EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Grace Hong

The Cultural Studies Program’s colloquium (CSC) series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student Tauheeda Yasin interviewed Grace Hong, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies at University of California Los Angeles. See below for the transcript. 

Thank you and welcome to George Mason. We look forward to your talk on your forthcoming book, Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference. Could you talk a little bit about your choice of authors and texts used for the book?

GH: My theoretical framework for the book is a set of texts and theoretical materials that we can loosely call — Women of Color Feminism or that has been called Women of Color Feminism – that emerged as an explicitly articulated category in the late 70s into the 80s to the present. Obviously, this isn’t to say that feminist thoughts and ideas weren’t being articulated by racialized and colonialized women prior to the 70s and 80s, but in the 70s and 80s, a particular set of discourses emerged that tried to theorize the category: Women of Color or Third World Women – so, in the book, I look at and I use as my theoretical framework or my theorists, folks like Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Barbara Christian, folks like that.

The reason I turned to them is because they emerged in the wake of the social movement, movements for the black freedom, movements for liberation all over the world, desegregation movements, which cannot be subsumed under the rubric of civil rights – desegregation and black freedom movements had a much more expansive vision than the term civil rights articulates. So, in the wake of those movements, and the brutal kind of state crackdown on those movements – on the one hand in the U.S., things like the COINTELPRO and then the CIA versions of those all over the world – so there’s this brutal crackdown on these movements and at the same time a neoliberal ideology that adapts and incorporates some of the ideas and often some of the people of these movements without the kind of structural distributive mechanisms.

So, in that context, this specifically articulated Women of Color Feminism emerges to point that out, to say, “Yes, there is this really brutal crackdown, but on the other hand, a part of what’s going on is this incorporative mode.” As Cathy Cohen points out, a kind of black middle class, post-Civil Rights emerges specifically in positions about managing poor black and brown folks.

You mean specifically the rise of the black social worker and others in those professions?

GH: Yes, social workers, prison guards, parole officers, folks in the clergy had a longer tradition – that’s sort of a part of it – government employees, the folks who work in social security, HUD, that administer AFDC, folks like that. You could also even say, ethnic studies professors — that is a part of the sort of institutional management of revolution. With all of these things, it’s not like people can’t do good work in these contexts, like I would like to believe, but we still have to understand structurally how this happened.

On one level, the work they were doing was incredibly important, but on another level it was sort of mediating – I guess it’s important for both reasons because it’s a way of sort of mediating state violence. So on the one hand, it is a way to protect people from state violence but on the other hand it was also a way to contain people within the rubric of state violence

Could you talk about the genesis of how the book came about?

GH: In about 2002/2003, there just was a lot of, and this is such an odd thing to say, but there was just a lot of death. The U.S. was already in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq started, the brutal shock and awe tactics of U.S. militarism — where it was going in and admittedly and not even pretending otherwise – demonstrating this overwhelming show of violence and force.

At the time, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and my colleague, Nelly McKay, died of cancer. She was this incredibly famous, imminent, incredibly important African-American lit scholar. And she was just one of a string of black feminists who died of cancer and other diseases, so prior to being at Wisconsin, I was at Princeton for a few years, and Claudia Tate, my colleague at Princeton died of brain cancer. Before that, I went to grad school at U.C. San Diego, and Shirley Ann Williams, who is this really incredibly important author and performer creative writing professor died of cancer and those are just the ones at schools I happened to be in – there’s just this huge litany of black feminist scholars in particular, but lots of other women of color, feminists of color, who had died prematurely.

So, I had just such a feeling of feeling overwhelmed and despairing, and I thought, we need to figure out about this so that it doesn’t just turn into a kind of self-defeating sadness and mourning, so I wrote an article exploring [some of these issues].

How does this book relate to your earlier work?

GH: I don’t know if this is the case for everyone else, but this book is kind of me trying to fix all of the things I didn’t do well enough in the first one. So whenever people come up to me and they say, “You know, I read your book…” My response is always, “Oh my god, this next one is so much better.”

Well, you get continuously better, right?

