing. It also requires that we ask new questions: How does a White middle-class researcher engage with and mobilize Chicana feminism and borderlands epistemologies without it resulting in a clumsy reappropriation and recolonization?  As feminist scholars, how can we privilege what Chela Sandoval calls differential consciousness in order to challenge stereotypical representations of women of color?  Should the engaged researcher relinquish “control” over the research project in an effort to discover new, perhaps more ethical ways of conducting research and engaging with underprivileged communities? As Mexican anthropologist Claudia Chávez Argüelles —who is currently conducting research on the massacre of forty-five Tzotzil children, women, and men in Acteal, Chiapas by paramilitary group members—pointed out: “community as another human being, not as an investigadora, which meant I had to learn to accompany them in their ongoing caminar.”

In the words of Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa, “doing work that matters” often entails supporting and aligning ourselves with social movements and organizaciones de base that seek radical social change. What that engagement and relationship will look like will inevitably differ depending on one’s own sense of ethical obligation to the communities we work with. Today, while some of the conference attendees expressed feeling skeptical, critical, and thus constantly grappling with the idea of being an activist or engaged researcher, I left feeling reassured and hopeful by the words of Community and Regional Planning doctoral student Andrea R. Roberts: “silence is also a form of violence.”

Erika Denisse Grajeda is a Sociology doctoral student. Her research interests include informal economies and gender. She is currently doing research on women day laborers in New York City. When not bombarded with graduate school stuff, she likes to drink beer and cook.    

“The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Situating Asian Americans” An evening with Michael Omi

Sociologist Michael Omi

Last week, UT-Austin had the honor of hosting Dr. Michael Omi, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Organized by the Department of Asian American Studies and co-sponsored by a number of other departments and center, Dr. Omi’s visit included a roundtable discussion with five UT faculty members from American Studies, Anthropology, History; an evening talk; and an informal lunch with graduate students. During these events, discussion not only returned to the significance of racial formation theory in the U.S.-based scholarship of race and ethnicity, but also examined the potential for these theories to examine both the durability and flexibility of “race” within global contexts.  We invited sociology graduate students Vivian Shaw, Amina Zarrugh, and Christine Wheatley to share their reflections on these stimulating talks.

Vivian Shaw:

In his evening talk, Dr. Omi focused specific attention on how Asian Americans, as a socially constructed “group,” are located within a number of racial paradoxes. He unseated several ideological myths around “Asianness” and emphasized how Asian Americans have been stratified simultaneously within a white-black racial binary and relationally to other minority groups. Of particular interest to Omi was the “whitening hypothesis,” a sociological theory suggesting that high achievements around education and income and high rates of “outmarriage” experienced by many East Asian Americans might suggest a socioeconomic integration with white Americans. In asking what it means to suggest that Asian Americans are now being “whitened,” Omi argued that we interrogate what it means to develop a framework of racial analysis that assumes the stability of the category of whiteness and equates progress with the expansion of “more others” into the folds of white respectability. To what extent does such a paradigm demonstrate an investment in the privileges of whiteness?

Throughout his visit, Omi drew connections between the complex political meanings of Asians Americans in the U.S. and the production of knowledge about race within the politicized spaces of academia. He seemed to favor an anecdote dating from the publication of “Racial Formation in the United States”: he and Howard Winant (the book’s co-author) rfwere both surprised and disappointed when they found the book had barely made a ripple within the social sciences, but was instead taken more seriously within the humanities and legal studies. Admittedly, Omi’s criticism of the marginalization of race and ethnic studies within intellectual institutions found some coaxing from his anxious audience. Many faculty and graduate students attending the talks expressed concerns about an undeniable slashing of resources for ethnic studies not only within academia at large, but quite acutely at UT-Austin. Among a variety of measures, targeted cuts have occurred in the form of low rates of tenure for faculty of color and eliminated funding for program support staff. Over sandwiches, Omi offered advice to an intent room of graduate students worried about the implications of such cuts on critical research and their own futures within universities.

In his critique of the racial politics pervasive within academic institutions, Omi offered some alternatives. He talked of his collaborative work with anti-racist community-based organizations and their efforts to “translate” academic ideas into policy-friendly language. Moreover, Omi celebrated the creative applications of racial formation theory that he has witnessed since the book’s publication and the innovative ways in which research on race and ethnicities continue to grow. Dr. Omi’s visit served as a powerful reminder of both what is politically, socially, and intellectually at stake when institutions of whiteness go unchallenged and the creative potentials for anti-racist scholarship.

Amina Zarrugh & Christine Wheatley:

In his evening lecture, Michael Omi discussed the relationship of Asian Americans to whiteness, the instability of which is nevertheless symptomatic of a persistent racial hierarchy. Asian Americans are often exalted as the “model minority” given their disproportionately high education and income levels relative to other ethnic minorities and to whites more generally. Historically, Asian Americans have always been situated against a landscape of U.S. black/white relations but are assigned to different sides of the color line at particular moments. Omi underlined the ways by which, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, Asian Americans are especially vulnerable to a racial repositioning during hostile and tense political climates. From the Chinese Exclusion Act in the early 1880s to internment camps for the Japanese during World War II and contemporary virulent discourse regarding economic threats to the U.S. posed by China, examples of the contingent position of the group in the American racial hierarchy abound. This ambivalence is further underscored by recent examples that illustrate an enduring but increasingly politicized perception that Asian Americans are threatening to whites given the U.S. public’s collective anxieties regarding job outsourcing to South Asia, unemployment, and American performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields; this is exemplified further in debates about college admissions such as that of recent U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas.

