Gender Inclusivity in the Classroom

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(Photo credit)

Note: In the spirit of collaboration and learning, this post is the first in a series (we hope!) of conversations we will have with cool colleagues and friends about various classroom and campus topics. All conversations are edited for readable clarity and relative concision.

This is the first part of a conversation we had with Tegra Straight, the Assistant Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College.

AE: We’re drinking! [glasses clink]

Tegra: Let’s get that on tape.

AC: We’re really excited to talk to you. I was thinking about this topic in part because the faculty retreat this year had ‘diversity training…’ as a theme and one of the things we talked about was gender pronouns.

AE: Yeah, and it’s clearly not comfortable yet for everyone. I remember a small group meeting last year when the facilitator joked, “introduce yourself and include whatever you need to include,” but didn’t use pronouns. And, going around the room, no one else did until a faculty member affiliated with Women and Gender Studies used pronouns. A few folks later, another WGST prof did.Then me. Out of the 16 or so people, only we three people did it.

T: You see the same thing in Student Life. The GSC staff, maybe a couple of the other identity-based offices, if they remember, but hardly ever other offices.

AC: That’s why we want to talk about it. The first time I remember being asked to say my pronouns was about four years ago at a training at Carleton. My answer then was “she/her but I don’t really care.” I wasn’t being facetious, and I think that’s actually true for me. I’ve been called “sir” before. My story from Japan is that some woman [Note: Anita is totally assuming this person’s gender!!!!] came up to me and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?” in Japanese. I have stories like that but for me, they haven’t been traumatizing events. It’s strange but it doesn’t bother me when people misgender me. It’s not that I don’t think my gender isn’t important… I don’t know. That’s just been my experience. Having read this piece on asking for gender pronouns in the classroom, does asking for gender mean assuming that gender is important for people in a particular kind of way? Also for students for whom gender might be more fluid, are we asking them to choose something? Those are some of the questions we’ve been thinking about.

AE: The larger issue is this kind of discomfort that some faculty seem to feel around the naming of pronouns…it feels…what’s that word?

AC: Like it’s violating people’s privacy.

AE: Yes, that’s it.

AC: But before we get into this, we’d like to steal a question that our favorite podcasters ask…

AE: If this were a podcast, it would be organized much better. People would be like, “Could you two stop talking? You have a guest!”

AC: Shut up!

T: It’s all good. It’s not a podcast. [Note from editors: T finally gets a word in edgewise. Sorry, Tegra!]

AC: So what do you do and why?

T: What do I do? I’m the assistant director of the Gender & Sexuality Center. That’s my professional life. Non-professionally, I do a lot of random things. I like to garden. Recently, I’ve gotten into petsitting, a way to make some money and have dogs in my life. Some community stuff but not a ton. Because my job is ridiculously intense and we have a lot of evening and weekend hours. In that job, primarily, Laura [Haave, the director] and I take a co-[director] approach to a lot of things. A lot of the events coming from our office, I or Laura are responsible for all of the logistical details. Brainstorming with students, publicity, advertising, speaker contracts, mostly I do all that. I supervise the student workers. I oversee the two [residential] houses affiliated with our office. I’m also an advisor, have five sophomore that I advise. I’m the co-chair of the Restorative Justice committee and one of sexual misconduct support advisors. That’s kind of my day to day.

AC: And why do you do what you do?

T: I feel like I just fell into the “gay for pay” space [laughter]. I’ve also always related well to college-aged students, young adults. At Carleton, it’s a specific age range of college students, but anywhere else, that could be from 18 to whatever. I’m just a very relatable person. When I was in undergrad and was pre-med, like half the people in higher ed who are first gen students [term used for students who are the first in their families to attend college], I recognized that bio and pre-med wasn’t where I wanted to go. I realized that I really enjoyed helping out students figure out the process of higher ed. I worked a lot in both housing and admissions during undergrad. That just flowed into grad school.

