Posts by Jessica N. Pabón-Colón

Dr. Jessica N. Pabón-Colón is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz. Follow her on Twitter @justjess_PhD

On confederate flags, whiteness, and readiness…

CW: white supremacy, mention of sexual violence (not explicit), racial slurs

My family lives for Halloween. I’m a fan of nostalgic and pun-ny costumes, my theatrical 5yo son is in it for the costumes, candy, and creepy stuff, and my artist husband loves any opportunity to create. Because pandemic time is…what it is (can we use this phrase anymore?), my child has been obsessively preparing for Halloween since mid-August. Last week, despite it being just the start of September, we finally relented and brought him to one of those pop-up stores that appear annually in an otherwise empty retail space to find a costume.

On our way out of the store, my son and I were standing in the entrance/exit sanitizing our hands. My son is taking a last look at the display set up to entice customers to purchase their most scary animated clowns, and I follow his gaze but notice instead the woman standing in front of the display. Her back is turned, but I can see that she is white with dark blonde/light brown hair, an “average” build and height, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I see mask loops around her ears. Her arms are crossed in front and her overall comportment implies that she is waiting for someone to finish shopping. She’s unremarkable.

And then she turns toward the registers and starts fidgeting with what I can now plainly see is her *confederate flag* mask. I am…stunned. I am staring. I am rubbing in the hand sanitizer a little too long. Everything slows down. From somewhere distant (he was right next to my leg), I hear my son say—“mommy, that’s scary!” I’m sure he is referring to the bloodied clowns brandishing weapons, but I take his comment as a moment to teach, to act, to confront. Though, admittedly, knowing my child was right next to me and we are in a seemingly endless global pandemic—I don’t totally know how to act. In the moment after his question, I simultaneously had no time (he is waiting for a response) and too much time (how long have I been standing here staring?). I’m reminded of my colleague Sandra Ruiz’s description of Rican time as “the pause in tight spaces” when/where Puerto Ricans enact various performative strategies to endure trauma, violence, and harm.

Still staring at her, and speaking loud enough for her to hear me, I asked my son “what is scary? The clowns or the woman wearing the confederate flag mask?”

She slowly turns looking for the source of the question. She briefly makes eye contact with me, I meet her gaze intently, and she turns away in that way you do when you don’t want to get caught looking at someone. But in that moment when our eyes met, I am screaming inside: YES, IT WAS ME, I SAID THAT. I stand in silence and am staring at her for what felt like years, but there is no confrontation. She just keeps standing there, arms crossed, intermittently fiddling with her mask, waiting.

I can’t take the silence anymore and address her directly: “How can you wear that?”

Three years into embodied therapy (AEDP specifically), I am actively bringing myself to the present—refusing the bait, refusing to be triggered into fight or flight in response to the violent and harmful symbol standing a mere ten feet away. My body memory is taking over and I feel myself bracing for a fight response. So I breathe. I try to soften. I feel my feet grounded. I remind myself that I am an adult, I am safe(ish) and not in immediate crisis. I am readying myself to handle this moment in a new way; though I still don’t know what that new way is moment to moment. It’s all improv. And my kid is there. My kid. The one who thinks I don’t believe in violence and hitting people. I am readying myself to engage.

She responds to my question (“How can you wear that?”) in a tone so “innocent” that I am once again taken aback: “It has nothing to do with slavery.”

I’m sure she mumbled some other nonsense, but I couldn’t hear because I went rage deaf after that first phrase. It was like she didn’t understand my question. In response, in believe I managed to get out something like “Actually, it does…” But then my husband chimed with a condescending and assertive tone and says “you know what that represents, right?” His vibe redirects my attention, which in itself was a jolt to the system. I was so focused on her that if he remained silent, I’m not sure I would’ve even noticed him standing right next to me. For a moment, his energy distracts me and all I can think is: “why did you do that? I’ve got this.” I don’t like men talking to women that way. Now I’m aggravated by his patronizing and domineering tone, his white savior-like action, and his paternal/protector impulse.

Now she is defensive, but still not angry or threatening. She says “I’m a teacher and have a double master’s degree in history.” Now I’m just confused (a double what, now?) and in that pause, my husband speaks up again: “so then you know that’s literally the flag representing the pro-slavery side of the war.” At this point, grounding be damned, I’m having an out of body experience. I think they went back and forth. I think I interjected. I know I held her eye contact until she looked toward the check-out line and walked away, still fiddling with that damn mask.

I found my child’s hand in mine, and we walked away.

I was floating toward the car in some kind of haze, reflecting on how NOT confrontational the whole exchange was. Why didn’t I just rip the mask off her face? Why did I try to talk to her? And why did my husband feel the need to interject? Driving home, I asked him and he said he chimed in because my tone and body language told him “it was on.” (So, perhaps, I *wasn’t* as grounded and steady and calm as I thought I was being?) I told him I felt uncomfortable with the tone he used to speak to her. We talked about his readiness as a white man to do the work with white people so I don’t have to (a project we’ve worked hard on in our relationship), and how that kind of went sideways into the land of white savior-ness in this instance. Next time, I tell him, please just ask me if I’m good before stepping in.

After processing with him, I started processing the whole event. I begin by scanning my body. There was no pang of pain or tightness in my chest or belly; I was not angry. I thought it was rage, but it wasn’t. She didn’t hit me, but she did hurt me. The feeling was sadness. It was grief. Being vulnerable enough to feel things outwardly is something I actively work toward; I was taught (directly and indirectly) that hard is how you survive. But hardness just traps trauma in the body. Even “little” racial traumas such as this can seed an ulcer, a hard to diagnose disease, a cancer. Rather than lashing out and hurting her (the fight response), I readied and softened—making myself vulnerable to being hurt by her.

