Couldn’t make out to Facing Race 2012, our national conference? Or want to share your experience? Here’s the last of our three plenaries at the gathering, the full 70-minute video. Check out the other two plenary videos and more from the conference in our Facing Race 2012 hot topic.
In this plenary, the Center for Social Inclusion’s Maya Wiley leads a conversation with writer Janet Mock, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health’s Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, seminal race scholar Michael Omi and the Albany Law School’s Christian Sundquist. Together, they discuss the present and future of race and gender and their intersections, and what it means for political and cultural power.
A note on audio: since this is a recording of a live event in front of a real audience, there are a few quirks with sound quality. We’re working to get text transcripts available of this and the rest of our plenaries – stay tuned! [Update: transcript below.]
Facing Race 2012: Race and Gender Panel
Maya Wiley: Okay. So I guess that means I’m supposed to invite my panel up? Yay, my panel. Come on Janet, come on Michael, come on Christian, come on Jessica. And let me just say, I’m not going to introduce them because ARC has gone to the incredible trouble of putting a phenomenal biographical package together. And because they gave me the very small task of addressing the very narrow topic of race, gender, identity and technology in the 21st century I am not going to take our time to introduce them. But I will say you should read their biographies just because they’re each incredibly impressive people who’ve done an incredible body of work. Oh, we get to sit. I get to sit. There is room for me.
So let me just say a couple things to set this panel up. You know, I was trying to figure out how to start today because this is such a big, broad, important topic. But it also covers a tremendous amount of territory. And you know, usually I start by saying I am an angry, black woman and that usually is true. And I thought somehow in this crowd that wasn’t really much of a statement. When you say it in front of the democratic caucus, it’s a very big statement of the US House. But this is not quite that impact. And then I thought I would tell — you know, Rinku was telling us yesterday in our race communications workshop the importance of narrative. And I thought you know, that’s so true. And I get so much of my own inspiration from my own children; I’m the mother of two daughters. And they are the children of me, obviously. It’s true. And of my partner, who is Jewish. And so I’ve had two experiences with both of my kids as girls growing up, you know, in this very complex society with these very complex identities they’re trying to form. And so my story about my eight year old was that the census form came — the 2010 census form came, and I had Harlan, we’re doing the gender stuff, trying to break down the gender roles. So Harlan’s making dinner, my partner. My mother has Alzheimer’s, at the time not the cognitively intact person and she was still living with us at the time, but a wonderful, committed activist in her own right and a white woman. And my two kids. And I come home and the girls are setting the table, my mother’s sitting there, census form is on the table, Harlan’s setting the table, and I pick up the census form and being an angry black woman, I start lecturing my family. And I start lecturing them on the critical importance of political blackness, right? And I start saying… I do this whole — I won’t even go through the speech with you because we only have over an hour. And I’m lecturing them and I’m pontificating and I’m on my soapbox and the soapbox is getting higher and higher. And then I say, “so political blackness, who’s with me?” And my white, Alzheimer’s-having mother’s hand shoots up immediately and goes “Me!” And Harlan, knowing better, immediately shoots his hand up and says me, I’m there, I’m with you. And Naja, who is also the brown child, was like oh yeah, I’m black. And Kai, my eight-year-old who is my mother’s child, not really mine, looks exactly like my mother, very, very, very fair-skinned let me say, and she is looking at all of us like we are insane. And she goes “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m white.” True story.
And I’m like… and me being the mother that I am, the racial justice advocate, I say okay, she’s eight… she was six at the time. I just didn’t explain this right, right? My vocabulary was a little too large. I said things like structural racialization. I said okay baby, “Here’s what I really mean. Who gave — where did you come from?” And she went you. And I said “Right, and what am I?” And she went, “Black.” And I said, “Right. So what are you?” And she went “White.”
So you know, the complexity of race and gender in American society. And so on our 2010 census form it says we are a family of three black adults, one white child and one black child. I’m convinced that child welfare is going to be showing up at our door to figure out who’s the little white child we stole?
And then the only other story, which is from my 11-year-old who actually looks Pakistani, right? And both of my kids go to our inner-city public school which is highly diverse, but 95% not white. And my 11-year-old — she’s now 11. At the time, of course, she was in elementary school. And she is trying to struggle with her identity as black, which she very much owns, and Jewish right? And she has been Jewish since she was three years old. I mean, she just decided that she was Jewish. And we’re not a religious family so I don’t know where this came from, but it’s certainly not from her father who thinks he’s Buddhist. But she went through this process… and she had a little child’s bible and she was reading the Old Testament and said she can’t wait to read about my religion when that Jesus guy came. So she’s this brown child going to this inner-city public school telling everybody she was a Hebrew. And I mean Hebrew, not Jewish, because that’s how it says in the bible. She was a Hebrew, which really confused her classmates, really a lot.
And then they had — because most of them are immigrant kids, right? The West Indies and Latin America and Pakistan and Bangladesh and Tibet. I mean, it’s a really, really diverse classroom. And they have to do this project of country of origin. And it’s a wonderful thing that it’s not an assumption that country of origin is the United States. That in and of itself really marked the school’s understanding of its population. But for my daughter… so she comes home with this school project and she’s like, “Mommy, mommy, where are we from?” And I’m like, “Oh, hell if I know. I mean shit. I mean, it’s called slavery, baby. I don’t know. Eastern shore of Maryland Plantation, does that count?” Which is true by the way; I’m back home. So she’s like that won’t work, because she needs a country of origin. And she refuses to put the US because that’s not interesting.
So she finally goes to her father who starts saying well, on my father’s side, they were from this town but sometimes it was in Poland and sometimes it’s in Russia. And she was like okay, that’s not going to work. But she settled… but his mother’s side were German Jews and Holocaust survivors. So she settles on Germany. So she shows up in her all, not-white, immigrant classroom with her brown-ass self, her black, Hebrew, brown-ass self saying she’s from Germany. So I think that says it all about our panel and what we’re going to discuss today.
So with that, and I’m going to sit and hope the mic works so I can join these wonderful people. So Michael… Michael. So race. If race is not a biological phenomenon, if it’s socially constructed, how do we construct it and what does it mean that we construct it?