Of paramount significance to sociologists, particularly those studying race and ethnicity from a quantitative perspective, was Omi’s discussion of whiteness as a category. Omi proposed that the measures typically regarded by social scientists as signs of inclusion and assimilation – such as intermarriage rates – ought to be more critically regarded as an expression of the continued salience of a racial hierarchy and racialized discourse. The high levels of intermarriage between Asian American women and white men, he argued, cannot be understood solely as the transcendence of racial stereotypes or cultural difference but, rather, as their very affirmation. Cultural stereotypes about Asian American women as objects of exoticized sexual desire suggest that the gender gap in Asian American out-marriage may be intimately connected to such pernicious and problematic discourses. In this way, sociologists ought to consider more critically and creatively categories of racial and ethnic identification as well as the contested meanings associated with “indicators” of social experience, such as assimilation.

The implications of Omi and Winant’s work on racial formation and the specific case of Asian Americans are multifold. In particular, Omi places important emphasis on how moments of political tension inaugurate attendant uncertainties and processes of “Othering,” which connects to the experience of other groups seldom considered in literature on race and ethnicity in the U.S.: that of “Middle Eastern Americans.” In the

An image from AARM (Allies Against Racializing Muslims)
An image from AARM (Allies Against Racializing Muslims)

context of a post-9/11 political atmosphere, the “ArabMuslimSouthAsian” body has been racialized in specific ways (which are invariably gender-specific). Like Asian Americans, many members of these groups were historically regarded as “white.” Furthermore, and unlike Asian Americans, individuals from North Africa and the Middle East continue to officially be regarded as “white” according to the definition of the “white” category in the U.S. Census. The case of Arab and Iranian Americans parallel in many ways to that of Asian Americans yet introduces another series of questions with a different valence. A question often posed is “What does it mean to be categorized as ‘non-white’?” This case, instead, turns the question on its head to ask:  “What does it mean to not be disaggregated from the category of ‘white’?” These queries and perplexities require that we interrogate not only what it means to be Asian American, Arab American, or Iranian American, but what “whiteness” means, historically and presently, in the United States.

Amina Zarrugh is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology.  Her research focuses on gender, religion and nationalism in Libya.

Vivian Shaw is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research focuses on race, gender, and technology in Japan and globally.

Christine Wheatley is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology. Her research centers on processes of deportation, both as a form of exclusion and of forced return migration.

Scouting and Homosexuality : A Case for the Gender Police?



Over the past few weeks, the Boy Scouts of America’s policy on gay Scouts and Scoutmasters has been featured heavily in the news.  I am an Eagle Scout who studies masculinity here at the Sociology department and thus feel compelled to weigh in on this important issue.  But to properly unpack why heterosexuality is so near and dear to the Boy Scouts, we need to establish a bit of historical context.

Allow me to set the scene:  It’s the year 2000.  Y2K has passed, Britney Spears is still culturally relevant, and we’re still seven long years from the iPhone.  Over on the Supreme Court, the issue of gays and Scouting is already at hand.  In the 2000 case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, the court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)  were legally able to exclude homosexuals from BSA participation under the constitutional right to freedom of association.  Because BSA operates as a private organization, the court saw exclusion as justified when “the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public of private viewpoints.”  According to the court arguments, opposition to homosexuality is part of BSA’s “expressive message” and thus allowing gay male leaders or scouts would interfere with that message.

Which begs the question: What does “expressive message” mean, and why is homophobia part of the message?

Boy Scouts was first founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England.  Baden-Powell formulated a militaristic and authoritarian vision for the British Boy Scouts, stressing obedience and duty.  Scholars have likened this version of Boy Scouts to a factory producing uniform men “under detailed specifications for particular uses [with] both supplied by a coherent ideology stressing unquestioning obedience to properly structured authority” (Rosenthal 1986).  Essentially, the job of Boy Scouts was to make “manly” men who would then slide easily into discipline-heavy, autonomy-light positions like factory work, middle management, and ideally the ranks of the military in the service of the British Empire.

In the transition from British Boy Scouts into the Boy Scouts of America, we see a reformulation of Scouting to fit its new American setting.  The secular and imperial social context of England produced a Boy Scouts that was equally secular and aspired to produce future soldiers for the British Empire.  In the US, we took the militaristic garb and organization, added copious amount of quasi-religious morality (aided by the essential part churches have in hosting Scout troops), and put it in the service of shoring up a “crisis in masculinity.”  Hold on a sec:  crisis in masculinity?  Where did that come from?

