The Pedagogical Politics of Latina Feminist Overperformance within the Academy (PSi23 2017)


June 10, 2017
Psi23 Hamburg, Germany
Panel: “Feminist Overflows Panel”

[performed] Good afternoon class. My name is Dr. Jessica Pabón. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I’m an Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. I realize the convention for professors in our department is to go by a first name, but you can call me Dr., Doctora, Professor P, Profe, or Professora. Every time you use my title, you acknowledge what it took for me to get here as a first-generation queer Boricua. If you think calling me by my earned title activates a power dynamic that shouldn’t exist in a feminist classroom, I invite you to rethink from whose position of privilege you speak.

            I didn’t always start my classes with such a sharp introduction. But in the three years since I began my tenure-track journey as a queer woman of color at a predominantly white institution in upstate New York, I’ve come to realize that unapologetically stating how I want to be treated, referred to, and perceived is a necessity. New students walk into my classroom and see (and hear) the professorial subject they expect to see and hear at a university: a white woman. In “A Prostitute, a Servant, and a Customer-Service Representative: A Latina in Academia,” Carmen Lugo-Lugo contends that “[W]ho I am in an academic setting has a great deal with who I am not: a white male, the archetypal expectation for a college professor.” [1] Though the way my body is read differs from hers (hers is received as “Brown” and mine is not), her Latina feminist sentiment resonates in that without a directive, students fall back on the way my body is marked and how they’ve been taught to perceive those markings in relation to the context of the classroom. Because language and skin color erase my Latina subjectivity, any performances of “excess” are understood as part of my political position as a feminist scholar. To the extent that I teach WGSS, I’m expected to be too opinionated and too confrontational. In this space, my ethnic particularity is invisiblized by the normative subject position that has dominated the program since its inception over 20 years ago—that of a white liberal woman. Lugo-Lugo distinguishes between the identities I present in my classroom introduction and the markers that speak for themselves: “As identities, [words like Puerto Rican and woman] inform the way I position myself in relation to other gendered and racial subjects, but as markers, they provide my students with a lens through which to look at, interpret, and treat me.” [2] Because my identity has been habitually erased, offering the “correct” is not a new way of being, it just manifests differently within academia. In “‘Colored’ Is the New Queer: Queer Faculty of Color in the Academy,” Andreana Clay notes that “[t]he tools and skills we have as queer faculty of color, are ones, interestingly, that many of us have honed over a lifetime.” [3]

            The first time my sense of self was called into question in an academic setting it felt as if my very presence was erased by those who I trusted to think critically with me because they were women of color scholars too. It was 2003, I was 22, in my second year of graduate school, and presenting at my first conference. Using testimonia and poetry, I tried to examine skin color, language, and embodiment theoretically; I began with a poem entitled “Making Space for the ‘White’ Woman of Color.” An excerpt:

I often wonder what language

my tongue

would take

If no one was listening.

I was born here, however

as a “woman of color” I will always be “out there,”

except to the other “out there’s”

who see me as “in there.”

            Radical Latina feminist collections such as This Bridge Called My Back and Telling to Live inspired me to publicly articulate the tensions between authenticity and performance based on my experiences as a queer, light skinned, primarily Anglophone, working class, second generation Puerto Rican woman often made to feel like what Ruth Behar terms a “temporary Latina.”[4] Though some offered whispered words of support after the panel, most of what I received were disparaging public confrontations based on my unexamined privilege of passing as a white woman. I wasn’t “of color” enough to speak about being a woman of color. Their comments were devastating. I had never considered my ability to pass as a privilege having only been cognizant of it as a hindrance to belonging to family, friends, and community.