Michael Omi: I think you already answered the question Maya, in many respects. And I think just your narrative about what was going on in your own family really speaks to this part about how race is socially constructed in a number of ways. One thing, when you talk about the census for example, is the clash oftentimes between state-based definitions about race and ethnicity and how individuals or groups see themselves. And this has been a continuing kind of dilemma for the census bureau. Last summer I spent about four days at the census bureau, and it’s really mind-boggling to hear about, for example, over the last four decades since the 1980 census about 40% of Latinos have difficulty figuring out how to answer the census because they’re supposed to answer an ethnicity question — in other words, is one Hispanic or not — and a race question. And in fact, it’s claimed that like 94% of people who fill out some other race are actually Latino.
By the way, the real funny thing is outside of Latino, the second most popular term that people wrote in for some other race was Jedi, who I’m sure are thrilled that Star Wars may be back and running again under Disney’s hands.
The other thing is that people don’t see themselves represented in the census. There’s been various movements since the 1990s to put a Middle Eastern category on, and in fact the Iranians had a write-in campaign in the 2010 census to write under some other race, to not mark everything else, put some other race and put Iranian on there. So here’s the thing: there’s these big gaps and discrepancies between these prevailing definitions and how people want to see themselves, how they want to organize on that basis.
The other part of it that’s really interesting going forward is that really, there’s a continuing instability on the concept of race itself. And that hasn’t been with either through these state classifications. Christian could probably speak much more to the fact that we’ve had a kind of re-biologization of race if you will in the wake of the Human Genome Project where there’s a tremendous interest in say ethnic ancestry testing which Skip Gates and Oprah Winfrey have sort of popularized in many ways as well as developments in fields like pharmacogenomics, talking about whether or not we can have racially-tailored drugs to meet certain kinds of conditions.
And the other thing that I think leads to stability is that these pan-ethnic labels which we so glibly refer to as “Asian” or “Latino” or “Black” are really pretty heterogeneous. And going forward, those kinds of differences within those groups, the subgroups which make up those categories, are probably… the differences are probably going to deepen in interesting ways. And we should be attentive to that with respect to cultural representations as well as like how people politically mobilize.
Maya: But let’s say something about — okay, so last night we had Junot Diaz who was off the chain, right? He was off the chain. You know, really mind-blowing, but one of the many, many mind-blowing things he said is say white. Say white. And when we talk about race, we often in our discussions as a country assume we’re talking about people of color as if white people don’t have a social construction around their race. And whiteness itself is a very complex conversation. So just say a little bit then about the socialization of whiteness because I don’t think we talk enough about that.
Michael: Well, it’s interesting just because white becomes a kind of invisible norm in many respects. And think about, just because of the legacy of policies. 1790, who could become a naturalized citizen of the United States? It took us until 1952, 160 years later, to say that race was not going to be the basis upon which a person was denied the right to become a naturalized citizen. This means that when people made claims around recognition, argued for naturalization rights, they always had to claim to some degree whiteness. And that sort of sets the tone for how, in many respects, people of color have had to respond to this kind of real legacy of white supremacy.
Maya: Okay, Janet, I want to come to you because one of the things that Junot Diaz said last night that I thought was so powerful is that we have to navigate — we have to get ourselves out of the self-hate maze, and that in getting ourselves out of the self-hate maze we have to draw a new map to ourselves. And you’re someone who through your own leadership have written so much about living history, about the importance of our communities. As you said, archiving our lives and living our histories. And you’ve also talked about the narrative as a transgender… the narrative of the transgender community being trapped in the wrong body, and what a negative narrative that is. And so you can you just speak a little bit to that?
Janet Mock: Yeah. Well, I’m so humbled to be here now, sharing this space with all of you.
Maya: Oh, mic. Can you maybe hold it up a little?
Janet: Oh, it’s working? I’m humbled to be here. Is that better?
Maya: Much, yes.
Janet: I think one of the things, just personally having told my story and kind of this “coming out,” I feel as if there’s been a lot of attention on me and focus on me as a personality. And it’s hard when I’m doing that, because I’m also talking about my story in the context of all of these things going on that plagued my community, specifically trans women of color who are overlooked in many of the different intersections. And I also think about our history. When I say living history, I think about how there’s like this violent erasure of trans women of color being active agents in our own survival and active agents in fighting police brutality from the very beginning at Stonewall, in Compton and all of these things. They’re just kind of like this — yeah, there’s these drag queens who’ve been out there and these trans women who’ve been out there, but no one wants to talk about them actually being involved because no one feels like they represent them.
And you’re talking about self hatred, I think there’s a part of that because I think what trans-gender tend to do is make us shake up our idea of how we see gender. And even me as a trans woman, it’s… it’s difficult in the sense that I’m the “right kind” of trans woman. I’m passable. I’m “attractive” in terms of what we see as desirable. I can speak. People assume I haven’t done sex work. People assume all of these things based on the way I look and my education and all of this stuff. But I think that I’m really involved in pushing other women to tell their stories as well, and that’s why I try to create those spaces online.
And I think New Media is a safe space for trans people in this very transphobic and misogynistic world to share their stories and to connect with one another and maybe to hide behind an avatar and be out at least online. And I kind of… I’m all about that right now. It’s empowering to have a woman write to me and say that because I told my story, it made her want to tell hers more. And knowing that telling our stories is revolutionary. And it’s revolutionary because it’s dangerous and it causes, you know, really bizarre kind of hostility but at the same time it also creates community because you make yourself vulnerable enough for people to see you. And in seeing you, other people see themselves.
Maya: I do want to come back a little later to the role that technology plays in our socializing race and gender. But one of the things I think doesn’t get talked about enough, there’s so much violence against women of color generally. We know 35% of black women experience violence without regard to what category they’re placed in. Very, very high. I think it was 47% of Cambodian women surveyed reported violence of some kind, whether rape or assault. And transgender community, particularly in transgender women of color, that’s almost invisible in a lot of discussion and survey of how violence happens, who perpetrates it. Can you speak a little bit to that?