AE: What’s the degree title?

T: Depending on where you go, the titles are different. Mine is higher education administration with a specialization in student affairs…Our program had more of a research focus…but we didn’t do any counseling. I think we all should [have some training in counseling] because it’s a part of the work that we all do. Particularly if you’re doing transformative advising on the faculty side, all of that is about their non-academic selves, which you can’t split from their academic selves. But all of the conversations I have with my advisees are all about their lives. Maybe that’s because that’s the approach I take. I do what I do because I like people, I like to talk to people, and I love to learn new things and I constantly do that at the GSC.

AE: What I love about what you just said is that I feel like I would say the same thing. And yet there’s two very different places where we ended up…there’s a million different places where you can end up where it’s basically, “I love people. I love learning different things.” Which is very cool.

AC: I don’t really love people.

AE: No, you do not. [laughter]

AC: But I do like the learning and I like that people learn. Tegra, how have you changed because of your work at the GSC?

T: Since coming to Carleton, probably learning more about oppression and social justice, and in particular, joining the queer community because that’s been in recent history, has taught me the importance of personal experiences and the personal connection to what identity labels mean. All that has shifted my hard T to somewhere in the middle. Personal experience matters so much in the work that I do, it’s become a constant.

AE: Thinking about identity and labels, and how we work to help students figure out how to name themselves, these things are related to the issue of pronouns and the work that y’all [GSC staff] have chosen to do. Clearly you’re all movers and shakers on this issue on campus. And those buttons you put out two years ago [Tegra: and last year], those are amazing. The students all get it. The first and second year students all have theirs. So why? Why did you decide as the GSC to do this?

T: A lot of the work that we do reflects what our students want to see. We try to hire a really diverse staff, in terms of race, gender, across identities. We try to hire students who represent a lot of aspects of Carleton’s LGBT community. Also we connect with our student groups. We hear from them what they are interested in, what do they need to feel safer or more comfortable at Carleton. Pronouns and, just, more intentional work on the classroom space becoming more inclusive and welcoming for trans and gender non-binary students became the biggest call. Carleton, in particular, has a high number of gender non-binary students. Those experiences can be confusing because the narrative across media is about trans people, particularly White trans women. So non-binary people aren’t really represented in media and you don’t read about them.

AE: Can we clarify? What do we mean when we say “non-binary” students? What are the steps they’re taking that helps them see that identity as possible and what do you all offer them?

T: I don’t know that there’s anything that we offer them other than a safe space to question their gender and talk about the labels they want to use or if they want to use labels. A lot of students are coming into Carleton with that already. I think social media has become a space to find communities around a lot of different identities. We have a lot of students coming to Carleton as non-binary. It’s about processing through what they’re feeling, their internal selves, what they’re feeling about their bodies, what feel comfortable for them as they get dressed in the morning. Does that include certain things, does it not include certain things? I think non-binary looks different for a lot of people. Some students dress in masculine ways but identify as non-binary. Some people are more fluid about the masculinity and femininity that they express. Some people are more androgynous and will mix it up at the same time. It means different things to different people which is where that individual experience and definition becomes really important.

AC: Maybe this is a basic question. How’s that different from trans identities and experiences?

T: For me, and this is not necessarily the perspective of the GSC, for me personally, trans usually has some type of more solidified end point. You were assigned woman at birth and you are a man. So you might identify as a transman or trans as an umbrella term. Whatever identity you were assigned to doesn’t fit your current narrative. You self-identify in ways that are different from what you were first assigned. Gender non-binary is called different things in different places—gender non-conforming is another way that’s more commonly referred to in academic or higher ed spaces. We use “non-binary” here because that’s how our students identify. Regardless of what you were assigned at birth, you don’t feel like you fit with any gender. Or you feel like you can go back and forth among genders. Agender is similar. You are a person with gender that can be expressed in many ways.

