Women of Color and the Neoliberal University: An Interview with Lorgia García Peña Pt. 1

In today’s post, Hettie V. Williams interviews Dr. Lorgia García Peña, author of Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color (Haymarket Books, 2022). García Peña is Professor of Latinx Studies at Tufts University.

Hettie V. Williams: What inspired you to write this book?

Lorgia García Peña: I began to write this book, not as a book but as a letter to my graduate students who are, for the most part, women and queer identifying students of color, working on ethnic studies (Latinx, Black, Asian American, and indigenous) fields.  I began to write in the spring of 2019 after a symposium that three of us, my dear friends, and colleagues, Beth Manley and Sharina Maillo-Pozo, put together to center the work of young Dominican scholars. The symposium gave me hope for the future of academia not only because of the incredible work that these young scholars were doing but also because of the ethics of care and generosity that people modeled for one another. I saw a possibility in that praxis and that  possibility fueled my radical hope, a hope I see embodied in the upcoming generation of young scholars of color.

Then my experience with tenure denial happened at the end of 2019 and I just kept writing; this time it was almost an act of conjuring. Again, nothing new, something many Black women have done and do. Jenny Sharpe, Grada Kilomba, bell hooks and many other Black feminists have written about the act of writing as a way to contrast the “ghost” of colonialism, the constant apparitions of the afterlives of slavery.

The hope, my radical hope, was for these words to be part of a tool kit for people like me—first gen, coming from working backgrounds, minoritized, entering the profession. I wanted to share what I have learned over the years, to warn them about the dangers of becoming “the one”, that sole “diverse” person charged with representing it all, and most of all I wanted my readers to feel seen, to find themselves in community through my words. I knew that my experience was not unique and yet we are trained to be quiet, to be silenced and to feel shame. I wanted to shatter that silence and fill the space with a big scream, a sigh, and an embrace. So, to answer your question, the book was inspired by possibility and hope, and it came to exist, in great part, because of the community that surrounded me at the time in which I wrote it.

Williams: In the very powerful “Preface” to your book, you begin with a discussion of your hair to illustrate the experience of unbelonging in society and the academy stating in this section, “my unbelonging to the academy is as natural as my hair.” Why begin with this analogy in particular?

García Peña: For many of us as Black girls and women, hair has been integral to how we experience the world both within and outside our family units.  This is not new knowledge, of course. The conversations about hair, particularly for/among Black women, has been around for a quite a while. Our relationship to hair is often a connection that we share because of the ways in which heteronormative and Eurocentric ideals of femineity and beauty have shaped our societies, making us have to deal with often unpleasant, if not violent, encounters with people because of our hair.

When living in communities that are predominantly white, I often found my people in spaces like the hair salon.  Ginetta Candelario has written extensively about the space of the hair salon as site for community building for people, particularly immigrant women of color. Most recently, in Milan, Italy, while I spent multiple summers over a decade doing research for my book Translating Blackness, as I looked for someone who knew how to care for my hair and who carried products that were adequate for me, I was fortunate to meet some of the most amazing women activists working, precisely, on Black Italian representation.  So, hair has been, in many ways and without planning it so, an entry point for me when building community in a new space. It seemed fitting to start Community as Rebellion there too.

But hair has also been a site of pain for me as for many others. It was in Michigan that I experienced for the first time in my life the aggression of  hair touching by strangers. I remember one encounter with a police officer who pulled me over citing that “my hair was probably hindering my visibility.” It was there also that I first heard advice around “professional hairdo” offered to me by a white woman professor, as I nervously asked for (non-hair related ) advice about how to best prepare for my first academic conference presentation. For as long as I remember, my hair has been an important part of how I experience the world, how I, as a light-skin, mixed race Black Latina, am seen and perceived by others around me. It seemed fitting then to start the book from a space that, like many of the other stories I experienced and share in the book, is profoundly mine but also incredibly common to so many of us Black women everywhere.

Williams: Describe for us the structure and dimensions of the neoliberal university.

García Peña: This is such a vast question, with so many points of entry, all of them impossibly hard, acutely sad in many ways but also equally important. Naomi Klein teaches us that there are three policy pillars of neoliberalism: privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and corporate taxes paid for with cuts to public spending. These pillars are also central to how the university operates today. So, I would respond to your question by saying that  there is nothing particular nor special about the neoliberal project of university; rather it exists within the larger neoliberal, racial capitalist system we inhabit as a society.  As such it both creates and reproduces inequities.  Just like other systems, the neoliberal university looks to increase performance and profit at the expense of the people who work to sustain it.  This is seen most obviously in the move to hire underpaid adjunct faculty while reducing tenure stream positions.