Janet: Of course. There’s no conversation talking about trans women of color without talking about the fact that there’s lack of resources and where they live, and in addition to that how are they making money? They’re making money through sex work. You know, I think there’s a recent survey in urban areas of trans women, more than 59% of them have engaged in survival sex work. And not only do we not care about women of color or women period, but we also don’t care about sex workers because our morality says oh, that’s bad that they’re doing this. But how else are they supposed to pay for these transitional costs and also not having a home or having even access to healthcare or to even get a job?
And yeah, so I feel like there’s no way to talk about violence against trans women without talking about sex work as this part of it, and also just talking about misogyny period and trans women, especially those who can’t blend in as well as I can, are harassed every single day on the street and are called trannies and are called all of these horrific things that you wouldn’t… and even when I walk into a space, I think about just for myself — sorry, this microphone is just all kinds of… you know, when I walk into a space, I know that by being out and people knowing that I’m trans, my body is being dissected. And all of these different things like oh, where does she look kind of male? And these are things people look at every single day at trans people and trans women of color specifically. And I feel like not only do we gender police ourselves, but people are always policing our bodies as well.
Maya: Christian, I want to come back to you because you know, this notion of okay, so if race is not a biological construct, if it’s just a social construct, why are we — how… I mean, let’s talk a little bit more about how; Michael touched on it. How are we biologizing it now and what’s the impact of that?
Christian Sundquist: Absolutely. Can you hear me? Alright, is that better? It’s an extremely troubling trend right now. A very ominous trend in terms of reinterpreting race as a discrete, biological and genetic entity. And Michael has written quite a bit about racial construction, and we’ve accepted it as a truth. We have, science has accepted it as a truth as it is that race is unstable. It is subject to change based on various political context, right? And so the why is a very important question, I think. And I think to answer it we have to think about the inherent tension between existing racial disparities, existing racial inequality and inequalities that are actually growing today, and our professed democratic belief in equality. And so there’s been a number of ways we’ve tried to navigate or resolve for America — that society has tried to resolve that tension. One, way back in the day, was to construct race in the first place right? To view it as this biological entity, and therefore any existing racial inequalities were viewed to be… that’s worse? Okay. Thank you. Therefore, any existing racial inequalities were viewed to be the natural results of biology, right? And we’ve had many other attempts to resolve that moral contradiction, to resolve that cognitive dissonance that society and white America creates that they don’t want to confront white privilege. Right? And so biology was one way. “Culture of poverty” theories was another way that was prominent back in the 70s under President Regan and so forth and how we’ve reformed welfare to view existing racial disparities as not the result of continuing racial discrimination or the result of a legacy of racism, but rather due to deficient cultural choices. So we’ve had a lot of distancing move over the past, and I’ve seen this the new attempt to conceive of race in genetic terms and biologic terms as just an additional attempt to resolve this inherent moral contradiction between our belief in equality on the one hand and continuing exacerbating disparities on the other hand. It takes folks off the hook. It allows society to not confront privilege.
Maya: So can you say a little bit more as well about DNA testing? We’ve been talking about the criminal justice statistics. One in three black men between 20 and 29 alone are in the criminal justice system in some form. What’s the role of DNA testing in that?
Christian: Absolutely. It’s very troubling. So the way this new view of race as being genetic has come about in a number of different ways. One is race-based drugs, pharmacogenomics. Another stems into DNA ancestry testing. But I think one of the most troubling ways this has manifested is in the use of DNA evidence against black and Latino men in the criminal justice system. And there’s two ways this comes about. One is genetic surveying and creating extensive databases of DNA samples collected from persons that are arrested, collected from persons that are convicted of crimes, even misdemeanors.
California has this contested statute that would allow police to collect a DNA swab from you if you’re merely stopped by a police officer. So it’s completely up to the individual police officer’s discretion. That’s only been a state-by-state approach yet, but I see the dark clouds on the horizon. The other way it’s come about is in the actual conviction of black and Latino men in court of criminal misdemeanors and of felonies and so forth, the introduction of DNA estimates of who the likely perpetrator was.
So it’s extremely commonplace right now for an expert for the prosecution to get on the stand and testify well, there’s only a 1 in 10 billion chance that another Hispanic person shares this same DNA profile. There’s only a 1 in 30 million chance that another West Indian person shares this genetic profile or another African-American person, Caucasian person, Asian-American person, so on and so forth. I find this extremely troubling and a re-inscription of race as a biological category.
Maya: Woo, okay. Angry black woman. So, now that I’m getting angrier, Jessica — and I have to give a shout out to the National Latino Institute for Reproductive Health, because CSI and the Institute shared office space for three years in two different offices actually, so it’s a little bit like family. So Jessica, one of the things that Juno Diaz said last night is that we have to re-humanize women. And I thought it was such an important statement and we didn’t get to talk about that enough. And you’ve talked a lot, obviously, about also this kind of how we stigmatize particularly young women of color, but women of color generally. So can you say a little bit more about what you think that means for us?
Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas: Yeah, and just to add a complexity to your census question, I was talking to my Puerto Rican grandma about the census randomly, just last week, and she says you know, race is determined by your hair texture. And I was like oh my God, what are you talking about? In Puerto Rico, if anyone… you know, I think Latino identity and racial construction is very complicated because it comes down to things like that, that your hair texture determines your race. So different conversation.
Maya: So you’re white.
Jessica: I know. It doesn’t matter, my grandma’s from Puerto Rico, my father’s from Paraguay, it doesn’t matter. I’m white. So yeah, we saw misogyny on steroids this election season. We saw racism on steroids, right? So we saw the continued dehumanization of women happening for years, and we saw this really at a height in this election, the way politicians and the media were treating and talking about women. And as a Latino working in a reproductive health rights and justice community, I have to acknowledge sort of the ugly history that women of color have with reproductive technologies, reproductive oppression.