AE: I think my question is going to show my age…one of the things we talked about in the late 80s around lesbianisms, we wouldn’t have called it queerness exactly, then… One of those ideas back then was that you chose to be queer as a political claim against heteronormativity. For students who identify as gender non-binary, how much of it is a choice or how much of it is about seeing identities that are not them? Or how do we separate out those things?

T: Personally, I could identify as lesbian or queer, but I chose queer because of the ideology that it’s associated with in a way that lesbian isn’t. I don’t think that a non-binary identity is political in that sense. I do think that, because society has a strict definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine that’s usually associated with women and men, this other way of being has been created for people who feel like their way of being doesn’t fit society’s expectations of how you should express your gender or your sex. I think in some ways a lot of the language in the queer community is a response to the rigidity of society and how we have created constructs around gender. Kind of what you [Anita] were saying before about being misgendered as a woman because of masculine presentation, it surprises me when it happens to me because, in my eyes, I can be a woman and be super masculine. That’s not a contradiction. I want to be pregnant, I want to be a mother, and I want to be masculine, and that’s what comfortable for me.  But for society, that’s constantly a double take that you have to do. I always wonder, if the gender roles didn’t exist in society, would we still have the identity labels that we do? Would you have gender non-binary folks if they could express their gender in any way they want and society didn’t care? I don’t know.

AE: And if maternity or paternity weren’t associated with any particular kind of gender expression.

T: I do think that trans might always exist–discomfort with a particular body that you have. That could exist regardless. Identities that are based on gender identity and expression where you don’t have discomfort with your physical body that you have…

AC: I guess the pushback would be that how is that different from saying that we should be colorblind? Is the argument about being genderblind the same?

T: I think it’s different if being colorblind or genderblind is ignoring the differences that exist that are organized around a person’s gender or race, versus validating each person’s expression of gender or race. When Laura and I had a conversation, we discussed your question of what’s the difference between being gender neutral and gender inclusive? Gender neutral to me is almost being colorblind. The author in this article suggests that everyone just use “they/them” pronouns. Sure, that gets around the discomfort of cis-students having to hear pronouns that they weren’t expecting but that doesn’t get at the root of the transphobia that makes those students uncomfortable at the moment. I think it’s better to be gender inclusive where you’re talking with your students about why they’re having the reactions they’re having and wanting to honor the pronouns that people want to use in that space, rather than just having a blanket statement about using “they/them” pronouns for everyone and maybe misgendering everyone at that point…especially if they all agree as a group, maybe. But just to prescribe it seems to be like a colorblind approach.

AE: I love how you put this. Part of being gender inclusive is getting at why this might be uncomfortable, and getting at the root of this discomfort. I’m imagining doing that in my class, I’m not having trouble imagining having that discussion but what about for faculty who teach in fields where all they have time and space for is having students say their gender pronouns during the introductions. Is it still worthwhile doing even if there isn’t a chance to have a follow-up conversation to help students understand why you’re doing what you’re doing?

T: I would say from feedback we’ve gotten from students it’s always better to do it. All of the students I’ve talked to on campus, the GDG [gender discussion group on campus] wanted faculty to introduce the pronouns, recognize and use the pronouns that the students want to use. If as a faculty member you’re uncomfortable doing that, that’s what our space [GSC] is for. Come in and have a conversation with me or Laura about how do i make this more comfortable? Or if someone says I use “real boy” pronouns–

AC: [interrupting] What is that?

T: Real boy. Like when you said, “I use she/her but I don’t really care.” For some people, that means you can use whatever and I don’t really care. For others, it’s like you’re being kind of an ass saying that. Some people might say “I use men pronouns.” And then I would ask, “what does that mean for you?” Sometimes it’s good to ask a question, sometimes you just let it go.

AC: Also, I assume as a student, most of the  time you let it go if a professor says that in class.

