Men in Ethnic Studies
I am currently enrolled in an ethnic studies graduate program. My program is interdisciplinary with an emphasis on social justice and positive change. The literary content mainly revolves around liberation, decolonization, and self-determination. Despite the refreshing content, I often found myself uncomfortable and, at times, even scared, while sitting in the classroom. I find myself in love with the content I have been given, in love with my course work, as well as community service projects while simultaneously dreading physically setting foot into the academy. The professors in my department and all those affiliated and involved are phenomenal and most act as a second family to me. I could not understand why I felt terrified to walk on to campus despite all of these positive aspects. At first, I attributed this fear to personal insecurities such as my inability to write academically or “imposter syndrome” or my overall life anxieties.
My program has awarded me the opportunity to take an independent study on Feminisms of Color and classes on Women in History Through Black and Brown Feminist Voices, and now Latina/Chicana Feminism. These courses have provided me with an arsenal of tools necessary to analyze my everyday experiences — and perhaps more importantly, my experiences in the classroom. It’s taken me several years to pinpoint and understand exactly why I felt this. As I started observing and analyzing my surroundings very closely and the cause of my classroom terror subtly revealed itself to me — I was terrified of the men in my classes. I began to doubt my feelings. Was this my life experiences playing in to the circumstances? Was I allowing myself to be too sensitive? Was it a combination of the two? Perhaps to an extent both of those scenarios played a role in affecting me. Regardless, a startling truth was consistent and the observable patterns of the behavior of men proved themselves to be true over and over again.
In ethnic studies we hold texts such as Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and her editorial collaboration with Cherríe Moraga This Bridge Called my Back as sacred. They are read repeatedly across different classes in different fields of study and are often centered in analytical works by students and faculty. These texts function as manuals for undoing the patriarchy women of color are subjected to, and thus are also decolonial methods for the woman of colors’ liberation. Yet despite the accessibility of these texts in nearly all of our classrooms, I have found that the vulnerabilities and the liberatory potential for women of color are overlooked by my male peers who instead opt to focus on a decoloniality and liberation which is severed from the vulnerable and emotional labor with which these feminist texts are built upon. Thus, creating an attempt to realize a decolonial and liberatory state of being without building from the necessary foundation laid out in these texts. The result of which is an overwhelming dismissal of Latina/Xicana issues, a negligent reading of these texts, and an unhealthy classroom environment. How then, could this possibly be the case when the texts are accessible to all in the classroom?
All this in consideration, it has become apparent that men of color in academia, particularly within an ethnic studies program, behave more confrontational in a classroom setting opposed to their female colleagues. This becomes even more apparent through a reading of Latina/Xicana feminist texts which demonstrates the fundamental missing pieces of decolonization and liberation that men often lack, again, being the emotional and vulnerable nature, these pieces possess. Thus, I will analyze my experiences in the classroom within my own program while also analyzing how this behavior could possibly exist, and how decolonial thinking has not engaged with the decoloniality of gender. In an academy which encourages the pursuit of liberation and freedom, not enough has been done to ensure the decoloniality of gender of men, and thus, aggressive and violent behavior persists, often unchecked, in classrooms. Using personal testimonio I will strengthen this claim and appeal for a more effective teaching of texts and ideas to help the process of decolonizing gender.
My experiences in academia have mostly been pleasant; however, the presence of men in the classroom has been deeply troubling. When women express analysis like these in academia, they are interpreted as overdramatic or “sensitive”, and this is yet another reason why I have decided to unpack these experiences. My program is comprised mostly of Latinas and Xicanas while men make up less than half the population — yet occupy the most non-physical space. Men appear to be uneasy and angry in classrooms that are dominated by these women by having outbursts. Critique, analysis, and disagreement is natural and almost always expected in academia; however, I have often viewed men negatively dissect and analyze texts written for and by feminists or with feminist lenses as if they would cure cancer by doing so. It is the hostile and aggressive manner in which the analysis and dissection is carried out that is alarming.