GH: That’s a good way of putting it – as opposed to, oh man! Your past work — what were they thinking? So, my first project was about – it was my attempt to situate Women of Color Feminism as an epistemological critique of racial capital, which is sort of what I think I’m doing in this book as well. That’s my thing!

But, in my first book, I was thinking through the emergence of the propertied subject.

So the ways in which, in U.S. national culture, there is this default subject that is a possessive individual that is articulated through a narrative of self-making and self-possession, and that’s predicated over and against enslaved people, racialized migrants, folks like that – looking at that subject of property and the ways in which it erases the history of the property-less.

I look at American literature as this signal set of texts that narrate this propertied subject and then I look at texts by women of color as having to narrate subjects maybe differently because of these histories of dispossession. And thinking about how that becomes a kind of global phenomenon when we think of the U.S., not just as nation, but always as empire. So, that’s basically it, the structure of the book. I look at the propertied subject in relation to differential histories of dispossession or different racialized groups and I look at the constitution of that subject as a subject of empire and how that imperialist history resonates in the neocolonial movement. That’s the first book. For this book, I wanted to have a more explicitly theorized understanding of the incorporative or assimilative tendencies of neoliberalism and the violences that that produces, so that was something that I started to think about in the first book, but I didn’t quite feel like I had elaborated it very well. So, that’s this book.

In the middle, Robert Ferguson and I coedited this anthology that is about queer and feminist understandings of comparative racialization. Because one of the things that I think with Women of Color Feminism in the late 70s to the present have continuously sort of fought about is what makes out a particular formation – is that it was really concerned with theorizing coalition and solidarity, but not in a kind of homogenizing, third worldist kind of way – so in other words, there is a particular strain of third worldist thought, and this isn’t the only strain of thought, but it tends to be a very dominant one that looks at African-American, Asian-American, or African, Asian, Latino, Native, Middle Eastern, or what have you, these different forms of racialized histories, and sort of sweepingly say – “We’re all of color.” Or “We’re all whatever – and what women of color feminists have pointed out is that when you organize around a banner of commonality, or similarity, what that does is that it actually makes the categories of power – that category of similarity.

So, in other words, even within racial groups, so if you’re organizing Asian Americans, just to take one very specific example, Asian Americans as this homogenous group that’s all supposed to have the same interests, those interests are going to be masculinist and, you know what I mean?

If you sort of organize presuming a homogeneity of interests, the interests that are going to become prioritized are the ones that are going to be the most legible and that already have the most power, and we see this in the mainstream LGBT movement or what have you. So, Women of Color Feminism was all about saying, “No, we do need forms of coalition and solidarity, but it they have to be based on difference as opposed to based on trying to ignore or eradicate all these differences between these groups – because those differences are the things that matter, and differences are not in this happy muti-culty sort of definition of difference – it’s like the difference between you and me might be that a cop shoots me and a cop doesn’t shoot you.

Instead of pretending that difference doesn’t exist, which is really impossible for one set of people, let’s base our coalition on the fact that those differences exist and try to identify why those differences exist and try to eradicate those kinds of violences and try to imagine that things that affect me could be just as much as a priority for you and vice versa.

A part of it is the politics of. People call it identity politics, but it’s actually politics of — when you read what Women of Color Feminists were saying – it’s actually a politics of dis-identification; sort of to say, what if we based our politics not on preserving ourselves, but on recognizing in trying to preserve ourselves, [this] always involves us in a kind of economy that renders other people precarious, while understanding that there are moments where you do have to save yourself – not forgetting the question of at whose cost or at what cost.

If you read Audre Lorde’s work that is exactly what she is saying.

You’ve been reading and researching a lot on Women of Color Feminism – so how would you characterize the field at this current moment and where do you see the future of the field heading?

GH: What I actually see and have tracked is that there is just this huge and consistent level of activity amongst Women of Color Feminists and Black Feminists – not just Women of Color Feminists and Black Feminists – there have been really amazing Native Feminists, Latina Feminists, and from the 70s to the present, continuously. But often, you don’t recognize them.

There’s this very common narrative, this nostalgia narrative, where it’s said, “back in the day, in the 60s, we were so radical and then the COINTELPRO and the prison-industrial complex just decimated black and brown communities; we just have a bunch of apathetic millennials” – there’s this total narrative of nostalgia.