            Today’s presentation is an excerpt from my next book project, La Blanca: Performing the Limits of the Latina Subjectivity [now titled DiaspoRican]. A revitalization of those initial concerns, La Blanca examines the emotional, physical, and intellectual labor of moving between the dualistic boundaries structuring U.S. Latina/o/x subjectivity not only to ask what the limitations do, but also to ask what we can do with them. Drawing most heavily from theories of identity formation in Performance Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, Feminist Studies, and Queer Studies, my methodological approach follows in the aesthetic epistemological tradition of Latina feminist testimonia. Each site of inquiry is grounded in memory, situated by a politics of location, and followed by a critical reflection on the framing binary encountered as a limitation: “The Limitations of Looking” attends to the Black/white binary to analyze the politics of subjectivity when you “feel brown”[5] in a white body. “The Limitations of Acting”—the chapter from which this presentation is culled—interrogates the dynamics of passing as white (and failing to be seen as Brown) in the context of the academy. “The Limitations of Feeling”—where feeling refers to desire—narrates the performance of bisexuality at the limits of a homosexual/heterosexual paradigm. “The Limitations of Wanting” explores the linguistic binary of Spanish and English as language has been the dominant limitation in my experience of and in latinidad. “The Limitations of Knowing” is a reflection on how the previously charted limitations (looking, acting, feeling, and wanting) inform the knowledge base from which I mother, negotiating the politics of assimilation and the necessity of decolonization. I examine the construction of these binaries, the interconnecting relationship between them, and then trace strategies for defying them to argue that performing those limits is a pedagogical strategy for imagining a resting place beyond the frame. Performing “beyond” the limits is also going over the limitations structuring a Latina’s performance and sense of self; it is an overperformance, a queer feminist Latina overflow.

            As we know, the performance of self in everyday life includes those quotidian behaviors that become naturalized via repetition; the performance of my Latina self happens in the few and far between spaces where who I am is known and accepted: gatherings of friends and family, for example. That said, in these spaces, I may occasionally overperform some other aspect—reminding everyone I am bisexual for example, lest they take too much comfort in my marriage to a straight cis man. In contrast, overperformances of Latina subjectivity in the academy are not naturalized; they are an unapologetic assertion of my difference under duress and in the face of constant erasure. In “Reflections on Being/Performing Latino Identity in the Academy,” Fernando Delgado considers how he performs Latinidad as a Chicano scholar and administrator:  “It is hard to be natural in the academy because for many people of color the academy does not feel natural to us.”[6] While I would switch his usage of natural for naturalized, his point remains. The classroom, the faculty meeting, the invited talk, the conference—these spaces were not built for me and often I am among a mere handful of minorities in these spaces (at best). My presence is the result of many struggles: the 1943 Méndez v. Westminster case (“which ended the almost 100 years of segregation that had remained a practice since the end of the U.S.-Mexico War of 1848 and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo”)[7], the more well known- Brown vs Board of Education, and civil rights era- student activism.[8]

            In The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, Roderick A. Ferguson, notes how “[T]he admission of women and people of color into predominantly white universities and colleges forced new modes of interpretation and new institutional visions within the American academy. At the same time, the student movements and student demands had to negotiate with and appeal to prevailing institutional structures.” [9] One outcome of these negotiations is that faculty of color are in extremely precarious positions within the academy (particularly Black and Brown skinned, non-Anglophone, and LGBTQ faculty). It’s important to note that even though we have the quantifiable evidence, because “a social arrangement might be what does not appear”[10] (Ahmed’s words) the “on the ground” materiality of difference within academia is difficult if not impossible to convey to those invested in the “diversity” pledges of and in white neoliberal university systems. In “Performative Testimony and the Practice of Dismissal,” Jane Chin Davidson and Deepa S. Reddy analyze the effects of a difference that is not “supposed” to exist within contemporary higher education structures, supposedly liberal bastions of diversity and inclusion. They assert: “How is one to articulate, attest to, or make a case of showing efforts that go unacknowledged by a dominant majority? The impossibility of knowing bias can only be matched by the difficulty of expressing the sense of being made to feel irrelevant.” [11] Our difference makes the performance of self in academia a literal matter of success or failure: do I call out that racist sexist comment made at the faculty meeting by the straight white tenured faculty member on the reappointment, tenure, and promotion committee? Do I refuse a particular kind of service appointment because I know I cannot be my “self” on the committee? How do I negotiate my student’s perception of me as “unapproachable” because they can not call me “Jess” when they are responsible for my evaluations?