T: For me, it even depends on what group of students I’m with…an example, the RAs do a resource rotation to get to know the various office. An RA came to GSC we do introductions, and the RA said I use male pronouns. I asked, “What do you mean by that? Men can use any pronouns and that why we do the introduction with pronouns. What you look like doesn’t necessarily relate to pronouns.” So if the point of that circle wasn’t for me to get them to understand what we do and the language around pronouns, I maybe wouldn’t have pushed, depending on what the group and how comfortable I am. If someone says something that’s blatantly problematic, I would say something…

AE: No matter what.

AC: What I got from the LTC presentation was that you ask students to share pronouns among other things during introductions but if a student doesn’t share, I should just let it go. I feel like as an instructor, I always have to reveal my gender pronouns, I have to role model, I feel like I don’t have that choice that our students do. Or at least I hope that how students see it because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable doing it. Maybe that’s some of my resistance or maybe that’s just my cis-privilege. And I need to get over it.

T: As a faculty member if you’re uncomfortable disclosing your gender pronouns, you can just use your name. “You can just refer to me as ‘Anita’ in this class.”

AE: It is really funny to me, though, about the way people talk about the discomfort, that it’s about this recognition that they’re tracking something, that they are cisgender. Oh, you can call me “she,”  and it’s not a surprise.

AC: But that’s the problem, I could look feminine and not use she/her pronouns.

T: I feel like the discomfort comes because we naturally assign identity labels to pronouns when we hear them. If I hear someone who I perceive as using “she/her” pronouns say they use “she/her” pronouns, okay, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if someone looks masculine and uses “he/him” pronouns, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if they use “they/them” I might assign them as gender non-binary or agender o trans. The problem is that we need to get faculty and people in general to stop associating a gender identity with the pronouns that people use. Particularly for people who are fluid. Pronouns can mean any number of things. They woke up today and that’s the pronoun they wanted to use.

Next blog post: we continue the conversation with Tegra, talking about gender fluidity, best gender-inclusive classroom practices, and learning from students.

 

Inspirations

Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” 1986.

Julia Serano, Whipping girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007

Resources at Carleton

GSC: Resources for Transgender and Gender Non-binary Students

GSC: Inclusive Classroom

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Protest in a neoliberal age

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Participants marching in Black Lives Matter Rally at Cornell University, September 23, 2016 (Credit: Julia Cole Photography)

Today we wanted to share with you a recent essay by Russell Rickford published in the African American Intellectual History Society blog, “The Fallacies of Neoliberal Protest.”

Rickford takes pains to explain the neoliberal context of current protest and social resistance on and off campuses, reminding us that neoliberalism “seeks to manage the social order and ensure the continued political dominance of the ruling class by absorbing social threats.”

He lays out three fallacies by which corporations and institutions in power seek to maintain this order and “neutralize” dissent. For us, this essay hit close to the bone in the way Rickford highlights “dialogue and awareness” as the first fallacy and then, as he sums up his case, states:

Truth is, we don’t need “diversity” training. We don’t need focus groups. We don’t need consultants and experts. We don’t need the apparatus of our oppression—racial capitalism itself—to rationalize and regulate our dissent. The logic and techniques of the corporate world won’t end the slaughter of black people, or the dispossession and degradation of indigenous people, or the transformation of the entire Global South into a charred landscape of corpses and refugees.

We’ve both participated in and led diversity training. We’ve done focus groups. We’ve felt like we’ve needed experts. We’ve been asked to do the expertifying. And it has all felt necessary and important … but this cold splash of water reminds us of the limits of what we do. Maybe more frighteningly, it shows us how the very efforts we are involved in are, by the very virtue of how institutions work, stunted and contained or worse, used to justify the very same inequities we want to change.

Rickford’s conclusion–“This is a human rights struggle. And it will be waged in the streets, not in boardrooms, the halls of Congress, or other strongholds of global capital”–is a necessary reminder for us to be clear about the limits of what we are able to do in our classrooms and institutions and the impetus we feel to be engaged in change work outside of those spaces.