Let’s think about the beginning of the 20th century in the United States.  Industrialization and wage labor were fundamentally changing domestic and work lives.  Instead of a family owning a farm and working it together to put food on the table, men now went to work to earn the money that would put food on the table while their wives sat sequestered at home.  The creation of separate (public/domestic) and unequal spheres of life for men and women created a new basis for male privilege.  At the same time however, fewer men owned their businesses, their homes or farms, or even controlled their own labor.  According to sociologist Michael Messner, “these changes in work and family, along with the rise of female-dominated public schools, urbanization, and the closing of the frontier all led to widespread fears of ‘social feminization’ and a turn-of-the-century crisis in masculinity” (Messner 2007: 35)

With the “feminizing” effects of the big city, female teachers, and a life of waged labor seemingly entrenched into modern social life, men looked for ways to “masculinize” boys early in their development.  This, they hoped, would inoculate them against the deleterious and emasculating winds of 20th century existence.  And HERE is where Boy Scouts enters stage right.  Boy Scouting in America – like its British counterpart – was created with the express purpose of “masculinizing” boys.  We might think of Theodore Roosevelt as the personification of the kind of masculinity the BSA was hoping to produce: strong willed, adventurous, self-sufficient, knowledgeable about nature and camping, definitely not feminine and DEFINITELY not gay.

And thus the good ship BSA continued to sail for many a decade.  It should come as no surprise that being “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight” and spending weekends with your Dad became quite uncool over the years.  Equally uncool was the idea of spending the night in some mosquito infested park instead of hanging out at your friend’s house eating delivered pizza in the air conditioning.  When I first came to Scouting in the 1990s – no doubt partially borne from my father’s own observed “crisis in masculinity” in his overweight, clumsy, bookish son – it was clearly a social world operating under Fight Club rules: no one talked about being in Boy Scouts, no one actually wanted to be in Boy Scouts, and in fact, there IS no Boy Scouts.  My troop was populated by awkward young boys, and many of them – like me – were pushed into Scouting by their fathers as a way to bond and learn about being a man.  We learned outdoor skills to be self-sufficient.  We learned what to do in emergencies and gained a sense of agency.  We took turns being patrol leaders and learned leadership.  We even dutifully absorbed guidelines on personal hygiene, grooming, and ethics.  In some ways, you might even call Scouting “Masculinity for Dummies,” albeit a masculinity that seemed more suited for a bygone age where the square knot and orientation-by-compass were essential daily tasks.  The point was, the popular guys, the guys who got girls, the guys who were on the football team – these were NOT the guys at my troop meeting.  We were guys who knew more about Lord of the Rings than women or sports; we named our patrol after the Warg, a vicious animal from Tolkien’s series.  That is what our fathers sensed, and that is partially why we all gathered in that room on a weekly basis.

As any good sociologist knows however, norms are socially and historically contingent and what is “good, true, or possible” in a given social context will always change, if given enough time.  To be sure, the contemporary BSA experience still attempts to turn boys into normative, masculine men.  But the boundaries of normative masculinity change.  Most of us live in big cities, work for a wage, have been taught be female teachers…..and yet there is no dearth of masculine men.  While not completely normative, it’s even OK for men to be fashionable, be sensitive, be vulnerable.  Thanks to those Peter Jackson films, it might even be cool to like Lord of the Rings now!

Other things have showed less progress, however.  One of the most universal aspects of masculinity is its tendency to define itself as whatever is not feminine.  Thus misogyny and female objectification are still rife in our society, and we have Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, not People Scouts.  Hegemonic masculinity and heterosexuality are also deeply associated.  Thus homophobia – especially among adolescent men, according to CJ Pascoe – continues to exist. On this last point however, all is not lost: Pascoe’s work on high school masculinity revealed that while a gay identity was frequently used as a feminizing epithet, attitudes towards actual gay and lesbian students were more complex and even respectful.  According to Pascoe, while calling other teenagers “fag” is a powerfully stigmatizing word used to hurt and demean, it is primarily deployed to chastise teenagers that are acting feminine instead of those who choose a gay identity.

OK, now we’re caught up to the recent kerfuffle over gays and Scouting.  Less than two weeks ago, the BSA announced a shift in their “no gays allowed” policy upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000.  Rather than a blanket “gays allowed” reversal, their shift was to be based on a quasi-“state’s rights” approach, where each local Scout council would be allowed to decide the policy that best suited their social and cultural context.  That way, the troop in San Francisco could march in the Gay Pride Parade, the troop in Oklahoma City could tell their Scouts that homosexuality was neither moral nor straight, and the BSA could wash its hands of any responsibility.  The liberals get social equality, the conservatives get the right to their own views, and the libertarians get “Big BSA” off of their backs so things can be decided at the local level.  Everyone wins, right?

If you’ve paid any attention to the “culture wars” surrounding gay marriage and abortion, you probably already know the answer: Of course not!  Progressive supporters of the change said this would revitalize the dwindling interest in Scouting; conservative opponents said this would produce a wave of departures from church sponsored troops.  Change supporters said this would create important dialogues; opponents said this would create ideological walls between troops.  The companies that use liberal ideology to sell their products cheered and gave the BSA money; the companies that use conservative ideology to sell their products jeered and threatened to deny funding.