But, that is actually completely ignoring decades of incredible organizing work. We can trace it back for centuries. But, since the social movements of the 60s, there have been all sorts of things about reproductive justice, anti-sterilization abuse, and organizing that is going on in the present — welfare rights organizing. People like Johnny Tillman, and the whole welfare rights organizing, all sorts of amazing queer organizations from all these different contexts. So things like the Audre Lorde project in New York, and even before that, all this organizing that has been happening continuously.

Even if you look at the forms of organizing that are not articulated as women of color projects. It was black women who were the founders of critical resistance, which is now the largest and most important prison abolition movement. It was black women who started “Black Lives Matter”. There are all sorts of folks doing really amazing work on Native and indigenous feminisms. Native women are at the forefront of all of these environmental organizing efforts like the Keystone Pipeline. These women who are organizing around this are these incredible organizers.

I see all of these efforts as a part of this really continuous knowledge, and a lot of younger women explicitly reference whether as just inspiration or just women who mentored them or women who built things – so, [the idea is that] it’s not just me; I would never be able to do this without “so and so”.

Even if they’re these people you’ve never even heard of – because they’re not going to be the charismatic leader — they’re going to be like the Septima Clark and not the Martin Luther King.

I am just in awe of the kind of mobilization and organizing of young women of color and men of color and queer folks and folks who don’t identify with gender, all sorts of folks – after Mike Brown’s murder, there has been a continuous grassroots-based movement in Ferguson that represents one of the longest, working-class action in the history of the U.S. probably – and it’s young folks who are doing it. Those Ferguson folks are so awesome – take no prisoners, no compromise. It’s not like they’re doing it so differently. It’s not like just one charismatic figure has emerged. It’s this community-based organization, operating under the most violent terrorized conditions. Working under those conditions of such extreme vulnerability night after night.

What do you plan to work on next, and what are three recent scholarly texts that you would recommend?

GH: I’ve got this very nebulous next project that I’ve started working on in little pieces that is trying to track transnational anti-colonial antecedents and genealogies for U.S.-based Women of Color Feminism.

For example, at some point in this quarter, probably March, I am going to go out to Atlanta to Spelman College archives – they have Audre Lorde’s papers to see. Audre Lorde is thought of, and increasingly less so because of more and more scholarship about her, as someone who sort of engaged with [and] critiqued, white mainstream feminism, which of course she did, but she actually she had this very, very anti-colonial transnational vision that is especially evident explicitly when the U.S. invaded Grenada, which is where her family is from, so I want to go out and look at her papers to see what her politics where around those things.

A part of it is also about the fact that there are certain immigrant and refugee populations in the U.S. Asian and Latina, and actually more recent, African refugee or immigrant populations whose forms of organizing cannot be tracked back to U.S.–based black power movements or desegregations movements, but could perhaps be tracked-back to other sorts of movements that were happening globally – anti-colonial movements, labor movements, peasant movements – so it’s a very vague [at this point], who knows what the process will look at the end.

I’ve also been working on California-specific things like in collaboration with other scholars in the UC system and stuff like that those are the kinds of things I’m starting.

And three books — Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus. It is so smart – it’s a beautiful ethical ethnography of a Mohawk tribe. What she calls the politics of refusal. I’ve really been loving reading that.

This is a bit of a plug, but there are a couple of books coming out in the book series I edit with Rob Ferguson from Minnesota. One that is coming out is Craig Willse’s book, which is just brilliant, amazing, and wonderful. Another is this book on farmworker futurism by Curtis Morris, who is a scholar at UC San Diego and recent President of the American Studies Association. [It is an] amazing book about the San Joaquin Valley in California.

He looks at the ways in which agribusiness projects this vision of the future that is about eliminating the worker and a kind of mechanized food utopia. But, Curtis’ book also explores this incredible archive of video and art by Chicano artists and filmmakers, also the UFW and the UFW’s use of video archives and a part of their unionizing effort to articulate their own vision of the future – which he calls farmworker futurisms. It’s sort of about speculative fiction and farm work. It’s so interesting and brilliant. They’re just really good books.