The Origin Story

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A visual of our collaboration. (Citation)

As we come back to this space after taking some time away from it, we wanted to write a post explaining why we have this blog. Why a blog? Why a shared blog? And what’s up with the blog name?

WHY A BLOG? Since we’ve met, we’ve been having conversations that have blown both of our minds. We push each other to think more deeply and fully, and that has been a sustaining element in our lives in Minnesota. Not to toot our own horns (not that either of us are good at tooting horns), but we thought that some of our thinking and the way that we work through and within uncertainty might be helpful for others. So we decided to create a space where we could do this work in a public way. We felt that a blog would allow us to attempt to be thoughtful and smart, but also highlight our humor, our personalities, and our mistakes. We’ve both often felt like the rules of academic writing hampered us, and we wanted to be able to set our own rules for how we present our voices to the world.

We also wanted a space to amplify the work of scholars, thinkers, and activists of color. A friend of Adriana’s has written about the “politics of citation.” Following María Elena Cepeda’s call to cite each other [i.e. scholars of color], this blog is a place where we try to signal boost voices that might not always get heard in academia.

The truth is that we would love to do a podcast like Heben & Tracy–we think our conversations are much more fun when you can hear them–but we both suck at audio editing and have no clue how to produce a podcast. We are in need of the kind of podsquad that they have! If any readers are qualified and want to be part of our podsquad, hit us on the buzz!**

WHY A SHARED BLOG? You might imagine that when we are writing these posts together, we spend tortured hours worrying about word choices and perfect sentences. We don’t.  Instead, our conversations about how to language our ideas are probably some of the most joyful moments of our week. We made a commitment to write together most of the posts because writing together means that we are thinking together. Sharing a blog means that we collaborate, we co-create knowledge, we share experiences and emotions… in other words, we aim to do “transformative scholarship.” As Jigna Desai (one of our sheroes) writes:

What is still missing in our conversations about critical ethnic studies, feminist scholarship, and transformative humanistic projects? Let us talk about how we do our work. Why is it that we talk about decolonization of knowledge and yet perpetuate a cult of celebrity academics and/or fetishize the monograph? Why is it difficult to see collaborations across small and large structures of power as transformative? We must learn to recognize how the subject and the form contribute to decolonizing scholarship. Intentional dialogue, mentoring, and collaborations should not be understood in mathematical formulae that fracture essays into percentages, that divide attributions like pie. We must work to recognize scholars for their larger body of work as the sum greater than its parts. At the end of the day, such a calculus of acknowledgement should not replicate a celebrity or capitalist system that sees knowledge as stemming from the cult of the persona or diminished through collaboration. Instead it must work, to name not only transformative scholarship, but the new forms in which it appears.” (Facebook post, August 25, 2013)

WHY DOWN WITH BROWN? We struggled to come up with a name that was as revolutionary as we feel. We knew that we wanted to center the bodies and experiences of women of color while taking into account the limits of our own bodies and experiences. In her earlier, younger blog, Adriana uses the metaphor of coffee to gesture at experiences of Latinx brownness in the U.S. (Important interjection from Anita: BUT, BUT you love our blog, right??) Of course, the expression “down with” is used to signify alliance and solidarity, as in “down with that.”

(Important interjection from Adriana: OMG, OMG we just found out that we are not down with the phrase “down with the brown,” as defined by urban dictionary!! P.S. On a more serious note, maybe we’ll write a future blog post about what it means to love and live across racial identities.)

Now that you’ve learned about the blog’s origin story, we hope that it helps you understand a bit better where we’re coming from and why we write what and how we write.

** If you don’t know what “podsquad” or “hit us on the buzz” means, you clearly haven’t been listening to enough episodes of Another Round with Heben and Tracy. And you need to remedy that fast!