But with our historical context and sociological imagination up and running, we can see that this is slightly more complex than the media narrative.  The Boy Scouts of America were generally founded to inculcate masculinity in boys and specifically to endorse a hegemonic masculinity that is heterosexual at best and homophobic at worst.  So when the Supreme Court or Random Conservative Pundit says that allowing gays in Scouting goes against its foundational “expressive message,” this is quite a bit of truth in this.

The rub is the aforementioned sociological truism that gender norms are dynamic, fluid, and subject to change across time.

Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)
Eagle Scouts deliver petitions to BSA Headquarters. (Courtesy AP)

If today’s society, today’s Boy Scout leaders, or today’s Boy Scouts decide that excluding gay people on the basis of sexual orientation is no longer acceptable, that truth is as valid and real as the “truth” of masculinity the BSA was founded upon.  If the hard fought legal battles and cultural visibility the GLBTQ community have won in the decades since Stonewall mean that homosexuality is no longer seen as immoral or unclean to today’s Boy Scouts – as evidenced by the 1.4 million signatures a group of Eagle Scouts delivered to BSA headquarters –  then that is something their leaders have to deal with honestly, responsibly, and with an open mind.

Perhaps that will still be the case even with the decision Wednesday from the BSA to have more deliberations before a final decision.  On one side stand people who no longer see a conflict between social acceptance of homosexuality and “being a man” in the year 2013.  On the other side are people who sense that something fundamental about masculinity and Scouting is changing.  Both may be right.  But as our trip through history shows, this has as much to do with masculinity and gender policing as it does with homosexuality.

Further Reading and References:

Denny, Kathleen E. 2011. “Gender in Context, Content, and Approach : Comparing Gender Messages in Girl Scout and Boy Scout Handbooks.”  Gender & Society 25: 27

Messner, Michael. 2007. Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender and Sport. Albany: SUNY Press

Pascoe, CJ. 2007. Dude, You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press

Rosenthal, Michael. 1986. The character factory: Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scout movement. New York: Pantheon.

Caroline Wozniacki, Race, Sports and Humor: Is It Funny Yet?

by Letisha Brown

While in Brazil for an exhibition match against tennis player Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki stuffed her bra and tennis skirt with towels in an attempt to impersonate Serena Williams. Since then, there has been quite the buzz. Online commentators, however, seem split, some arguing that the impersonation was “hilarious” while others define it as “out and out racism”. Whether or not Wozniacki intended for her impersonation to cause this much of a stir is irrelevant, as things seem to have hit the proverbial fan.

Taking the impersonation at face value, Wozniacki’s “transformation” is much closer to a blonde Jessica Rabbit than an actual representation of tennis star Serena Williams. Nevertheless, those who condemn Wozniacki believe that her actions were racist, and intended to make yet another public spectacle of the black female body. That said, regardless of Wozniacki’s intentions, her stunt (and the comments that have been made since) brings a host of intriguing questions to the table; especially in light of the recent reelection of President Barack Obama and the continued tensions surrounding the subject of race in America.

Insofar as we live in a “post/racial” society, to what extent can antics such as the performed by Wozniacki be read as racist? The real question is, when it comes to sorority girls dressing up as “illegal aliens” for Halloween, or white girls in black face just for fun, is the subject of race something that people will just “get over,” or move beyond?

Regardless of your stance on the way in which Wozniacki attempted to portray Serena Williams it is difficult to ignore the fact that when it comes to race in America, the subject is still a touchy matter. Nevertheless, it leaves room for sociologists, and human beings in general, to ask hard questions, seek answers and make change. My personal opinion on Wozniacki’s performance is irrelevant. There was no black face involved, and aside from the padding of certain areas of her body, her caricature of Williams is far from convincing. Nevertheless her intent is clear. So, what are we left with when we take stock of all that has happened, in the public eye, as well as in private when it comes to the discourse on race?

From where I sit, it all comes back to one question: is it funny yet?

Sociology of Sport scholars represent UT Austin at NASSS

A Perspective of Three: The 2012 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Conference New Orleans, LA

The University of Texas at Austin’s sociology department had a strong presence at the annual North American Society for the Sociology of Sport conference this year in New Orleans, LA. Dr. Ben Carrington and graduate students Letisha Brown, Lady Adjepong, and Nick Szczech all presented their sociological research projects centering on different aspects of race, ethnicity, and gender in the context of sport. The conference provided Letisha, Lady, and Nick with opportunities to receive feedback from scholars, network, and gain experience organizing a scholarly presentation. Each graduate student reflected on what they found most valuable about the NASSS experience.