In the 18 and 1900s, women of color were particularly targeted in terms of their fertility around the new technologies that were emerging. So in an effort to decrease overpopulation in this country and in Puerto Rico, we found that women of color under the eugenics movement that were seen as socially inferior, and including women with disability, women in the criminal justice system, they were forcefully sterilized, coerced to be sterilized, were treated as guinea pigs under the development of contraception and contraceptive methods. So we have a really ugly history of being dehumanized even in the process of looking at reproductive technologies.
So I think over the past decade, we’ve been seeing just a resurgence of this anger against women and the policies that were introduced in this past congressional period were horrific. They were defunding women’s health programs that provided basic healthcare, breast care, breast survives and pap smears and these basic services that kept women alive in the name of defunding abortion. So it’s become a very politicized issue.
Maya: Except that our bodies can shut that rape thing down, you know?
Jessica: Oh yeah, yeah. We heard those arguments there. And just to say the politician that mentioned that, in rape that we can shut our bodies down and thus not get pregnant, he was on the science committee. He was on the committee on science in the house. So this is the kind of rhetoric that we’re hearing, that’s targeting women? That’s targeting women of color. And you think about the comments around the 47% and how that’s really loaded around racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia. There’s so much loaded in what we’re seeing in this contemporary dialogue around women and women’s health.
So yes, we absolutely need to re-humanize the women and women and men are lifting their voices. We are angry. We showed up, particularly in this election. We won — we showed up for Obama, and we shut down a lot of those politicians and efforts that were being held throughout the country and in the states that would further dehumanize women and further create barriers to access critical health services. So that’s a step, but I think we just need to continue the fight and we need to continue to monitor and call out this racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic rhetoric that’s happening to insure there’s progressive alliances and to insure that our issues are being brought to the forefront instead of being pushed down.
Maya: I have a really unfair question for you. So the debate about this election, after the returns came in, was about the gender gap, right? So oh, so many women supported Obama, but of course within that gender — compared to men particularly, but when we’re saying that we’re erasing women of color and erasing white women because the truth is 56% of white women voters voted for Romney. So the gender gap is a race-gender gap. It’s not a gender gap. 96% of black women voted for Obama, and something like 76% of Latinos voted for Obama. So there’s a race-gender gap, there’s not a gender gap. So we’re saying white — hash tags say white — so this is my unfair question. So given Akin, given this incredibly idiotic rhetoric around women in general, 56% white women, really? And Romney was going to shut down Planned Parenthood, y’all? I mean why are women, and Michael you could probably address this as well, but why are white women supporting leaders who are antithetical to their interests?
Jessica: That’s a great question. Yeah, it stumps me.
Maya: I told you it’s unfair.
Jessica: Yeah, it actually really stumps me how many white women did turn out and vote for Romney. But again, I think it’s just really important to highlight the impact that women of color had on this election and those high rates that you mentioned and the impact that they had and the alliances that we saw across communities of color, across other progressive communities, and I think we need to really focus on that because we’re the future of this country right? Every month, 50,000 young Latino citizens turn 18. So that’s 50,000 new Latino voters. And we need to insure they’re getting registered. They need to turn out and make their voices heard so we’re stomping out those questionable voters who supported a politician who just was hostile… hostile to women.
Maya: For me, what it lifts up is the way in which racialized identity can trump gender identity. I mean, that’s what that represents to me. But I want to turn to the role of technology, particularly with this — Junot Diaz called it this glimpse into the new possibility and to new coalitional opportunity, but it does require us to cross a lot of psychological and socialized constructions of difference, right? But I’m going to share… and I want to talk about the role of technology in that, both as a barrier in some of the ways we’ve talked, but also as an opportunity.
But one of the things I wanted to just lift up. So I was tweeting Junot Diaz last night, and one of the things I tweeted, remember he talked about the growing market share of whiteness? And in that he was talking about the proliferation of like skin-bleaching products, right? So I’m tweeting these using technology and this new social media, and as a result of my tweeting I have a new follower, Dr. Wilford Brown, certified plastic surgeon specializing in aesthetic surgical procedures and non-surgical procedures from Middlebury, Connecticut. Somehow that seemed very wrong to me, that that was the follower that I got as a result of those tweets.
But can you all speak to — and I’m going to open up to all of you, the role of technology in this social construction of race and gender, what are the opportunities there to change it? To make it more positive and proactive for this glimpse of a new coalitional majority that we can be, and what are some of the things that we’re seeing in terms of how technology’s being used against that?
Christian: I have a very quick response to that. We think of race and understand race as being a social construction and it certainly is, but science is also a social construction. It’s also a mediative field of knowledge. So I think there are a number of opportunities for pushback for projects, for racial-positive racial projects, to change how scientists and how society as a whole interprets and uses science. Because I’m not against genetics as a whole, right? Genetics has a lot of promise. But racialized genetics is extremely disturbing for a number of reasons that I’ve mentioned. Maya: Michael? Come on now, give us the positive.
Michael: Yeah, give us the positive huh? You know, this thing about prediction’s really difficult. I was thinking about this. There was this quote by Lao Tzu who once said “those who have knowledge don’t predict, and those who predict don’t have knowledge.” And in some ways that’s probably the slippery slope around technology too. So what’s the positive aspects of that? Well one of the positive aspects we could have about that is to really re-think, in using various forms of social media, some of the kinds of artificial boundaries we’ve drawn between groups and the ways that those could be broached in some fashion. And we’re seeing the glimmers of that already. As you were talking about in the recent election, we had at least… sorry, can you hear me now? I’ll talk louder; is that good?
Maya: They want you to take the mic. Power to the audience.
Michael: Okay. We had at least 71% of the Latino voters for Obama, we had 74% of Asians which is quite striking as well as sort of the numbers in the 90s for the African-American groups. What’s very interesting is around this changing demography, how people are going to respond to these kinds of shifts and address them, because the potential lies there for cross-racial alliances.
At the same time, there’s some interesting other currents. You were talking about how, in fact, whether or not race trumped gender in respect to this divide. And certainly gender and race are really complexly connected. Race is gendered and gender is raced, and to a large extent what we may be witnessing too is the collapse of this white majority, and that presents itself as a moment of crisis. I think there’s a lot of white working-class men who feel they’re the new marginalized group, that they’re the folks that have been disenfranchised by these changes. And the backlash to that is to other folks.