We speak of (our) glorious brownness

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“Soldaderas,” Yasmin Hernandez (2011)

(Note: Our blog posts are based on conversations that we have, conversations that we sometimes record. The format of this post is an attempt to demonstrate the dialogic nature of those conversations, and the spirit of collaboration and friendship that informs them. We would love for you to share with us the histories and experiences of your glorious brownness/blackness!)

AC: I was thinking, well, you know what I was thinking initially, that we write about whiteness all the time and we have to because that’s what we’re surrounded by. But we forget that there are these parts to ourselves that are not about Whiteness.

AE [laughing]: It cracks me up because it reminds me of this piece about what if authors wrote about white people the same way they write about brown people. Because when you read fiction, if there’s a brown person in the book, there’s always some discussion of their caramel colored skin or their chocolate tone [laughter].

AC: What do you think I am? [sticks out arm]

AE: I don’t know! I don’t think in food metaphors…You are like toasted almond.

AC: Oooh. That’s kind of yummy.

AE: I on the other hand…

AC: I feel like you’re like one of those vanilla flavors but with flecks.

AE: I feel I’m like French Silk Pie.

AC: Because we just got some ice cream and you got French Silk Pie.

[laughter]

This post is about exploring our brownness–what it means to us now, how we’ve come to understand it, and the people and contexts that have shaped our brownness. The exchange above captures some of what we associate with our brownness–joy, community, sisterhood, laughter, silliness, politics.

Skin color is a part of our brownness. Both within our families and in our Latinx and (South) Indian communities, there’s a range of skin colors and there are politics about which skin colors are desired and valued. Anita’s mom has told her the story many times about how the first thing an aunt said when she saw the newborn Anita was that her skin was so dark. There are many messages about lighter skin being better (skin lightening cream ads, for example. The one linked is an especially fascinating pseudo-feminist one where lightening her skin gives the daughter the courage and strength to tell her dad that she wants to wait to get married till she has a job and can be on equal terms with her husband!). Adriana grew up in a family that called her “güerita” and other cousins “morenita”–both endearments, but with different societal values attached.

Of course, though, our brownness is more than skin color.

AC: I did mean brownness in a larger sense, not just skin color [laughter]. We can always talk, though, about the gloriousness of caramel skin, and toasted almond complexion.

AE: We could talk about the glorious brownness of certain spaces; I’ve been thinking a lot about white space. When I was New York City recently, it meant being in spaces where, yeah, there’s a lot of whiteness, but there are other variations too. It feels so different to move through that city.

AC: It’s the relaxing part…when I think of brown spaces, I always think of community. I grew up in India so there’s that more obvious kind of brown community but even since moving to the U.S., that’s been important. For example, having the critical mass of black and brown folks at Swarthmore [Anita’s undergraduate alma mater] was really important. Not every brown person I’ve met is super supportive but all my supportive spaces are full of black and brown people.

AE: You’ve built them deliberately, especially in a place like Minnesota, to be full of black and brown people.

AC: I just feel like there’s a sense of not having to worry about what I say in those spaces that I feel like has never been true for me at Carleton or other white spaces.

AE: In white spaces, there’s a series of second-guessing that I do. I might still be brave at some point like with these blog posts. But then, for example, I wonder if I say this, (a) are you going to listen (b) are you going to think I’m crazy, or (c) are you going to menospreciar what I’m saying? Are you going to actually care about what I’m saying?

AC: We don’t have to be brave in brown spaces. It’s exhausting being brave and there we can just be. And still be challenged in different kinds of ways. It’s not that we always agree on everything. But I never feel minimized. I always feel heard.

These brown spaces aren’t always physical ones or permanent ones. These spaces can sometimes be created online, temporarily, as in a Facebook post that Adriana wrote once about her annoyance about how a NPR story about Cuba centered Hemingway, a White American author. Her Latinx and other friends of color chimed in with funny, sarcastic pointed comments about the whiteness of NPR. A White friend wrote to Adriana saying that the tone of these comments made them uncomfortable.