Letisha Brown:

This year’s North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Conference (NASSS), was my second foray into the world of sports sociology, and my first trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. For me, this conference was more about networking and getting my name out into the world of sports sociology. On day two of the conference I was nominated and elected to the position of Graduate Representative on the NASSS Board, a two year position that will enable me to engage closely with faculty from across the globe; as well as the graduate students who have entrusted me to serve as their voice. This nomination was a happy surprise, and an opportunity to build my experience within this organization.
In addition to this honor, I was also privileged enough to have lunch with Michael Messner, a guru of gender and sport sociology and author of several publications including: Out of Play: Critical Essays on Gender & Sport, Sex, Violence, Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity, and Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. During the lunch I received sage advice, support and encouragement for my work as a young scholar and my participation on the board of a respected organization. Attending conferences and making connections is one of the most rewarding parts of the graduate experience. Having the opportunity to do it in a city as eclectic as New Orleans, with other people from the department to share the experience with (Lady, Nick and Ben), is a plus!

Nick Szczech:

Utilizing a Community of Scholars as Preparation for NASSS

As a first-year graduate student in the UT sociology department and with NASSS being my first academic conference, I had no idea what to expect. Thankfully, the sociology department and my fellow graduate students provided invaluable insights and support throughout the entire process. In early August, Letisha Brown, my graduate student mentor and fellow NASSS conference attendee, originally alerted me about submitting an abstract before the start of my first semester at UT. In my opinion, the department’s graduate student mentor program is one of the department’s strengths because these student mentors provide the “first years” with insights, perspectives, and advice on a multitude of topics—from how to prepare for classes to tips for publishing to networking advice—since they have already “walked in our shoes,” so to speak.

After having our abstracts accepted, we scheduled an informal “brown bag” for Letisha, Lady, and myself to present our research a few weeks before the conference. In front of a group of staff and fellow graduate students, we received feedback about our presentations’ theoretical content, our presentation styles, and tips for improving the visual layout and organization of our power points, among other critiques. This audience was comprised of a mix of qualitative and quantitative graduate students with all of them having a variety of subfield specialties from gender to social movements. The diversity of subfields also provided us, as scholars, with unique insights and created a discussion that forced us, as presenters, to critically analyze how we presented our research to scholars who might not understand our theoretical frameworks or sociological subfields.

For me, this “brown bag” was an important experience, since it forced me to think critically about my presentation style and organization while also acquiring an outside perspective on and critique of the research project I had been revising for over a year. Letisha, Lady, and myself all utilized the critiques to improve our presentations, so that we arrived in New Orleans confident in the strength of our presentations—knowing we had already clarified any issues with our peers.

Lady Adjepong:

Spending a three-day weekend with scholars of sports was an amazing experience. NASSS in New Orleans was the second time I presented my research on women’s rugby to an audience of sociologists of sports and it yielded a very rewarding dialogue.
I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday, after Nick and Letisha had already spent the day getting to know the graduate students and socializing with the other scholars. When I got to the conference site, I was pleased to find several rooms overflowing because so many people were interested to hear the material being presented. The first presentation I sat in on was so packed that several of us sat on the floor. The discussion centered on U.S. media coverage of women in the Olympics, Nigerian women’s access to sports, and perceptions of violence in women’s tennis. Following the presentations, the conversation was lively as most people in the room had critical perspectives on gender, race, and ethnicity in sports.

Nick and I were presenting in the same session on “Multiple Femininities/ Multiple Masculinities.” Unfortunately, Letisha was presenting at the same time as Nick and so we were unable to hear her. But as Nick mentioned, we had the chance to hear each other’s presentation and provide feedback, which truly was invaluable.

After attending ISSA and NASSS conferences, I have come away convinced of the value of specialization conferences. In the summer of 2012 I presented at ISSA in Glasgow (thanks to Dr. Christine Williams and Dr. Sheldan Ekland-Olson for their support in funding my trip!). Like NASSS, ISSA was an opportunity for me to meet scholars of sports from different disciplines and across geographic locations. There I made connections with other scholars who study women’s rugby and remain in touch with them. For me, these specialization conferences allowed me to learn what other kinds of work are happening in the field of sports studies, and at the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality. These conferences also highlight the need to speak across disciplines and within our discipline of sociology.

Overall lessons from NASSS:
1. Present to your peers! As Nick said, the brown bag was a fine way to get feedback about our presentations and allowed us to stand in front of other scholars and share our work.
2. Network at conferences: Letisha highlights the importance of meeting scholars and participating in different groups within conference organization.
3. Seek out specialization conferences: Lady shows us how these conferences allow us to think broadly about the work that we do.

Opening the Blinds: A Convesation with Juan Portillo

In the final part of our series looking at the “Opening the Blinds” panel – dealing with the experiences of students of color here at UT and previously highlighted here and here – we offer a conversation between Juan Portillo, organizer of the panel, and Amias Maldonado, blog editor and fellow scholar of gender and critical race theory. 

What was your reason for organizing this conference in the first place?

Lately I had noticed events happening this semester that may not be new but that students were definitely reacting to.   I’m thinking of everything from the bleach bombings and the problematic fraternity parties to the struggles of students of color on the campus at large.  These ideas of micro-aggressions and the invisible ways that students become marginalized and experience marginalization worried me.  I wanted to understand more about it from a professional point of view as a scholar but also from a personal point of view as someone who is a student here, someone who works with students.  Someone who has gone through some of these micro-aggressions

Obviously UT has had a checkered past when it comes to issues of racial aggression macro or micro: you can still see the segregated bathrooms in the main building, you can still see the statues of Confederate nobility around the South Mall, but at the same time, it seems like there’s something new or different in the sort of ferocity or intensity of things that are going on right now. 