            In her 2015 blog post “Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” Sara Ahmed considers how institutions are built around bodies (white, straight, cis, able bodies); academia is no exception. The bodies that institutions were built for are “attuned” to the requirements of the institution—they have the privilege of performing their selves without wondering if their actions will be in tune, and the rest of us…well, we are out of tune. Being out of tune necessitates various survival strategies, and we become accustomed to an expectation that Ahmed defines as “institutional passing”—that which “might include the effort not to stand out or stand apart […where] you might end up trying not to make too many demands. […] Perhaps you pass by not speaking about yourself as a minority […] Passing here would be about trying to be less noticeable.”[12] For those of us who are able, the emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical labor of passing (on whatever register possible) is a strategy for doing whatever it takes to get in tune, all the while knowing we don’t have the correct instrument.

            In “‘A Moving Target’: A Critical Race Analysis of Latina/O Faculty Experiences, Perspectives, And Reflections On The Tenure And Promotion Process,” Luis Urrieta Jr. et. al. note that as “a patriarchal, heteronormative, racist regulatory process, tenure and promotion becomes the fiduciary of the knowledge production and cultural norms of academic life;” it is a “tool of fear” used to keep Latina/o academics deferential “to majoritarian expectations”[13] in our performances of self. They conclude that “institutional diversity commitments to recruit ‘Brown bodies’ usually come with the expectation of suppressing their racial, ethnic, gender, and political ways of knowing and being,” or—as one of their respondents suggests—“they hire you because you’re Mexican or Latina but they don’t want you to be one.”[14] Even without knowing the alarming statistic that 3.5%[15] of all folks with a PhD in the US are Latinas, but only .68% of them are full professors,[16] we know based on life experience that passing on purpose (in the broad sense) does not guarantee the stability of tenure, the ease of belonging, or the rewards of recognition.

            Explaining how minorities are dismissed in spaces supposedly rooted in liberation, but instead reproduce domination via white (neo)liberalism, Davidson and Reddy explain how institutional passing can be a survival strategy AND a kind of self-dismissal. “Those of us identified as females of color could explain what it means to submit to the power of the majority by quietly obeying, keeping one’s head down, and not making waves. We see how those members are often rewarded for their silence. This sort of response or strategy can be viewed as a type of self-dismissal, if indeed the goal is to gain relevance in the academy and recognition of efforts and accomplishments.”[17] Submitting to the power of the majority by quietly obeying, keeping one’s head down, and not making waves are what Goffman might call.  “deference and demeanor practices”—ways of performing self that “must be institutionalized so that the individual will be able to project a viable, sacred self and stay in the same on a proper ritual basis.”[18] But, what parts of ourselves are we dismissing when we dismiss ourselves through deference and demeanor practices?

            I’ve never been very good at keeping my head down, or quietly obeying. Depending on context, my whiteness protects me from the consequences of this particular failure (with police, for example)—it would be shameful to pretend otherwise. But, feminism awakened a resistant self that revels in making waves on behalf of a collective liberation. Touching on her work in Willful Subjects, Ahmed notes: “You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment; to become obstinate, to keep coming up; to keep speaking up, when there is a concerted and indeed collective effort to bring you down.” I want to be clear that I understand the stakes of the power relations and privilege I am theorizing: just as who we are in an academic setting has a great deal with who we are not, who can “choose” to pass has a great deal with who can not “choose” to do so—if a minority passing to survive the demands of an institution built around a majoritarian mandate can be likened to a choice at all.