Think about the birther movement, the ways John Sununu wishes Obama would learn to become American? These are ways in which what’s disturbing is whether or not that seeps into the popular culture as well, and the kind of resentment that that can breed.
Maya: Yeah, that’s important. Janet, can you say — because I think the point you made earlier is so important about the way in which the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color, really challenge some of these social constructions around race and gender. So can you say a little bit about how you see that technology helping to transform that?
Janet: Sorry. There we go. I think for me, the most powerful thing that social media provides for me is that I don’t need to rely on mainstream media to say that I’m valuable and my image matters. And by me saying that it does matter, by broadcasting my life, I let other young trans women of color know that they’re represented and they’re represented well. When I show a picture of me speaking in front of an audience of people, they say oh, it’s a safer world out there or that’s a potential that I can be doing.
And I think that’s powerful to say that, not only self-determine who you are which is what I consider what I did — like I was raised as a little boy and told you’re a boy, and me saying well I’m closer to kind of this. I didn’t know that I was a girl; I didn’t really know what it was that I was. But I know I was closer to representing who I was with my transitioning. And a lot of people are just like, “You’re sick.” And as you said, science is constructed but according to medicine I’m sick. I have an illness, and that’s where trapped in the wrong body really irks me. I know some people do feel that, so I validate them, but for me I didn’t necessarily feel trapped. I felt there were some things I couldn’t stand. And so that’s why I’m always about reproductive justice as well because we should have the right to do what we want to our bodies. And so that’s where I feel that trans women intersect with women in general, period, because we go underground to get all of these things, you know, to get our medicine, to get access to get our medicine, and I think about how that’s what they want to do in taking away abortion. They want women to go underground and be unsafe. And we’ve been unsafe for a really long time, and I always talk about how amongst trans women there’s this underground railroad of resources. You go to this doctor in Thailand, you do this there, you go to Tijuana to get your ass pumped, you do this and this. And these are systems that we’ve created for ourselves. And so now that we have this social media, we can share resources so much easier and get safer resources even though they still are underground and not validated. But the most powerful thing for me is just being able to broadcast my life and have that reflection coming back and forth.
Maya: Have you seen any reflection back too for people who are not from the trans-gender community?
Janet: Yeah, women of color, period. Mostly black women. Like seeing them embrace me in this way, and maybe that’s why I told my story in Marie Clare. I did use the mass media to get my story out there, and it was women of color that surprised me. I had no idea that they would embrace me as their sister, and that’s one of the most powerful things. Black men is a whole other thing, I won’t even go there, because to them I’m a threat. I’m trying to infiltrate their penises like I want to attack their penises or something. I was like I have a boyfriend, I had a boyfriend for four years, and before that no women were complaining about having sex with me. So it’s not like I was trying to… I’m trying to attack you in some way, but there’s like this hostility with black men. I can’t really — I just let that go. But black women have been so embracing and nurturing and affirming of me, and I think that online I’m one of the only trans people that people know. So I’m in their Twitter feeds, I’m in their Facebook feeds, all of these things, so I become visible in these spaces where people would never probably have interfaced with me.
Maya: And I want to really appreciate you for that, because I think the hashtag #girlslikeus has been really… I mean for me, it was a huge educational opportunity and I really appreciated it.
Jessica? Jessica: Yeah. So I actually want to go back to your last question, the unfair question. Although the census would consider me white, I don’t consider myself white. So I can’t speak for white women, but I do wonder how much class had an impact on the Romney vote? I really wonder that. Because you know, I think there was really a class distinction that was very, very clear in this election and his appeal to those of higher class and higher wealth. So I wonder if maybe perhaps that’s a factor…
Maya: This is really — because if we really were going to be expansive on this panel, it would be the race, gender, class because there’s also… you know, Ira Katznelson talks about it as the Gordian Knot. They’re really not separable in terms of how we’ve constructed identity. But it’s interesting what you’re saying, because NPR did a piece where they went to some motorcycle convention in Florida, so all these big, white guys with tattoos on hogs and a lot of them — most of them were Republicans, and most of them were low-income. And so the interviewer was sort of asking about it, and this point was… the point that came out — I can’t see that. I just know you’re telling me to shut up, but I can’t see the time. Huh? Yes, thank you. But just the point was that they were all saying, “A person on welfare never gave me a job.” So that was the kind of construction for them, so even though they were that 47% that Romney was talking about, he also represented for them the guy that gave them a job which I thought was kind of staggering and depressing. But what we’re going to do, I really wanted to make sure… I stole this from Gary Delgado, so Gary if you’re here I’m totally stealing this from you, to make it a little bit — this is a lot of really rich but also complex information, and you all have a lot to say about it yourselves and also a lot you probably want to interrogate around this. So we’re going to give you ten minutes to talk at your tables with each other about anything you’re hearing that you want to talk about. But also volunteers and ARC staff are going to be circulating. We also want to hear your questions or comments, so if you have one, grab the person in the grey t-shirt of red t-shirt that’s circulating to hand them up a question. They’ll hand it to me so we can also kind of hear from you in the questions towards the end. So we’re going to give you ten minutes.
Jessica: May I offer something before?
Maya: Yes, absolutely. Jessica: So the way that we approach our work is through a reproductive justice lens, and it speaks to what we just talked about, that you can’t separate gender identity, gender formation, sexual orientation, economic status, immigration status, all these things that are inextricably linked. So when we look at advancing policies that promote women’s health, we’re thinking about all those things. Are trans women getting cervical cancer screenings? Sorry, trans men, are they getting cervical cancer screenings? This is something really critical to think about, that we have to work at how all these factors are weaved into a framework that is inclusive and advances a comprehensive vision of our future.
Maya: Thank you. When we come back, it’s going to be around opportunities to change all this. But talk amongst yourselves. Alright, I do have a question that is directed to our male panelists explicitly. So Juno Diaz talked about needing to acknowledge whiteness to address privilege and power. Can either of the male identified panelists talk about gender? Men? Men folk?
