The Case for Reparations in Digital Spaces

These are my remarks as part of the MLA 16 roundtable: Repair and Reparations in Digital Public Spaces.

As I begin to pull together my thoughts on the subject of repair and reparations, I find the ideas I had in January 2015 when Adeline and I, over plates of Korean fried chicken first began discussing the subject of reparations in digital spaces are not the same as they are today in January 2016.

Originally, and in keeping with our Texas location, I was most concerned with issues of how digital tools, themselves at best neutral, are used and abused to re-enforce and expand the hegemonic imperial nation state, to militarize and police the US Mexican border against and at the expense of economically and politically colonized bodies.

I’m still concerned with this, but I want to focus my remarks this afternoon on issues of repair versus reparation. Much has been discussed recently on care and repair practices. So why then use the term “reparation”? Repair can be a positive thing. The term denotes fixing, making something that doesn’t work or properly function or function better. But repair is also utilitarian and philosophically neutral. Repair is not revolutionary. Physical repairs, as Gloria Anzaldúa discusses in Borderlands, are forever being made to the border wall, the 1,950 mile open wound, where the ocean meets the shore, where Tijuana touches San Diego. This decade has seen much fence and wall building and repair. Yet no one, I believe, would call these repairs “reparations.”

“Reparation” is not neutral term. It has revolutionary resonances. Reparations speak not simply to fixing something that’s broken, but of making something or someone who was harmed whole. Reparations demand acknowledging responsibility for past injustices and active resistance to their replication. Reparations are not simply repairs but compensation. Reparation judges. It is repeatedly returned to in critical race theory, post-colonial and ethnic studies. To deny reparation is to ignore that theory, history and philosophy. Reparations, the current and past border situation would suggest acknowledging and teaching the history of Operation Wetback, of the braceros. Of resisting the militarized wall. Of, as Homi Bhaba wrote and as my fellow panelist Linda Garcia Merchant does in her work, haunting the unwritten history.

As was learned through the cynical use of deconstruction of video in the Rodney King beating case, when police defense lawyers used a deconstructed reading to see resistance and danger in King’s beaten body, neutral tools may not remain neutral. It is the nature of hegemony that a neutral tool will tend to work to repair and reinforce white, neoliberal capitalism. It is therefore important not only to repair and care for our digital spaces, but to construct and reconstruct them as spaces where reparations are made.

 

Disrupting DH: Lowriding Through the Digital Humanities

This was written as a position paper for MLA16’s roundtable Disrupting DH.

Note: The title of this piece is shamelessly borrowed from Barbara Noda’s “Lowriding Through the Women’s Movement,” a piece which creatively addresses the power a group made up of women of color could have on individuals during the women’s movement. It was published in the classic, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

There has been wonderful work recently on #TransformDH by the TransformDH collective discussing how racial / gender / sexual / disabled bodies in the academy are and always have been doing digital humanities work. Nevertheless, because hegemony constantly replicates the dominant discourse, there needs to be a consistent and constant engagement with issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and able-bodiedness as its counter. To discuss this hegemony, I’m going to fall back on Chicana feminist praxis, which means locating myself and speaking from that position, with the hope that from that self-situated ethnography some insight into my concerns may come. This piece uses autoethnography to specifically discuss issues and effects of racial absence in the digital humanities community and what the costs of that may be. It begins to discuss how the discourse surrounding racial bodies and there absence in DH spaces replicates the discourse surrounding the invisibility / absence of women of color from second wave feminism.

Those who think Twitter is a waste of time, as opposed to it being a time-waster, are failing to see its potential. Or maybe they’re not following the right people. Twitter is the main way I keep up on what’s going on in two areas: digital humanities and ethnic studies, especially Chicana/o and Latina/o studies. My point of entry into both of these online communities is through Twitter, though in the case of ethnic studies, it also reflects my disciplinary background and my areas of research. Both Twitter streams are very active, some days more than others, but even so, more than I can read most days. Both use hashtags to discuss important issues, though Chicana/o studies somewhat less often than DH.

In 2011, as I struggled with the final revisions of my dissertation between adjuncting gigs, feeling the absence of intellectual community, I found academic Twitter. Although I had been active in online communities going back to Usenet alt.* groups in the mid-late 1990, except for a little work on a department lists erve, my online communities never intersected with my academic ones. Questions of why should probably be reserved for the digital equivalent of psychoanalysis (would that be blogging?).  By the end 2011 however, I’d been online as a Chicana doctoral student / recent Ph.D. for more than a year. I had engaged with an online community of Chicanos, of other academics, of Doctor Who fans (communities that frequently overlapped). And I’d participated in having a hashtag (#AztlanReads — a response to the general lack of knowledge about Chicana/o authors and books) become a small but vocal movement as a website and then an anthology. Being part of this made me imagine how the fields of digital humanities and digital pedagogy was intersecting with Chicana/o studies specifically and ethnic studies / critical race theory more generally.

Because of this experience engaging with and in technology with my digital community, I attended the 2012 MLA convention in Seattle with plans of branching out from attending mainly Chicana/o panels and into this DH community I’d grown to (virtually) know through social media. I’m taking a long time telling this. It is because the memory is painful. The panels and workshops I attended were a shock. Not only because the work was so exciting, especially, for me, the pedagogy, the mapping and time lining and other amazing projects. But because even at MLA, even at a literature conference, I had never experienced a stronger sense of being racially / ethnically other. The rooms, crowded to bursting were visibly, notably white spaces. This was a bit jarring, but what was even more so was that no one was taking about this. No one was asking where the brown people were. The absence of racialized bodies was un-noted.