            My ability to pass as a straight white ciswoman is a privilege within a white supremacist hetero- and cis-sexist structure. As a Brown person in a white body, I choose to use that privilege to refuse institutional passing. If I were a Brown person in a Brown body, my choices would be different. But I’m not. My proximity to whiteness in skin tone and accent signals that I’m only a “little bit different”—white enough, right enough to fill the role as model minority and token representative. In Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, Patricia A. Matthew notes that we are “hired not so much to fill a position […] as to fill a role […] to fill that role in the language and affects that already fit.” [19] My erasure[20] in filling this role manifests differently, but it is erasure nonetheless. For me, the performance of self is passing and passing means failing to be seen. I check off many of the diversity boxes within academia’s misdirected efforts at inclusion, but I refuse to be contained by them. Thus, my refusal to have my difference erased takes the shape of an overperformance of queer Latina feminism on audible, corporeal,[21] and discursive registers.

            When I set out to write this paper I thought I would focus on how my overperformance changes institutions or is challenged by them—where the institution/the powers that be within said institutions are the audience—but now I’m interested in how the performativity of and in the overperformance manifests when it is directed at/received by the minority students in my classes. Having grown so accustomed to tailoring my performance to speak truth to power, and at the same time being accustomed to having my Puerto Rican-ness questioned by other people of color, I hadn’t considered what it meant to be seen by students—particularly other queer Latinx students. Rather than tailor my performance to as wide an audience as possible for greater acclaim/better student evaluations/a stellar dossier filled with activities amiable to upper administration—my overperformance is directed at those who are also minoritized. The question “What parts of ourselves are we dismissing when we dismiss ourselves?” becomes “What are the stakes of failing to be seen by students who are also expected to dismiss themselves within an institution discursively committed to “diversity and inclusion”?”

            On the last day of this past Spring semester, my co-teachers and I invited the students to provide feedback on the introductory course to help us decide how to restructure it to be more budget efficient (an administrative mandate). They took turns chiming in about particular instructors and their effective pedagogical strategies: group work, lecture style, etc. And then one of my students raised his hand. He said “I really appreciate how Dr. Pabón makes sure we know she is a queer Latina and, like, integrates it into her teaching and the topics we discuss. She’s the first person of color I’ve had at this school.” Surely meant as a compliment, his comment made me feel bad about myself as a professor. All he could think to comment on was that I was “out” about who I am? Is that all I offer? I spent a week between the last class and the final exam questioning my pedagogy. But, it turns out that my negative feelings were misplaced.

            For their final, students are required to do a “liberating action”—to do something that liberates them and has a collective impact somehow. The student just quoted was the last student to share his project. His liberating action was to come out as gay to his family; in sharing that with the class he instantaneously came out to his classmates. Up until that point, we all assumed he was straight because he is straight passing. He said that because of the way I used my identity in the classroom, he finally had a model for his teaching style (he is an education major hoping to teach in the Bronx where he grew up). Seeing myself through his eyes, I realized that the week before I had devalued something that he understood to be an example of how to guide marginalized communities through educational institutions not built around their bodies. His individual liberating action enabled our collective liberation; the other minorities in the class agreed: we were now in this together.

            Seeking equity and justice (not diversity and inclusion) for myself, my colleagues, and my students, my overperformance is guided by what Ferguson calls “a vision in but not of the institution,” one that heeds his call to “make it our business to critically deploy those modes of difference that have become part of power’s trick and devise ways to use them otherwise.”[22] Diversity as it has emerged within the neoliberal university committed to inclusion is one of power’s most nefarious tricks. In my overperformance I do my best to rewrite the script given to me, to take the role but enact gestures beyond it, to not fit the boxes on purpose. According to Ahmed, “we can only loosen the requirements to be in institutions by failing to meet them.” Failing to meet the requirement that I be a minority but not BE a minority, is one way to use the hallow institutional privilege conferred upon my body against itself. Overperforming the loud, the assertive, the confrontational, the improper, hoop-wearing, expletive using, working class Latina who refuses to defer to the androcentric Eurocentric canon, who refuses silence, who refuses passing (or the accolades given for passing enough) is a critical pedagogical politic—one that I hope continues to add to the collective effort to reimagine what academia could be like if more than .68% made it through with our “whole” selves in tact.