So do you see there being something new going on here in terms of the climate of the University or do you see this as ultimately part of a larger trend that we haven’t been paying attention to but has been festering in the shadows?

I think it’s a little bit of both.  I mean, it’s definitely something that never stopped.  I mentioned a book during the presentation called “Integrating the 40 Acres,” and that book delineates the history of integration at UT and how the issues that students face today are still the same, they’re just being played out differently; we’re no longer fighting for the right to be here, but for the right to be really included.  One way that I explain it is that students of color, female students, queer students, any kind of non-normative student is tolerated, right?  That’s the kind of discourse around them.  These are bodies that are supposed to be tolerated on campus, but that’s not the same as integrated, or included, or having the same kind of presence as others, right?

Definitely.  Sara Ahmed has this notion of institutional passing, where she talks about how in the diversity world, what’s important is for bodies to produce sameness, and insomuch as you don’t produce sameness, as you show yourself as different, that’s immediately read as threatening and racist in itself.  So the responsibility is on the non-normative student to act in line with everyone else and sort of disavow or cover up their cultural heritage, their sexual orientation, etc. 

And that’s something that’s been going on.  This sameness denies students a voice to actually speak up against injustice that is very real.  People highlighting racial bias, gender bias, class bias at UT goes against some kind of fantasy that we’ve all bought into that everybody should be the same and that everybody is the same and that if we just don’t talk about the differences, marginalization will go away.

I think another important part of the panel and your work is the role of space. A lot of times people think about race or gender as attached to bodies, you know, but it’s really not just on bodies, it’s also in matters of space, so I was wondering if you could talk a little about that, about how space can become raced and gendered.

So most of my ideas about space and the way space is gendered and racialized came from Nirwal Puwar’s Space Invaders.  Just listening to students of color or female students in male dominated fields like engineering and their experiences in the class – what they feel, how they feel, what people tell them – kind of uncovers or untangles all these forces of oppression that are still around.

So just to be clear for the non-critical race scholars out there, when we’re saying that the University is a white male space, what do we mean by that?

First of all, those bodies were inhabiting the space.  It’s kind of a philosophical tradition to think that knowledge is disembodied.  But in fact, knowledge happens through experience, through the person who is writing the book, through the lecturer talking to his class.  So this space physically was reserved mostly for white male bodies from the inception of the University.  They were creating knowledge and in doing so, they defined what counts as “real” knowledge.  And this tradition carried on until finally it was challenged to include other bodies.  Black bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies.  And their inclusion transgressed this boundary that was set up around the University space.  The only real bearers of knowledge were the white male bodies, but now we have women and people of color here and that crates an anxiety over who has the right to say what counts as the real truth.  It’s a challenge to authority and to the authorship of knowledge.

I want to go back to the importance of privilege real quick.  To me, when you’re an ally for racial or social or sexual justice, it’s not that you will always say the right thing or you will always recognize your privilege but that you have to be open to interrogating yourself and interrogating the ways in which your own assumptions are informed by your privilege and be willing to critically analyze yourself.  I think there’s a lot of tension around that for allies who believe in social justice that they want to sort of “cleanse themselves” of their complicity in these structures but the fact is, you can’t cleanse yourself.  You just have to be open to recognizing your privilege.  Would you agree with that? 

Yeah, I think one of the things that we wanted to also spotlight in the panel was that it’s important to turn the lens around on yourself.  And whether you’re a researcher or not, we’re usually very comfortable analyzing others or analyzing situations as though we were not in it.  But starting to understand how we are part of these institutions will have large repercussions on how we shape our institutions and communities.

So talking about tackling oppression in the institution, one of the things I was struck by in the talk was how the women on the panel navigated their relationship to the University.  In a class recently, we read a book about Black Panther Party health care initiatives.  One of the things that they struggled with was this tension between wanting the legitimacy that came with federal funding and the desire to maintain a critical perspective on the medical-industrial complex as a whole.  In the talk, you saw these same kinds of dialogues occurring within La Collectiva Feminil.  They want to critique UT as an institution but at the same time there are some things to be gained by being part of the institution, so I wondered if you could speak to that tension of being a critic and being a revolutionary from the outside on the institution but at the same time wanting to sort of use institutional structure to create change from within as well.

Well, the way I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this idea that to be revolutionary, you have to kind of oppose the institution.  That once you become part of the institution you stop being revolutionary.  That does explain part of it, but I feel that at a deeper level, what the panel exposed was that their resistance to being institutionalized is also an effort to maintain a particular consciousness.  These are students coming from an experience that is way outside what we think the mainstream student would be or the mainstream professor would be.  It’s almost like inhabiting a different dimension if that makes sense.

It does.

These are women who identify as, or have created, a queer feminine space.  Most of them are first generation college students.  So I think there’s hope there in the sense that – and I can’t even begin to describe exactly what I think they’re doing and what I think their goals are because I haven’t had that experience – but I just know that they have something very special going on that necessitates further analysis with theories created in the margins.