The degree to which I was unnerved is hard to overstate. On the one hand, here were all these wonderful ideas, ways of thinking about literature and community and its intersection — merger even– with the digital that I had never considered. On the other there was a seemingly lack of awareness of the hegemonic replication of whiteness. I left with nothing to say, something that’s unusual as I’m generally a loud mouthed sort of woman. Yet I was unnerved and had felt a fear of participating. Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases. I left those DH sessions with the thought of attending the Chicana/o Latina/o / Asian American / African American literature sessions.

On the way, I went and found coffee, sat in the hotel lobby and tried to sort out my thoughts and emotions.  On a personal level the moment was hard. After enduring the alienating damage of being one of a very few graduate students of color in my Ph.D. program, I had been enfolded, and to an extent, healed by MALCS, a Chicana / Latina community of scholars and community activists. Did I want to leap back into the world of unthinking micro and macro racial aggressions? As a scholar of color, there are few things as rare and wonderful as getting to be in a room with a multitude of scholars of color. For me, there’s a feeling of intellectual safety, of being able to take risks without risking being found intellectually naive, or worse still, reflecting badly on all Chicana/os. I feel I can be wrong, that we can build theoretical castles in the air, find their flaws, send them crashing down.

Alexis Lothian, someone I knew from graduate school, came into view and kindly came over. I poured out what I had seen and felt at my somewhat limited exposure to the digital humanities at MLA. She affirmed what I’d seen and felt and we began discussing issues of racial, gender and sexuality hegemony within the DH community. It seems this feeling was something of the zeitgeist of the moment and soon tweets began to appear with the #TransformDH hashtag.

There was and continues to be pushback, a sense that DH is welcoming to all and has no need to transform itself or to be transformed. In the four years since the Seattle MLA, I have witnessed the hostility and impatience that seems to greet discussions of how DH could / should imbue itself with critical race theory and feminist praxis. Enumerating DH projects by or about communities of color or women seems to substitute for engaging with the white male hegemony being reproduced from our academic institutions into DH structures and communities, for me, reproducing the experience of women of color with second wave feminism. Yet at the same time, the potential for change, the excitement for the field continues. If DH can learn from cultural studies and feminism to recognize and unsettle its privilege, to demand diversity of itself and its communities, that would go a long way in bridging these discourses. It means not waiting for scholars of color to find DH and ask us about it, but going to them, understanding and listening to their theories and practices and discussing with them how the digital works in connection with the work they’re already doing. We need to understand what it costs for a scholar of color to admit to not knowing or “getting” something and don’t take it lightly. Meanwhile, I know I speak English only. My code is as stumbling and ungraceful as my Spanish. I feel like Cherrie Moraga, trying to find a way to be a bridge and not being adequate to the task.


 

MLA 14 – Our Kind of People: Textual Community and the Latina Edited Anthology

mla2014-logoThis was a good morning.  I was surprised and very pleased to find out that my paper for MLA14, “Our Kind of People: Textual Community and the Latina Edited Anthology” was accepted for inclusion in the Chicana and Chicano Literature Division ¿Anthologizing Latinidad? panel and that the roundtable special- session “Back Up Your Work: Conceptualizing Writing Support for Graduate Students,” which I’m on with Liana Silva, Abigail Scheg, Lee Ann Glowsenski and Tara Betts, was also accepted.

The abstract for my talk:

“Our Kind of People: Textual Community and the Latina Edited Anthology”

Readers see the authorial decisions as definitive while editorship remains invisible. Within a text, editors are seen, to the extent they are seen at all, as serving a generally administrative or organizational role. Yet in reality editors act as facilitators, filters and / or gatekeepers — albeit sometimes uncomfortable ones — deciding who and what is included and excluded, encouraging writing that otherwise might never be published or even written. By making these decisions, they decide whose thoughts merit inclusion, which ones belong and which do not, controlling how and if a subject or author will be presented. Still further, editors decide through which point of view or lens an artistic, social or political movement will be viewed. Discussing the role of editor, Norton editor Alane Salierno Mason, wrote “[e]diting a literary anthology is like forming a social club — you get to decide who are ‘your’ kind of people.” This paper focuses on anthologies as textual communities made up by women of color — especially Latinas. Although Latinas contributed to anthologies of Latino and feminist writings in the 1970s, beginning (largely) in the 1980s, Latinas became anthology editors. In their editorial role they facilitated other Latinas and women of color as writers to engage in intellectual discourse and be distributed on a larger scale than permitted by earlier underground newspapers and journals.

The two anthologies I focus on are Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s edited anthology, This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and the Chicana studies anthology Chicana Voices: Intersections of Class, Race and Gender, (1986) edited by Teresa Córdova, Norma Cantú, Gilberto Cardenas, Juan García and Christine M. Sierra. Both books have publication histories that are themselves acts of resistance, reflecting how the books were constructed as well as how each has been presented, received and used. Though examining these anthologies, a sense of the construction of textual communities and the creation of anthologies as acts of resistance is discussed.

When our roundtable proposal is put online I’ll put a link to it here.