One example that comes to mind is when a male colleague of mine first read Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House as a required text in a course on psychology in the Mexican American community. He immediately became fixated on Lorde’s message and overly aggressive in his disagreement with it while completely disregarding the feminist nature of the text. When the Latinas and Xicanas in our class would come to the defense of the text and its origins as a call-out to white feminisms, he would become animated like a cartoon monkey pounding his chest to aggressively shut down any woman who disagreed with him. Again, instead of understanding, analyzing, appreciating, and applying the feminist nature of the text, he instead used the aspects he did like to further his decolonial narrative and agenda which is horrifying as it perpetuates the nature of the eraser of women of color in academia and life in general.
A second example that comes to mind is a Women in History course I took in the spring of 2016 with a woman professor. What she provided was an “alternative” history of the United States — we learned of the backbreaking work women of color put in to the building and foundation of modern America, essentially challenging the narrative that women of color only served as reproduction factories. She taught us that women of color mined gold and coal, physically built structures, and did just about any job to allocate funds to support their families prior to any women’s rights movements. There were about four men in the classroom and each one of them challenged the professor at different times throughout the duration of the course but one of them stood out to me the most. The man explained, or rather “mansplained”, to her that outside of housework for white slave owner’s, women of color could not have possibly had any other professional occupation because women were not yet provided the right to work. Again, a seemingly natural challenge; however, aside from the obvious fallacy, the tone of the exchanges was often very hostile and toxic. The man I am speaking of aggressively raised his voice to prove his point and flailed his arms around in a threatening manner. He also often spoke over any woman in the class who happened to agree with the lesson of the day. On one occasion multiple Latinas and Xicanas disagreed with him and he reverted to name calling, slut-shaming, walking out, and slamming the door behind him to never return.
Another example which plagues my memory was in a Latino/as in Political Science undergraduate course. Discussions in that class often turned into debates between conservative men and leftist leaning individuals/women. One of the conservative men in this particular class often stated that he was anti-choice, pro-life, and believed that women should be at home and should only serve as mothers or housekeepers. One day we had a discussion about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and this man sat up in his seat and boasted that he hated Black people. He then proceeded to say that if he did like Black people he only liked the “non-ghetto” ones who “earned” the things they had. I remember sitting there with my jaw wide-opened with the intention to tell him that his thoughts were morally wrong, but before I could he yelled “shut your mouth” at me. The entire class went silent and the professor, a Latino, acted like nothing happened until another student brought it up. The professor held the male student and myself after the class so the student could apologize to me. The student proceeded to tell me that he was sorry that I was upset, not that he was sorry for saying the things that he said.
I have witnessed Latino and Chicano men question the competence of women professors and scholars way more than that of any male professor or scholar. It is important to note that each of the men I have described are self-identified Latinos or Xicanos who are in my ethnic studies program. Overall my observations have lead me to believe that Latino and Xicano men have a problem with female authority in the classroom and with texts written by women.
Of course, I have experienced many more hostile situations with male colleagues but there is not enough time in the day to express all of them. I have spent countless hours at various points in my life trying to understand the issues at hand only to have arrived at the same conclusion each time: women and femmes in ethnic studies are truly engaged in the process of decolonization, liberation, and healing while Latinos and Xicanos are forced to face their role in colonization of the brown body which may promote their frustration in the classroom and perhaps jealousy. I think this is possible because Latinas and Xicanas, and all women and femmes of color really, are provided with texts that promote love, self-love, and healing such as Borderlands, This Bridge Called my Back, Sister Outsider, and many other texts and journals and articles by scholars such as María Lugones.
For example, María Lugones has an article titled “World”-Traveling, and Loving Perception. This text recommends that women learn to love each other by “traveling” to their worlds which means that we take the time out of our lives to fully know and understand one another (Lugones, 1987, 4). Lugones also states that in order for women to love one another they must first identify with one another (Lugones, 1987, 4). In this case it is fair to argue that Latinos and Xicanos do not identify with Latinas and Xicanas; therefore, they are failing to love us in the ways that they love their Latino and Xicano brothers. It is rare when there is a genuine attempt on behalf of the Latino or Xicano in my ethnic studies program to identify with Latinas and Xicanas willfully. Their attempts to identify with Latinas and Xicanas often comes after an enormous amount of emotional labor on the part of the woman of color. It is consistent with Lugones’ concept of the love-hate relationship she, and most of us, have with our mothers and abusing the mother to a certain extent — considering that offspring may be male of female or any other sex I do not believe this relationship is exclusive to mother-daughter relationships — I believe men are also taught to love and abuse their mothers just the same as they are taught to love women while simultaneously abusing them to certain extents (Lugones, 1987, 6).