AE: And we all had this understanding of why and what was useful about that move. I think the one thing that was so alienating for him was exactly that. It was not a white space.

AC: And that it’s brown snark.

AE: It’s the fear that brown spaces are anti-White. Which…

AC: Sometimes it is

AE: Sometimes it has to be.

AC: Maybe it’s more anti-Whiteness, not so much anti-White people.

This led us to a discussion of our White friends who are politically liberal and demonstrate that stance through articles they post on social media, for example. However, there is still the question of whether these intellectual discussions and stances make them cognizant of the raced influences on their daily lives and interactions.

AC: With some White friends, maybe it’s that I’m not the one who’s always bringing it up.

AE: You know, that is super big. It would be such a lovely thing if more White people in our lives said, “Bring me into your brownness.” And weren’t scared. What is that white people are scared of? White people have been trained to be scared of talking about race because often just talking about race feels to them like it’s racist. And of course for us, if you’re not talking about race…

AC: That’s racist.

AE: That’s racist, because we are living raced lives.

AC: Maybe that’s one of the things about being brown. We’re not so afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations.

AE: If we were afraid, we’d be passing. Like I would be White. And I’d be a f*&*ing different person.

AC: And I feel like the same would go for me. I couldn’t pass in the same way. But there’s lots of ways in which as a person of color, you can assimilate and accommodate….but also, I don’t know if my closest White friends say, “Bring me into your brownness.” [laughter]

AE: We will bring you into our brownness!

AC: Because we are magnificent and..what’s that word for being…magnanimous!

AE: We are magnificent and magnanimous in our brownness [laughter]! One of the things I love about my brownness is having a rich sense of what it means to be anchored in a particular history (related to the U.S.) and about valuing that past of my people and the strength that it takes my community to be here in the way that it is.

AC: I feel like I don’t have that same relationship to the U.S. but for me, reading Black feminist authors like bell hooks and Audre Lorde has been a big part of my intellectual history.

AE: That raises the question for me about when is the moment that you came into your brownness; can you remember what that felt or looked like?

AC: I think unconsciously, I don’t know if I would have named it as such at the time, but moving to the U.S., moving to Fort Collins, Colorado, where my cousins, my brother and I were the only brown people in the school. Or at least that’s what I remember. It was the first time I didn’t look like everyone else around me. I could feel it on my skin in this weird way but I couldn’t talk about it and it wasn’t until college really where I first self-identified as a person of color. I don’t think I had that language before then.

AE: Likewise. I definitely knew I was Mexican and American for the longest time and went back and forth. Had both of those homes. It wasn’t until college and late in college that taking Chicano literature with María Herrera-Sobek changed my life. Senior year, I read Lorna Dee Cervantes and she talks about being Chicana as this movement in between Mexico and the U.S., where you’re not home in either. It named me so deeply. I was floored.Then there’s Cherrie Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez. Not every text mirrored me exactly. That wouldn’t have even been useful. But every text contained fragments of mirrors that I could use to understand better how to map myself into brownness.

AC: For me, it was much more about my classmates. My class was about 40% students of color. I had classmates who already had the vocabulary

AE: And they saw you.

AC:  Yes.

AE: I was never really seen.

AC: I’ve never thought about that…

AE: I wrote a maudlin poem in college about how I’m so brown and blue. [laughter]

AC: We need to find it and publish it!

AE: It’s such a bad poem. Our embodiment is so different in the way we were seen and recognized as belonging by other members of our community.

AC: For me, there was definitely a sense of being a part of this students of color community in college. Not that there weren’t tensions because we were different kinds of students of color and we had to work through that. At least among the students who were politically active, we embraced that. It’s been interesting because I know that some of our students of color now don’t always like that language. I respect that, of course, but for me, it was so much a part of my own racialization and my own coming into consciousness. It makes a little sad sometimes. I’ve always had South Asian friends, for sure, but in undergrad and grad school, it’s always been a community of color. It’s never been just South Asian. So my own community feels like it’s full of people of color and multiracial. It’s been really important for me to think through my own privileges and what it means to be Indian American within that community.