Yeah. Because there’s also another tension at work here that activist organizations have.  This one is between wanting to change the system on a larger level but also for the members of that group, just wanting to have livable lives and to have that space to practice self-help, self-health, and to have a community that you can call your own without having to compromise.  And that takes priority sometimes over these larger institutional issues because ultimately they’re just students that are trying to get through college.

But I think both structures can co-exist as long as we don’t try to impose a particular definition of what they are right now and what they should be if they become part of the institution.  They have a space and a consciousness through the members of that group that’s fluid, that recognizes – that thrives, actually – in ambivalence.  Their very survival depends on embracing ambivalence which is something that UT as an institution doesn’t necessarily do.  But UT doesn’t have to understand it to be able to work with the students.   They don’t have to submit to all the rules to still work with UT and still be a positive influence at UT.

So what was the experience of the panel that you organized?  What did they think about the experience, what did they say to you afterwards?

They were extremely happy.  They felt like somebody listened to them, I think that was the main thing.  That somebody was listening.  I felt the same way.  That somebody is listening and that transformations can happen.  The fact that the panel was composed of a mixture of undergraduate and graduates students and a staff member of UT showed how we can have an intellectual and rigorous conversation that doesn’t have to be structured in a rigid academic way.

Good point.

So not just what we said, but how we said it and how the audience responded made all of us extremely, extremely happy.  Even the audience members came to me later and they were like, “We never thought that these conversations could happen in this room, in this building, in this department.”  But as far as the panelists go, they were very… was almost therapeutic in a way.  It was a way to reconstitute themselves as human beings.

Yeah, totally.   And it was great in the audience to see that it was just as diverse as the panel.  There were undergraduates, there were graduate students, there were professors like that lady in the back…


Who gave that amazing and troubling historical perspective on women of color faculty at UT.  You don’t expect that kind of critical voice coming from an older white woman, but there she is.  That’s an ally that if you just saw her passing in the hall, you would never know that you had that ally there.  I also saw a man I know that does diversity work for the Division of Housing and Food at UT, so it speaks to the idea that there was a hunger and a need to sort of address the silence around these sorts of issues.

Yeah, and the panelists definitely want to do more.  Whether it’s just us talking about what happened and what to do next or whether it’s a new conversation entirely.  And I know that here in the department, we also want to do more.  Just follow this format – a format that’s more fluid, that can address different issues, different interests.  There’s definitely some momentum here that we can take advantage of.

Amina Zarrugh’ s “Discordant Voices” featured

By Amina Zarrugh
Tripoli, Libya. Photo courtesy of Amina Zarrugh.

Amina Zarrugh, a sociology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, focuses her research on gender, religion and nationalism in Libya. She has family roots in the capital city of Tripoli, Libya, where she frequently visits each summer to observe the atmosphere of politics and social life under the Gaddafi regime and during the revolution.


A national survey released by the Pew Research Center last week illustrates increased skepticism among the American public regarding whether the Arab Spring will “benefit” the United States or the Middle East. This uncertainty stems in part from the recent attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Discourses have questioned whether the Arab uprisings were really “worth it” given the loss of U.S. lives. Contrast these sentiments with the collective condemnations of the violence by Libyans, with statements like “Islam is not about killing innocent people” and “We demand justice for Stevens” appearing on signs in Benghazi and Tripoli “sympathy protests” following the attack.

The attitudes expressed by Libyan protesters – in the recent attack and arguably since the inception of their revolutionary movement – have been overshadowed by emphases from the media on a series of “-isms” (terrorism, tribalism, and sectarianism). During the protracted conflict, “Lawrence of Arabia” reels were resurrected from their Orientalist graveyards – apparently only superficially buried – and served as the clarifying lens by which to comprehend contemporary politics and identities in North Africa. (continued)

The University of Texas Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program

Longhorn REU students with their adviser, sociology professor Dr. Nestor Rodriguez (center). To Dr. Rodriguez’s immediate right: Mario Guerra and Taylor Orth

Each year the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, hosts the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. This eight-week summer program, which is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, offers eight very selective upper-division undergraduate students from both UT-Austin and from around the country the opportunity to study social demography through course work and a mentored research experience with senior PRC graduate students. Student papers are then presented at the annual fall meeting of the Southern Demographic Association.  This year three undergraduate sociology majors – Taylor Orth, Mario Guerra, and Sharron Wang – participated in the REU program and we invited them to share their experiences with the blog.

Taylor Orth:     The REU program gave me the opportunity to conduct independent research and provided me with the ultimate pre-graduate school experience. Throughout the program, we were taught through a variety of different classes, seminars and experiences. While being trained in the technical side through working with Stata and GIS software, we were also given field experience by taking a field trip to Houston to explore different racial and ethnic enclaves. Dr. Nestor Rodriguez and Dr. Rebecca Torres provided us with a mix of perspectives, and gave us a sociological as well as a geographical understanding of our topics and the subjects we approached in the classroom. I feel like the program really helped me to fully explore my interests before I take the leap of applying to graduate school. With such a strong support group, it was an excellent time to really find out what I wanted to study and to take risks with using difficult data and new types of analyses.