This love and abuse relationship Lugones is speaking of is a relationship that is taught in the home and is therefore so natural and embedded in the identity of the child. Women are not expected to be masculine and are expected to be tender, so they are more accepting of the idea of deconstructing the love/abuse relationship of the mother while men are expected to be rugged, tough, and emotionless so there is no attempt at deconstructing the behavior. It is as if men, more specifically Latinos and Xicanos, cannot be bothered with challenging this behavior of love and abuse because it inconveniences them.
Latinos and Xicanos in my ethnic studies program clearly lack love and ultimately respect for their Latina and Xicana colleagues despite advocating for the decolonization and liberation of their communities. It is a strange phenomenon considering the vast amount of literature that exists detailing the hardships and expressing the hurt women of color experience. This Bridge Called My Back is a collection of literary accounts of oppression women across all ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender have experienced over the course of their lifetime that is highly regarded in the academy and my program that should have been read by Latinos/Xicanos and Latinas/Xicanas alike. I am left wondering if the men in my program have simply not taken the text serious enough to read thoroughly or are inconvenienced with feminist literature so do not bother entirely. It is strange to me that reading such a collection of literature and witnessing such vulnerability amongst a group of people could result in employing little to no love towards them.
A text that is discussed and regarded almost as much as the Bible in my ethnic studies program is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. Borderlands is a feminist text in its entirety yet Latinos and Xicanos often disregard the feminist aspect completely. Latinos often pull the parts of the text that they can relate to most such as “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and “La conciencia de la mestiza/Towards a New Mestiza Consciousness”, of course Latinos and Xicanos completely disregard the “A” in MestizA and solely adopt her concept of border-thinking and use her work as a stepping stone to greater understand the Xicano experience.
A final great work of literature that exists is María Lugones’ The Coloniality of Gender. Lugones’ work expresses how gender roles have been imposed upon Indigenous bodies via colonization. Therefore, gendered roles and gendered performances are not true in nature to bodies of color — this includes Black, Brown, and Asian Indigenous bodies. Lugones argues that in order to fully be liberated we must reject this imposed colonial gendered system and “recommit to communal integrity in a liberatory direction” (Lugones, 2008, 16). Lugones’ piece essentially argues that you cannot move forward with decoliniality as a concept or mindset without decolonizing gender as a whole. Although this literature exists I have observed the ways in which Latino and Xicano scholars are complacent with the colonization of gender in academia.
Despite all of the literature that deconstructs gender and expresses the Latina/Xicana/woman of color experience, it is often disregarded. I can conclude that this is because the text, and thus the labor associated with its healing processes, is being glazed over by its male readers as an assignment with little to no relevance to their lives — again, a product of rigidly imposed gender roles preventing, in general, men from identifying beyond their gender. If not that, then it is a general dismissal of the centerpiece of the texts, and thus furthering the solidification of a border between genders, ultimately reinforcing violent borders within our own program. Whether it be the dismissal by or the ignorance to, neither is an acceptable result with a program such as ours. The fundamental equality preached in courses will continue to fall short with a deeper and more relatable communication of the texts. True, it is still a progressive space in that men are exposed to their toxicity, but without the emphasis on the necessity of decolonizing gender, this is perhaps too late of an intervention. There has to be something that can be done to make men understand and know and truly love the women they encounter. Simply reading texts and being told about hardships as a woman/femme are not enough. We are capable of doing more for ourselves, more for our program, and more for each other.
Lugones, María. “The Coloniality of Gender.” Worlds & Knowledges Otherwise, 2008, pp. 1–17.
Lugones, María. “Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception.” Hypatia, 1987, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 3–19. 2.