Christian: Well as you know… Maya: And that is biological; we’ve got some biology there. Christian: Yeah. As you noted, as we talk about race and most of my focus is on race, but race is gendered, race is classed, race is many things, and so is class and so is gender. So I do think it’s extremely important to acknowledge that as we construct and protest and contest science itself, that there may be many fields of contestation including my work on race and racial inequality. It’s just not about race, I suppose I should say. It’s about class, it’s about gender, it’s about all identity categories that currently are being tested in our society.
Michael: I mean, it’s easy to sort of… I just cited it as well and Christian did as well, this issue of race being gendered and gender being raced. I think it’s very important to see how this kind of unravels historically, particularly in the United States. You can think about, for example, some of the earliest anti-miscegenation laws like those in the colonies are really directed at keeping sexual unions between blacks and whites separate, but many of the codes are explicitly written to keep white women in their place. So much of the early ones, in the Virginia colony for example, talk explicitly about sexual unions between white women and black men. So there’s ways in which these things are connected but there’s also ways in which race and gender have operated along parallel tracks but other times have diverged too. So I’m thinking that we really need to be attentive to looking at how these patterns of stratification and difference, how they intersect and how they diverge in the course of things going on in the US and if not, globally. And we really need to take serious question about patriarchy as a particular kind of hierarchy of a particular way in which… of gender oppression that’s expressed itself through institutions, through collective identities, and through the ways people conduct themselves in the most intimate relations. And I think in there we can sort of begin to fathom the kinds of outlines about the ways in which they complexly connect.
Maya: Thank you. This is not a question but it’s really an important one to say and I really appreciate whoever wrote it. “Please let Janet know that there’s at least one black man that loves her.” Your black penis is safe with Janet, y’all. Don’t tweet that, I’ve got kids. So another important question, do you see whiteness potentially expanding to Latinos or others as for Greeks and European Jews in the past, and that’s… given the changing demographics of the country, I think that’s a critically important question. Jessica, you want to start?
Jessica: One thing I want to note is in Puerto Rico, in the 2000 census, I think Puerto Rico was one of the whitest states or communities in the census because again when you pose the question in a way, what’s your ethnicity? Are you Hispanic? Latino? Yes or no? And what’s your race… yeah, that’s the way it goes. That really forces Latinos to choose whether we’re white, we’re black, we’re Alaskan native or… but a lot of Latinos have indigenous backgrounds. We come from tribal communities in South America and the Caribbean, but there’s no place for that because it asks for a registered tribe so many of us don’t come from that. So I think it’s a really important question to ask, and I think the census really needs to think about how to be more inclusive of Latino people of indigenous backgrounds.
Michael: Yeah, I think that’s interesting, I think there’s a real pronounced trend within a lot of the sociological literature to think about Latinos, “light-skinned Latinos” or Asian-Americans are being brought into a kind of expanding notion of whiteness. And I think it really speaks to this question of what we think racial hierarchy is going to look like going forward. In other words, are we going to see the deepening of the white-black divide, and the kind of appeals to absorb some of the other groups into the notion of being honorary whites or an expanded notion of whiteness, or are we really seeing the development of a real, much more multi-racial form of stratification across the board? And I think that’s a key issue and I think there’s a sociologist named George Nancy who wrote a book, “Who is White?” arguing that using survey data, that whites and Latinos in terms of their political attitudes are much more closer to the white side of the racial boundaries than to the black side. And we need to think these issues out because they speak to very crucial issues around coalition building, around how we think race and racism function, and also to understand too really the unique, historical position of African-Americans with respect to all these debates and to sort of re-center what that means.
Maya: I really want to kind of lift this up one step further because there’s another question about the percentage of Latinos who acknowledge their remote or near-African ancestry, right — Jessica was speaking to this — and mark this on census forms and government forms, because obviously the census is one of the kind of systemic mechanisms that racializes. But there’s also this notion, as my intro story said, about the political importance of actually standing up as a particular race even if our own racial identities are more complex. I was thinking in South Africa, part of the anti-apartheid struggle was that everyone who wanted to stand up against the apartheid insisted that they were black. So South Asians said we’re black. And that was their disruption of the racial hierarchy that apartheid created which started to crumble after apartheid fell. But it raises this question about how we disrupt, right? So I wanted to throw this back. You all are disrupting in various ways, right? You’re disrupting the social construction of race and gender and class and how that Gordian Knot comes together. What are the opportunities for that disruption and where are the mechanisms that we should be pulling the levers of disruption?
Jessica: Just a personal story. In 2004, the census did a test in New York and in Georgia on the race question and they allowed you to choose a race — more than one race — and it didn’t allow you check off an other. It was just a test. They knocked on our door. They knocked on our door, and my partner answered the door who’s Peruvian. And again, are you Latino? Yes/no? What’s your race? And there was no other category. So he’s like what can I put? And they’re like you choose. How do you identify? So he chose black. He chose black, and he’s of very sort of Incan roots but there was no other place that he found himself. And I think that was a disruptor. I’m one of those people that checked other and I wrote Latina. I didn’t write Jedi, but I wrote Latina, and I did that as a political statement because I know they think I’m white and I know I should be checking white in terms of how they create those racial categories, but I refuse to do that. So I think using the write-in category as an opportunity, and if they forced a… I don’t know the future, perhaps you all have some feedback on that in terms of how it’s going to look in the future. If they limit that other category and try to be more specific, what are the ways that we can disrupt it and claim an identity to kind of push back at the census and say this is much more complex than what is being offered?
Michael: Just as a footnote to Jessica’s observation, actually the census has been doing a lot of this kind of testing about revising the forms. And it looks like for Census 2020, that what we’ll see is Latino/Hispanic as a racial category and not in the elimination of the ethnicity question. So that could be coming up.
Maya: Okay. Janet?
Janet: Do you know anything on gender? Do you know if there’s…?
Michael: Oh, no. Because it’s kind of an assumption.
Maya: Everyone heard that? Janet’s question was on gender, so only male/female right?
Michael: Yeah, it’s only male/female, right.