The problem however is that unlike other sites of neoliberalism, there is a collective belief, which I think many of us are helping to shatter, that the university, and by extension, academia, is somehow more benevolent, that it is about something other than money and that it operates differently, that is, “better-than” other sites of neoliberal economies and that is simply not true.  Understanding that academia exists within the neoliberal, racial capitalist structure of our current world, is critical if we want to change it, if we are sincere and serious about words like “decolonial,” “anti-racist” and “equity”. We have to stop romanticizing it and understand what academia is in order to abolish it.

Williams: What is meant by your use of the phrase “The One?” Elaborate on the ontology of “The One.”

García Peña: When I write about “The One” I am referring to the experience of being the sole person of your ethnic or racial group within your unit/department or institution.  I argue in the book that  the project of The One exists in harmony with the project of diversity and inclusion. That is, universities are invested in maintaining only a representational quota rather than a critical mass of people who can indeed talk back, enact effective changes, and fight the structures of exclusion that produce the dynamic of there being only one of us.

The existence of The One allows the university to maintain the status quo, to continue to operate in harmony with whiteness while saving face in front of the world. The One provides the picture perfect of the deferred promise of inclusion; a project we know is not one of justice or equity. To have The One allows institutions to say: “see, we are not racists, see we are moving forward, we have started creating an inclusive institution.” At the same time, being The One is being forced into complicity with your own exclusion and unbelonging, with your own strangeness, something Sarah Ahmed writes about.  To be The One a person must behave, must obey the rules of whiteness, must maintain the status quo and must, above all, be grateful. Gratitude must be demonstrated through silence and complicity. The One must never complaint. We have to be understanding and let micro aggressions pass. The Ontology of The One necessitates complicity and investment from The One in their own exclusion.

The success project requires that The One believes themselves to be so, that they buy into the narrative of exceptionalism that declares them somehow special and deserving of the hire, promotion, admission, award.  Those of us who are faculty of color working in elite private universities often find ourselves being The One. In such positions we are both dealing with constant waves of institutional violence and microaggressions and, at the same time, receiving adulations in the form of “being the first”, “the best”, “the only.” We are asked to believe that the fact that there is only one of us is somehow a reflection of our brilliance, of how special we are, as opposed to a side effect of the project of diversity and inclusion, which is a project of active exclusion based and grounded on white supremacy.

Williams: How has the use of your “feminist power” sustained you in the neoliberal university?

García Peña: To be in the academy as a woman of color, as a Black woman from a colonized nation, as a migrant, is to be in tension with ourselves. It is a position of discomfort. To be in the academy and remain a dura, a feminist warrior as Chandra Mohanty and Linda Carty call us, we must thus be comfortable existing within discomfort; never aiming to belong and to conform; for conformity is another form of death. To conform to the academy, to accept their form of belonging is to renounce our collective project of being and belonging. The strategy therefore must not be to strive to conform but rather we must find ways to return the discomfort. We do this through our feminist praxis of being, knowing, and doing.

I talk in the book about the many women in my life, the ones I knew and the ones I never knew. I call upon my ancestras, the women who came before me and that I believe paved the way for my existence.  I have been nourished and sustained by women all my life. They have modeled for me multiple ways of resistance and power that I tressure and hold as I walk on this earth. My grandmother who never went to school and yet I would dare say was one of the most brilliant philosophers I have ever encountered, she was an avid reader and had just an incredible outlook on the world, my mother who got an eighth-grade education as a child but with four kids and a job went back to school and got her high school diploma, modeling perseverance, my great-grandmother who did not know how to read or write, but managed to organize the women in her village to fight gender-based violence. These women empowered me to rebel; they continue to do so every day.

At the same time, the legacy of women of color feminists in academia has showed me an Other way, a path to exist in this profession without losing my heart or forgetting the work I want to do in this world. Their accompaniment is my sustenance.  Through the work of Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, for example, I am reminded that theory has to come “from the flesh,” that lived experiences are central to how we think and how we engage with our work as feminist scholars. Through Audre Lorde I am gifted a force, the power to do this work in contradiction, knowing that the master’s rules will never free me, that these systems were not created for me and therefore I need to find other ways; through bell hooks I am nourished and sustained in the conviction that community is love and I have trusted that over the years. Women of color feminism is power; it is also joy.


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Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.