I remember in grad school, there were two of us who were South Asian in my cohort. The head of the African American student group came up to us and invited us to be part of the group because at the time, there wasn’t really a student of color group. I felt very grateful that they took us in! We supported and were supported in ways that would have made my graduate school experience very different if I hadn’t had that.

AE: Yeah. Getting to grad school, it was fraught in a couple of ways. But I came into a community of Chicanas. We were all…marooned at Cornell. I felt like I didn’t know how to do it the right way and others did. It was still super important to have this community that was mainly Chicanas and South Asians as well, which is fascinating historically. There were not many Black students in the program.

AC: There is that whole history of Mexican-Punjabi families in California.

AE: It’s so true!

AC: Not that I’m Punjabi but I’ll claim it anyway. Close enough!

AE: Our connection was predestined is what we’re saying. [laughter]

AC: Our together brownness.

AE: It’s interesting that though we both came into our brownness in different ways, they’re both still mediated by texts. Moraga, hooks, and Lorde are amazingly important to me, too. I feel that the way I think about my brownness and why it was important for me to say Chicana, rather than Mexican-American, was to claim this political identity. My brownness is about this political attitude and inclination.

AC: YES! My brownness was never just about a social or cultural identity; it was always a political identity. I feel like especially as an Asian American, that’s very important to claim because a progressive political Asian American identity isn’t always visible to us as Asian Americans or to the larger society. Ways of being brown and yellow in a political way are often made invisible by how Asian Americans are portrayed in mainstream media and academia. That history is there but it’s so minimized.

AE: I think Latino brown and African American black bodies are seen as political a priori. They’re trouble for the nation. You’re right that with Asian bodies, this whole model minority myth becomes a way of seeing those bodies as apolitical and as accommodating to Whiteness.

AC: At the same time, there’s a whole history of Asian Americans being seen as perpetual foreigners. The Chinese Exclusion Act. A whole history of being excluded from the nation at the same time, once we were included, we were used as a wedge. I loved the “we are not your wedge” movement, a critique of how Asian Americans are often invoked in debates about affirmative action. I love that the younger generation is thinking about our positionality critically and taking that on. I did come to my Asian American political identity but for me, that came after I thought of myself more nebulous as being “of color.”

AE: And I think it was the opposite for me.

AC: Luckily, having 40% students of color meant that there was a good number of Asian American students who were political and it was awesome to grow up with them. Grow up politically.

AE: Talking about brownness in this way, in the sense of our glorious brownness, what does it mean to have brown people but not brown in our kind of way?

AC: Politically? For me, brownness isn’t just cultural, but it is also cultural. To me, there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy but I do understand how sometimes the kinds of cultural practices we engage in as a community reifies certain ideas about tradition and community that can hold back contemporary and more critical forms of cultural practices. When I’m with a group of queer, South Asian folks, sometimes it’s political, sometimes we’re just making fun of our reactions to Indian sweets. I appreciate that kind of brown space too.

AE: There’s something deeply political about these moments of self-care in a world that does not care of  you. But I wasn’t thinking of moments like that. I was thinking of the difficulties of living in a larger community where I expect alliances simply because we inhabit a similar kind of brownness. Then you realize that it’s not a given that my brownness is going to align with their brownness and that our interests can be divided.

AC: And I think this is also where critical mass matters. I learned that lesson at Swarthmore.

AE: You learned a lot at Swarthmore.

AC: Not because of the institution. Because of my classmates. Even if half the Asian American community wasn’t involved, didn’t want anything to do with us, it was okay…

AC: So…are we done talking about brownness?

AE: Yeah, I think we’re done. For now!