Maythee Rojas is a teacher, critic, and writer.Â Author of the new book Women of Color and Feminism (Seal Press), she is currently an associate professor in womenâ€™s, gender, and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach.Â Â The book is a fascinating overview of feminist history and the construction of identity politics within feminist movements, with a diverse representation of notable icons, which includes not only Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash and Saartjie Baartman, but Tracy Chapman and Laura Aguilar as well.Â It’s a smart, page-turning read that offers numerous examples to illustrate powerful points.Â The book easily belongs in the hands of the many online feminists today who are in search of a book to start the critical journey of self-education on the connections between race, class, sexuality and gender.
Over phone and email, I recently spoke with Maythee Rojas about intersectionality, resisting multiple oppressions within feminist movements, and the hopes for her new book in addressing important issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in feminism(s) today:
Allison McCarthy:Â What led you to working on a book focused on women of color and feminism?
Maythee Rojas: I have been teaching a course on the subject for the last nine years and the literature and theory by women of color is something I have studied closely as a scholar. However, when I set out to write this book, I wanted to avoid writing something that could be construed as the authoritative book on women of color.Â Thereâ€™s no such thing, nor should there be. I respect Seal for taking something academic and making a commitment to developing it as part of a mainstream series. It helps create bridges with the academic world and find new audiences beyond the Ivory Tower.Â My hope is that this book will lead other presses â€“ mainstream and academic — to publish more works on women of color.
AM:Â In what ways did your academic research on Chicana/o and Latina/o literature contribute to your literary vision for Women of Color and Feminism?
MR: In the book, I consciously attempt to focus on multiple groups and communities. Learning about Chicana/o and Latina/o culture has never been in isolation for me.Â In fact, if you look at the history, experiences, and creative expressions of Chicana/os and Latina/os, youâ€™ll find that other communities of color have often influenced them.Â Thereâ€™s a lot of overlap in terms of the messages relayed and socio-political issues addressed.Â As a scholar, I have the same approach: having a specialization in Chicana/o and Latina/o literature requires me to think about other groups in an intersectional manner.
AM:Â Why do you see the theory of intersectionality as critical for all feminists when addressing issues raised by women of color?
MR: Intersectionality applies to everyone, period.Â We all have multiple facets of identity.Â However, intersectionality is often applied only to those who do not fit mainstream categories of identity. Much of it has to do with peopleâ€™s lack of deep introspection; or, whether they are willing to think about their positions of privilege on a daily basis and the effect of their actions upon others.Â Itâ€™s a journey of integrity and honesty thatâ€™s a part of self-actualization in our lives.Â If feminism is truly going to produce the result of equality for women and opportunities in a less biased society, we have to think about how women from different communities can reach that success.Â Weâ€™re not all on the same level in any place.Â What factors and what privileges stand in the way?Â Â Itâ€™s really about working collectively.Â It requires reflecting on people around you: their lives, opportunities, limitations.Â If youâ€™re working in a social justice movement or a place of transformation, you have to take those factors into account or itâ€™s going to be a flawed attempt.Â It does require those things.
AM:Â How have women of color, outside of global feminist movements, contributed to a greater public understanding of gender, race, class, and sexuality?
MR: I think itâ€™s through daily actions.Â The interactions of everyday life are bound to challenge us.Â So often, we have perceptions of others based on media, politics, and education.Â However, when we encounter people who embody particular markers of race and class and sexuality and we interact with them, those markers fall away to flesh and bone individuals.Â I also think our interactions with non-academics â€“ our families and friendsâ€“ teach us as much about culture as they do about them.Â Itâ€™s more about what we are willing to open ourselves up to.Â Does what we what learn about others connect with what we assumed about their background, sexuality, culture?Â To more specifically answer your question, I believe women of color contribute to life through their daily interactions in public spaces, through the ways they raise their families, through the challenges they make to a system, a classroom, a workplace, etc.Â For creatively minded individuals, itâ€™s also through their cultural production (art, film, music, etc) and how they shape these expressions to share with other people.Â I think a lot of people arenâ€™t actually part of organized social movements, but that doesnâ€™t mean they arenâ€™t part of social change.
AM:Â Have the feminist movements of past and present failed to address the needs and lives of women of color?
MR: I donâ€™t think theyâ€™ve outright failed.Â If I believed that, I would have to rethink why I am in Women’s Studies.Â Have they had their shortcomings?Â Yeah.Â But thatâ€™s part of understanding that we havenâ€™t accomplished all the goals of feminism and thereâ€™s a lot left to do.Â I think itâ€™s important that weâ€™re critical of these shortcomings and that we register our disappointments.Â We can use that as a preventive measure.Â The book is rather critical at times of past movements, but I donâ€™t think it argues that they havenâ€™t worked at all. The people who have been responsible for writing about feminism and promoting feminism have been remiss in their inclusion of women of color and thatâ€™s important to take into account.Â How willing are feminists to really self-interrogate, to really consider what theyâ€™ve gained at the expense of others, what hasnâ€™t been achieved in the ongoing project of feminism?Â For us to stay abreast of what hasnâ€™t worked, what hasnâ€™t been done, and whose voices are missing keeps us alive and moving forward toward an ideal.Â Even if itâ€™s not achieved in our lifetime, it shouldnâ€™t be something we stop striving for.
AM:Â Who did you envision as the audience for this book?Â Have any of the responses to the book thus far surprised you?
MR: I kind of thought about it in two ways.Â One of the audiences itâ€™s geared towards is obviously college students, both graduate and undergraduate, and I think you can hear that in the classroom descriptions I use.Â I was also encouraged to learn that it would be available in independent and mainstream bookstores, so that anyone could find her/his way to the book.Â You might think that a book on women of color is only for women of color.Â I canâ€™t stop anyone from thinking that, but I hope that for anyone who reads past the first few lines, the reader will see that itâ€™s for anyone who is interested in knowing themselves better and knowing more about the world around them.
AM: What projects are you currently working on?
MR: I have three projects that Iâ€™d like to see happen.Â First, I want to finish my book, Following the Flesh: Embodied Transgressions in Chicana Literature, which looks at literary characters who are cast as â€œbadâ€ women (mistresses, murderers, lesbians) and are maligned by society, and help us rethink what â€œbadâ€ means. Examining these issues within both US and Latin American contexts, the book addresses crossing not only social borders, but also physical ones.Â The next project I would like to pursue is a cultural history of Latinos and dogs. Drawn by my own passion for animals, Iâ€™m really interested in looking at how dogs show up in Latino culture.Â Living in L.A. with a large Latino population and a dog-friendly attitude, there have been several race and class bias in the cityâ€™s laws that have been passed and I wanted to address those biases. Iâ€™m also interested in immigration issues in terms of how they relate to cultural shifts about pets as immigrants become more assimilated to the US.Â A third project, which is much farther down the line, is a cultural history on feminism in Costa Rica.Â My grandmother is nearing her 104th birthday and I would like to parallel her personal experiences as a woman (she has lived a very nontraditional life) with the development of women’s lives and issues in Costa Rica over the past century.Â I imagine describing the historical and social changes of my family’s country vis-Ã -vis my grandmother’s own life.