Ethnic Studies Lecture: Intersectionality


One of Dr. Michelle Jacob's favorite events of the year at the University of San Diego happens in October.

The Eugene M. Labovitz and Gail A. Perez Lecture Series, said the veteran USD Ethnic Studies professor, has not only been a wonderful opportunity to honor the USD faculty co-founders of the Ethnic Studies discipline, but it also offers substance and passion from guests who share their rich knowledge and research and deliver teachable moments.

"I view the Labovitz-Perez event as a way to invite scholars to campus who have a powerful message about the importance of community-based research, who can provide critical perspective on privilege and oppression in contemporary U.S. society and who do so in a way that uplifts our students in their studies," Jacob said.

Intersectionality Discussion

The 13th annual event, held on Oct 14, focused on "Intersectionality, Community and the Mission of Ethnic Studies," and featured four scholars: UCLA Chicana/o Studies Professor Leisy Abrego, PhD; California State University, San Marcos, Sociology Professor Sharon Elise, PhD; CSU Los Angeles Sociology Professor Molly Talcott, PhD, (pictured, top); and Arizona State University American Indian Studies Professor Myla Vicenti Carpio, PhD. Each scholar discussed elements of their research and interjected with their thoughts on intersectionality, which is defined as the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. Preceding the lecture was a student workshop also focused on intersectionality.

"Being an Ethnic Studies major I've learned about intersectionality, but it was nice to see where different people were at with this term," said USD student Nick Bihr, who attended both the workshop and the lecture. "Some didn't know what it meant, some had very personal experiences with it and could explain it from their perspective. The workshop emphasized how oppression is interlocking and, at the same time, is different. Conditions now are different than they were 50 years ago. It requires us to re-evaluate our intersectional lenses and the work we do to work for justice. The panel, I think, reminded us that Ethnic Studies is something to be fought for and has won in an academy that didn't really want it in the first place."

Opportunity for Engagement

Jesse Mills, USD Ethnic Studies department chair and professor, was equally pleased to listen, engage and learn at both events.

"This is what we live for, the nuts and bolts stuff with people who are right in the center of doing the work in communities and at universities and they're really breaking it down. They're speaking about their work, their passions, their experience, and students have a chance to engage them, challenge them, bounce stuff off them, learn from them. It becomes pedagogically this essential part of our department. It's about developing our field, developing our craft, our knowledge. Calling it a 'super classroom' would be another way to think about it — to see all of each other, to be in the same space and to have a single conversation."

Jacob agreed: "In our field we're taking certain forms of oppression, and we've focused a lot on intersectionality, and students see that critique and almost feel weighed down by it," Jacob explained. "You see students grapple with questions, asking 'how can we use this critical approach to get to liberation?' The event is a great way to bring in outside voices to remind us of what that vision is, which is when you look at Catholic Social Teaching that's ultimately what it is all about — humans reaching their full potential."

Mixed Status Families

Dr. Abrego spoke on the challenges of mixed status families, where one family member is born in the U.S., but his or her sibling(s) and parents are undocumented. She cited interview excerpts from those who have U.S. citizenship, but who live with much pressure, fear and worry at all times.

"We're producing what it means to be undocumented all the time. It means something different at different points of time," Abrego said. "In the current moment, illegality has to do with being criminalized. There's a heightened sense of policing, a record number of deportations. We have policies that make it very easy to target people for basic things ... that are not criminal activities but are categorized and treated in such a way that we're separating families because of it."

Abrego estimates 16.6 million people are in a mixed status family and 4.5 million children are growing up with at least one undocumented parent.

She said "legal violence," is a culprit. "The way immigration laws are written and the way they are implemented right now it's not just possible, but acceptable for us to mistreat human beings and no one questions it because we use the language of the law as the law."

Black Feminism, Birthing Ideas

Dr. Elise spoke about scholar feminist activists giving birth, not to a child, but "ideas and practices. We mother them, we shape them and reshape them and then we send them out into the world to do good things."

While “intersectionality” is a term coined by a UCLA and Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, the concept itself has "other mothers," Elise said.

"She is also the child of radical black feminism, whose mothers are mostly radical black lesbian activist daughters. These mothers also reproduce themselves in people. Like Crenshaw's concept, framing and practice of intersectionality, I, too, am a daughter, as well as a sister and mother of black feminism."

"Black feminism is both a radical theory and practice based in identity politics in the everyday problematic of our lives as black women," Elise continued. "It was birthed to assist in our collective realization of oppression as a means to uplift ourselves and connect with one another as black women. To love each other as black women who were taught to despise and distrust ourselves and each other."

Elise offered a historical perspective "to bring back awareness of the role played by people in black bodies in a society that loves to put on and play with blackness while destroying black lives."

She expressed frustration that Black Lives Matter is "a beautiful campaign in a country where black lives don't matter. ... Black feminism calls our attention to the brutality of a system that impoverishes and destroys black people all the way using black thought, black music and black style to be cool. Black is in, as long as you are not."

“What Time is it?”

Dr. Talcott reflected on Grace Lee Boggs, an author, social activist, philosopher and feminist, who died at age 100 on Oct. 5. Known to start a conversation by asking a thought-provoking question, Talcott paid tribute by asking the UC Forum audience, "What time is it on the clock of world history?"

"She wanted us to think about the importance of historical ethics, of changing political economic systems and how they shaped us and how humans could use our agency to reimagine every existing institution and radically reshape our futures," Talcott said.

Talcott questioned the state and importance of ethnic studies' past, present and what’s possible in the future. She also suggested a solution, creating a "more quantum view of the paradigm of intersectionality, one where it is understood as a quantum field that is expansive, alive and a web of energy that takes form and shifts in relation to the whole social landscape."

She also called for a "cultural revolution inside academia," challenging institutional norms and adopting research justice paradigms that place communities at the center and social improvement goals at the center."

Native American Perspective

Dr. Vicenti Carpio's thoughts centered on the difficulties that remain for the Native American Indian population.

"We try to stay out of Ethnic Studies because where we began it was a different place, our origins are here," she said. "We are of this land; our history begins here. It's a history of disposition and dealing with not wanting to be part of the U.S. system. We've had our own governments, our social, political, religious and health systems for thousands of years. The past few hundred years we've had to deal with an enormous amount of change and have an understanding that the perspective of southern colonialism is the erasure of indigenous people, that we need to disappear … we've been made invisible."

It was a powerful night for knowledge and for a younger audience to hear firsthand each speaker's voice loud and clear.

"The panel was so powerful," said Hanna Hugo, a senior environmental studies major and ethnic studies minor. "Hearing from these accomplished women who, after everything we hear in class about the need to decolonize our minds, sounded serious and genuine and that we need to put this into action and make it come true."

— Ryan T. Blystone