Janet: For me, I check female and black even though there’s Pacific Islander and all this stuff, I’m representing my mother. Sorry, this one? So yeah, so I check female and black. But a lot of people need more spaces to check in gender because people express their gender so much differently, and it’s just kind of like a mandate from just so many systems telling us that our gender is only within this binary, and even though I’m very constructed through the binary and that’s kind of my identity, I understand my identity’s within that, there’s many people — there’s a diversity there, and I think we need to learn how to expand our blackness, our whiteness, my femaleness, my womanness, manness, genderness, whatever you want to call it. And so these forms are just — I find them very limiting.
Maya: So what are the opportunities for this new majority, right? I mean we’re talking about the complexity of our own identities. We’re talking about how it relates to how we disrupt and make change. And a lot of the questions coming up I think from the audience, whether it’s effective ways for women of color and white women to perform permanent alliances, but it’s also across this complexity around race, class and gender that we’re also talking about. What are our opportunities for that? What do you see coming up as a way for us to construct our future together?
Christian: Well I think there are some unique opportunities going forward and it’s very hard to predict exactly how it’s going to play out. I think how it plays out will mostly depend on how we continue or how society continues to negotiate this notion of whiteness. And we’ve talked about whiteness a lot, and you brought up the Latino voter whiteness aspect, whether or not Latinos — and Latinos are necessarily trying to enter the whiteness sphere. But it’s not limited only to Latinos and Latinas. Racial passing continues to this day. A lot of folks like to think the notion of passing — this very term is problematic — it doesn’t occur, but it does among many groups. And I see this all the time where folks are asserting aspects of their whiteness in order to obtain particular benefits depending on the context. And so I think to the extent we can take advantage of this new majority, however we define it, it depends greatly on how we continue to negotiate whiteness and determine what that means. It’s in flux; it’s constantly in flux, and that presents an opportunity.
Maya: Yeah, okay. Important.
Jessica: I think what was exciting to see was something that happened here in Maryland around the alliances between those advocating for the passage of the DREAM Act and those advocating for the passage of marriage equality here in Maryland, and I think those kinds of alliances is what we’re going to see in the future and I think those are really promising because it not just looks at race and class, it looks at gender equality, orientation, it looks at immigration status and how those movements are actually inextricably linked. And I think that’s a really important example and something I’m really hopeful is going to kind of pave the way for the future in terms of alliances between race, class, gender orientation, immigration status. Immigration status is so interesting because it’s been painted in the media as a Latino issue, and while many Latinos are immigrants and many immigrants are Latinos, it is not just a Latino issue. It is not. I went to Capitol Hill one day and they were all these folks wearing green shirts, and they were Irish undocumented immigrants. Irish undocumented immigrants, and that was pretty awesome to see them advocating for passage of the DREAM Act. So I think again we have to kind of re-think the way we look at immigration, that it really transcends a lot of races. Maya: But you know, there’s a lot of political education in that too. I was fortunate enough to go to Belfast, and it was really amazing how for Northern Irish Catholics who really are an oppressed group in Northern Island in many ways that we would consider racialized, they have a deep kind of political education around colonialism and very much see themselves as part of an anti-colonial movement that includes Africa, Latin-America and Asia. And they lift up those leaders, and one of the things I think is so important is these opportunities for political education that happens across all of our differences, right, and our constructions, that help us understand the structural forces that produce this racialization. I just want to give a shout out to South by Southwest which is Swoo and Swap and Southern Echo that are working very hard on this, California Calls Coalition in California working multi-racially. So I think we’re seeing pockets of this and some of it’s very strategic and very powerful, but getting that to scale is also something I think is really… so that’s y’alls job.
Janet: Can I say something to jump on that? Speaking of demographics, I think about that recent Gallop poll saying that more people of color, more women, more people who make under $24,000 identify as LGBT. But then I also think about some of the essays that I read that were very entrenched in white supremacy and they were very committed to saying no, no, no. As LGBT people we’re not poor, we’re not black. We’re actually privileged and we’re a marketable place for you to come to. You know, don’t say that because advertisers then won’t sponsor our galas and they won’t do all of these things if they know we’re more of color and just completely different than what Modern Family and The New Normal and all these places say the community actually looks like. And so I think about those coalitions when they’re actually working together, and that’s the hope, hopefully, that they actually address what the LGBT community actually looks like.
Maya: There’s another great question from the audience, they’ve all been fantastic. “How do you think the GOP will use more faces of color…” Several names coming up with this, won’t go through all the names, but Bobby Jindal obviously being the one most prominent this week, “to appear on the surface more inclusive in the 2016 election?” And what do we do about that, I’ll add.
Jessica: The call after the election, the first thing I heard about was we need to pass immigration reform. And again, I think again we’re making the assumption that all immigrants are Latino because the Latino vote was so powerful, and that was shocking to hear because in the last couple of Congresses we saw them voting down their own bills that they had introduced in the past. So we have to really question those motives if that’s not clear, and using the faces…
Maya: You mean you don’t trust Sean Hannity?
Jessica: Or trust Romney or Ryan? No. So I think we have to really again kind of question the motives and question how they’re really tokenizing these faces of color. Senator Rubio in Florida, he was really looked at — and in fact, someone said the mistake Romney made was not choosing Senator Rubio was a running mate because of that Latino vote. And first, it’s making dumb the Latino electorate saying oh, just because there’s a Latino face we’re going to vote for this candidate. But I think there’s just a lot of… it’s just very loaded. And I think his comments post-election on that conference call, where he said that it’s the urban community that turned out, it’s the gifts…
Maya: “Code code.”
Jessica: The “code code,” the gifts that were given to those people that want things, code, code, code right?
Maya: Unlike Romney’s friends. They didn’t want anything. Jessica: Exactly. And you look how much money was spent on the election. The exciting thing is money… we didn’t see money buy the elections this year which was really exciting.
Maya: Or it was our money. It was our $10. Jessica: Yes, but we should look at that. It’s not like we should rush ashore because Citizens United presents tremendous barriers for the future, but yes, it’s very problematic and you’re going to see them starting to lift up their people. I mean we saw at the GOP Convention, right, some people were speaking Spanish, they had all the faces of color to demonstrate that diversity. But if you look in the audience, who was in the audience? So I think we’re going to continue to see that.