Thank you.


[1] Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, “A Prostitute, a Servant, and a Customer-Service Representative: A Latina in Academia,” in Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, ed. Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al. (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2012), 40–49; 43.

[2] Ibid.; 42.

[3] Andreana Clay, “‘Colored’ Is the New Queer: Queer Faculty of Color in the Academy,” in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, ed. Patricia A. Matthew (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 109–24; 115.

[4] “I too am always wondering: do I, by calling myself a Latina, take away the “real” Latina identity of someone who needs to claim that identity for her very survival, self-preservation, and self-worth? Yet why should my colleague, or I, feel that our Latina identity is somehow optional? That we are temporary Latinas? Our Latina identity is not a garment that we choose to wear or discard at will. And yet we are often made to feel that way.” Ruth Behar, “Temporary Latina,” in Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios, ed. The Latina Feminist Group (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2001), 231–37; 234.

[5] José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s ‘The Sweetest Hangover (And Other STDs),’” Theatre Journal, no. 1 (2000): 67–79.

[6] Fernando Delgado, “Reflections on Being/Performing Latino Identity in the Academy,” Text and Performance Quarterly 29, no. 2 (April 1, 2009): 149–64; 162.

[7] See https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2014/05/before-brown-v-board-of-education-there-was-mendez-v-westminster/  and http://sylviamendezinthemendezvswestminster.com/aboutus.html

[8] Indeed, so far as the ways these students asserted their right to the spaces of higher education through identity-based political performance, we might consider these as overperformances as well.

[9] Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (University of Minnesota Press, 2012); 16.

[10] Sara Ahmed, “Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” Feministkilljoys, June 14, 2015, https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/06/14/some-striking-feature-whiteness-and-institutional-passing/.

[11] Jane Chin Davidson and Deepa S. Reddy, “Performative Testimony and the Practice of Dismissal,” in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, ed. Patricia A. Matthew (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 127–47; 133.

[12] “might include the effort not to stand out or stand apart […] When you are perceived as demanding (a space has to be modified to accommodate you) you might end up trying not to make too many demands. Institutional passing might be what [you] end up doing when or even because you cannot pass for what you are not because of the body you have, your history, or for whatever reason. Perhaps you pass by not speaking about yourself as a minority: as if by passing over being not, you would be less intrusive to those who are; or as if by passing over “not” being white, able bodied, male, straight, cis, you would “not” be “not” in quite the same way. […] Passing here would be about trying to be less noticeable (although you only have to try to be less noticeable because you are noticeable).” Ahmed, “Some Striking Feature.”

[13] Urrieta et. Al. FIX CITATION LATER.; 15, 7.

[14] Ibid.; 12.

[15] “Table 324.20. Doctor’s Degrees Conferred by Postsecondary Institutions, by Race/ethnicity and Sex of Student: Selected Years, 1976-77 through 2014-15” (Digest of Education Statistics, 2016), https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_324.20.asp.

[16] Luis Urrieta Jr, Lina Méndez, and Esmeralda Rodríguez, “‘A Moving Target’: A Critical Race Analysis Of Latina/O Faculty Experiences, Perspectives, And Reflections On The Tenure And Promotion Process,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 28, no. 10 (November 26, 2015): 1149–68; 2.

[17] Ibid.; 134-135.

[18] Erving Goffman, “Part I, Part II & Part III,” in The Goffman Reader, ed. Charles Lemert and Ann Branaman (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997), 1–146; 30.

[19] Patricia A. Matthew, ed., Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 2.

[20] Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, “Language of Appeasement,” Inside Higher Ed, March 30, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/03/30/colleges-need-language-shift-not-one-you-think-essay.

[21] Juana María Rodríguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (New York: NYU Press, 2014).

[22] Ferguson, The Reorder of Things, 18, 13.

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