In addition to the training we received, we were paired with graduate mentors who oversaw our research and guided us in making decisions regarding our own independent projects. My mentor David McClendon was especially helpful and assisted me in my project on fertility within interracial and interethnic marriages. After finishing our projects, we submitted them to the Southern Demographic Association conference.  Attending the conference was a valuable experience, and we were each given the opportunity to present our research. For me, the most rewarding part was when I finished my presentation and one woman stayed around afterwards to speak with me. She informed me that she had come to the panel presentation because my topic was of particular interest to her, and she wanted to ask me additional questions and speak in detail after the presentation. It was exciting to think that someone was interested in something I had researched and it was nice to be able to share what I had learned.

After having such a positive experience working with a diverse cohort of students as well as interacting daily with a faculty mentor, I became confident in my decision to attend graduate school. The program gave me all the tools that I needed to work independently, but also provided me with resources to fall back on when I needed help. With many long hours working in the PRC computer lab on our projects, our cohort of students developed a special bond, and were very happy to be reunited at the meeting in Williamsburg. I don’t think there could have been a better way to spend my summer. The program provided me with a research experience unavailable to undergraduates anywhere else.

Mario Guerra:     The REU program gave me a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of conducting research as well as presenting at a conference. In general, most students have written research papers for a class or two but conducting independent research takes this a step further as one tries to contribute to the work that may already be out there. After a summer of research focused workshops and seminars, we were then able to show off our work at the SDA conference.

The summer program was an interesting experience as it allowed for a more intensive focus on independent research than did any other undergraduate class I have taken. The focus here was to prepare the students for their own research projects no matter what their background in statistics and demography may be. Due to the mix of students, our workshops were focused on training in both STATA and GIS in order to conduct our analysis. The summer months also gave us the opportunity to get to know other students from around the country who had similar interests as we did and were also eager to explore Austin. The resources over the summer also made the daunting task of independent research a more manageable experience. The fearless REU leaders Dr. Nestor Rodriguez and Dr. Rebecca Torres were always available to answer any questions. Additionally, our mentors and grad students in charge of workshops gave great advice and went above and beyond to help us.

This October was our conference at SDA which was my first presentation at an actual conference. It was a great experience in not only presenting but simply being around that type of environment. Knowing that for two and a half days you could sit in on some pretty interesting presentations was great. As for the presentation, I feel that I was definitely a lot more nervous than I had to be. The many nights spent at local 24 hour coffee shops running data analysis and reading random articles on my topic had prepared me for the presentation. I found myself not needing to prepare as much as I thought seeing as I felt rather confident in the subject matter. This in turn made for a relatively smooth presentation. Seeing as my presentations was during the first student time slot, I was able to spend the rest of the time not worrying about the presentation. I was able to explore William and Marys right next door and hang out with the other REU students.

In all, it was a wonderful experience that led to some great stories (like that we randomly said hi to the Dalai Lama although that’s not really REU related). We also made some great connections with professors and other students who had similar research interests. Personally, the program really solidified the idea that as a sociology major applying to graduate schools, this type of research is something I enjoy doing.

Sharron Xuaren Wang:     I would like to begin by thanking the Sociology Department and Population Research Center (PRC) for they giving me the opportunity to take part in the REU program this summer. I also want to thank Dr. Nestor Rodriguez, Dr. Rebecca Torres, Molly Dondero, Joseph Lariscy, our mentors, and the entire amazing faculty and staff who made this research program possible and guided us through our research

The REU program is very special to me because it gave me the confidence to do sociological research in the future. My first major was economics.  After adding sociology as my second major, I was eager to find an opportunity to conduct sociological research. I enjoyed reading sociological literature; however, I was not sure if I would be able to do research or not.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to participate in the REU program.

Sharron Xuaren Wang

All the classes and sessions I took in the REU program equipped me with the knowledge and skills to do independent research. I also got a taste of how joyful it can be after I ran data analyses successfully. The moment I saw results appear on my screen, I became sure that doing research is for me and that I want to pursue it. Even though I had some difficulties finding available data and supporting theories for my topic, our supervisor, Dr. Rodriguez, Molly, and Joseph were very supportive. They gave me helpful insight and lots of courage that help me persevere through all the difficulties.

The October SDA meeting was a unique opportunity for me to practice presenting my research and listen to outstanding research presentations. I was deeply impressed by the academic atmosphere in the conference. I also got much valuable feedback from other researchers for my research. I want to thank the REU very much for giving me this wonderful experience and the courage to pursue my interest in researching. The entire program was an unforgettable experience.


Opening The Blinds: Talking race, sex and class at UT Austin

The UT Sociology Department recently hosted a panel dealing with the struggles of students of color operating in an educational environment that can be both obliquely and blatantly racist.  We will have a more in-depth discussion of the panel and the issues it raised with its creator Juan Portillo (pictured here) soon, but for now, we direct you to the article written by the Daily Texan concerning this important event.