Maya: Others? Comments on this?
Michael: Just a quick comment. I think that all of that is a pretty thin veneer. I think the Republican Party’s quite in a crisis about how to sort of expand out without having to do substance-based issues around this. You know, I sort of like the flip of this. If you haven’t seen it, what’s a great clip on YouTube is Chris Rock, the video from the Jimmy Kimmel program, message to white voters about how to convince them about Obama as a white candidate.
Maya: Barry Obama. Barry Obama, yeah. Janet, Christian, anything you want to add? Okay. So Christian actually, this is actually a really important question and I’m going to direct it directly to you. But someone in the audience is asking for examples of race-based medicines and drugs, because this is something that’s also not… it’s happening, it’s happening pervasively, but it’s also not something that we’re all getting the information about.
Christian: Right, that’s absolutely right. So there is a lot of money in pharmaceutics, and there’s a lot of money in race-based pharmaceutics largely because it allows researchers to utilize drugs whose patents have expired or are about to expire and add a racial label to them. And now they’ve obtained a new patent. And so this is partly the genesis of these race-based drugs. One such drug is called Vital, and this drug doesn’t exist anymore but it was actually approved by the FDA I believe in the early 2000s to treat hypertension in African-Americans. And hypertension clearly is an extremely important health issue and public concern. There are a number of health concerns where there are disparities along race grounds, but because they are disparities along race grounds does not necessarily mean we should conceive of race as a genetic-stable category.
Maya: Well it’s ignoring how neighborhoods are constructed in unhealthy ways or how racism is stressful.
Christian: Exactly. I mean studies have shown time and time again, racial discrimination — racism — is a leading cause of hypertension. And there’s a number of other issues that come into play as well.
Maya: And if you haven’t seen Unnatural Causes, that really breaks this down. It’s a fantastic film from California News Reel, but anyway, yes. To your point.
Christian: So that’s one example of a drug that was targeted specifically on race grounds for the African-American population to treat hypertension, again, because they were able to get new patent protection by racing it.
Maya: Thank you for that. So I want to give — we’re going to wrap up. I want to give each of you an opportunity to say the one last burning point that you didn’t feel like you got to make, which I hope you’ll do. Your biggest hope for the potential for this new majority we can build together.
Michael: You know, I talked a lot about the instability of race but I think we also need to really think deeply about the instability of racism and what we mean by racism which can be anywhere from someone giving you a dirty look on the bus to structural forms of inequality. And I say this because I think we’re on the cusp of rethinking some of these issues about how we think about racism. John Powell, who may also be here, has a great new book out in which he’s really looking at two literatures: really looking at the structural, sort of systemic forms of racial inequality that we’ve generally seen in many of the social science work, but he’s also trying to link that to work that’s going on in the cognitive sciences, in the mind sciences, about implicit bias, about the unconscious mechanisms at the level of the individual that operate with certain kinds of schemas that are race-based and are complexly connected, and usually these two literatures don’t speak to each other. And I think it’s really engaging to think about how we link up structural forms of inequality with also looking at forms of implicit bias, to look at within as well as the kinds of unconscious processes which we use to navigate every day in the world that are founded upon certain kinds of racial decisions. And I think going forward, we need to think about those connections.
Maya: Thank you. By the way Christian, if they’re making a calm your angry black woman drug, I’m pretty sure my family will buy it and slip it into my water.
Christian: It’s unfortunately a huge field and so there are a number of drugs that are currently undergoing trials and evaluation that aren’t yet on the market, but it’s a very dangerous future I think. I was just going to leave with a very quick comment, and that is to stay active. Stay involved. Because if I’ve learned anything doing my work, it’s that battles you thought you’ve already won can come up in a brand new form such as that race as a social construction. I can’t believe — I can in some ways — that we’re fighting over this again. So thank you all for being so involved and committed to the cause. That’s what we need going forward.
Janet: Let’s see. Number one, trans women are women too so I think if you’re fighting for women’s issues or whatnot you need to be inclusive of trans women. And I think about that we need to continue speaking up and coming out and I get a lot of questions from people who say well you’re just a woman. Why do you say you’re trans? And I say I’m trans because it’s revolutionary for me when I walk into a space, to say that I’m a trans woman and to be very honest and open about that because it changes peoples’ idea of what this gender thing is and how we’ve constructed it and built it and built our own phobias around it. And then just to be open and tell our stories, because you know, they’re not going to… the mass media’s not going to elevate them. So if we don’t talk about them amongst ourselves and then try to infiltrate other spaces on our own then we’re just not going to be counted.
Jessica: I just want to acknowledge something our sister in the front shared with us, that we didn’t acknowledge the role of religion in this debate and I think that was a really important point, thank you for bringing it to us, around kind of pondering the white women who voted for Obama question and how Christian ideology really played a very dominant factor in this election.
Maya: Christian privilege.
Jessica: Christian privileges, yes. Christian privilege, thank you. So I just wanted to kind of offer that to this space as well. What I will leave with is my hope, in reflecting on the Maryland Alliance, reflecting on the outcome of the election, looking at how we can turn red states blue. And Eva Longoria wrote an article that said we’re going to turn Texas blue, and if you think — I know it’s crazy, but it’s actually not that crazy. If you think about the communities of color that are there, right? Think about the communities of color that are there, the work that’s happening, the alliances that are being built. We have a pan-sexual city council woman, I think in Dallas, a Latina in Texas. In Texas. So I don’t think that’s a crazy notion, and I think the work again… I just want to reiterate, the work you all are doing to elevate this issue, the work that we’re doing cross-alliance, cross-movement, is so, so critical to build a progressive future.
Maya: Thank you. I just want to thank this panel. Let’s all thank them, we really appreciate it. And we want to thank you, so give yourselves a hand too. And a big shout out to ARC, because only the best conference that happens in this country every two years… only at ARC would this be a plenary discussion with this group of people covering this much territory. So thank you Applied Research Center.