The next morning, I tried to chop, sauté, knead, and bake my way out of the processing loop I was still stuck in. But you can’t cook grief into your food, so I tried to sew my way out of it. But again, sewing masks is an act of love and protection, not an expression of sadness. These were ways to keep busy as avoidance. Productive avoidance.

My mind, perhaps regretting the softness, was VERY busy intellectualizing the experience. Since March 13th, we’ve had the privilege of a pretty strict #StayAtHome lifestyle. Is this what it is like being out and about in the Hudson Valley now? If so, maybe I should just keep staying home. But then, am I hoarding my privilege and ceding public space to white supremacy? Was I somehow letting my people down by letting her walk away? I hate respectability politics. I do not believe “civility” is the way. I am not a passive person. I consider myself militant about many things. I always thought I was on team #punchanazi.

But she wasn’t a nazi. She had not bothered to ready herself with the hard of explicit white supremacy, the self-righteousness I imagined would be required of someone flying a confederate flag in public. Her demeanor was more akin to a settler move to innocence than an outright torch-wielding move to claim (more) space. As my therapist pointe out while we processed: that was her white privilege, the ability to be nonchalant and careless about wearing a symbol of hate on her “average,” “unremarkable” white woman face.

She did not have to be ready.

Despite walking through this life as a light-skinned Puerto Rican, relatively unscathed in comparison to my dark/er skinned family and friends because of my white privilege, my readiness is tied to how I’ve been conditioned to survive aggressive, confrontational white supremacists: the ones who take pride in their prejudice, the ones who celebrate their racism. The ones that have called me a spic. The ones who’ve threatened me with sexual violence because I’m a “fiery Latina.” The ones who called my mother a monkey in Boston. The ones who jumped my dad in New York. The ones who tell us to “go home.” But I was not ready for her. I wasn’t ready for her casual racism.

I think that’s why I my first inter/action was a questionhow can YOU wear that?—instead of a re/action, a declaration about her bigotry. Many friends asked me what I *wished* had happened. I wanted her to take her mask off. I wanted her to understand the violence she was enacting. I wanted to pop that white privilege bubble and reach inside…

All of this reaching and softening in order to connect, to talk to someone causing me pain feels so foreign to me. I posted on my various social media feeds while processing and the general consensus in the comments was that I provided a good example for my son, that I modeled acting in the face of injustice without enacting more violence. I have to note that the majority of those responses came from white women and when that happens I always sit back and reflect on what that means. I’m still reflecting. I’m still sitting.

My friend/mentor/colleague suggested that maybe, just maybe, having a white (passing) child call her ‘scary,’ a white man say she was ‘representing slavery,’ and a white passing woman asking her ‘how she could wear that mask’ means that maybe the next she goes to put on her confederate flag mask she will pause.

And next time, cause there will surely be a next time in the days leading to the 2020 Presidential Election, I’ll be ready.

Do you need a fabric face mask?

Dear readers,

I’ve been home since March 13th, 2020. In the midst of this covid19 pandemic, I have not been writing. I have not been reading. I have not been reviewing. Or planning. Or publishing…

I have been parenting. Surviving. Teaching.

And with my “free time,” I have been sewing. I am sewing for my community. I am sewing for frontline workers of all kinds: healthcare, grocery, delivery, etc.

It feels like we’re gonna need masks for a time to come. As long as we need them to be safe, I’ll keep making them.

If you need a fabric face mask, you can put an order in here: https://bit.ly/MasksbyJess

Turn around is usually 1-2 weeks. ❤

stay safe,

Jess

#GraffitiGrrlz Update!

Phew! What a whirlwind week…I’m writing with a couple quick updates:

First: #GraffitiGrrlz received it’s first academic book review in TDR: journal of performance studies penned by Indigenous Hip Hop Studies scholar Jenell Navarro! You can read the full review here!

“Graffiti Grrlz introduces readers to a history of women #graffiti writers who have not been afforded representation in #hiphop studies or #feminist studies by foregrounding their own agency and voice.”

Second: My local arts and wellness organization is running a really great workshop for girls! And it is just so humbling when your work gets picked up and utilized by local activists. I feel seen and am glad these #graffitigrrlz do too! “Future ‘Graffiti Grrlz’ Workshop” hosted by @opositivefest on 3/15 for #WomensHistoryMonth!

Image may contain: cloud, sky and outdoor

Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/2640109336268558/

Last, but so not least, is an announcement that through March 31st 2020, @NYUpress is celebrating #WomensHistoryMonth with an eBook sale and #GraffitiGrrlz is only $1.99!!! The eBook has COLOR images, DO IT!

Keep Public Art Public!

I wrote my first letter to the editor!

Dear Editor:

Kingston Mayor Steve Noble’s “Art in Public” policy proposal claims to encourage artists to “create artwork that engages with the public,” but the regulatory policy discourages community engagement and censors public art through unnecessary bureaucracies.

Last October, I facilitated the “Art in Public” panel at the O+ Festival, focusing on the question: Who owns public space? When we read the mayor’s proposal with eyes attuned to this question, it’s clear that access, voice and freedom of expression are absent. There are no clear qualifications, representation stipulations or placement processes listed for the five appointees. The application process includes a $25 fee, permits and site approvals (additional fees?), along with a potential 30-day period for approval/rejection. There is no information about the monthly panel meetings (day/night? child care? open/closed to public?). It states that determinations “will not be made based on content,” but provides no criteria.

What about those who can’t afford the process, the leisure time, or the child care required to present their proposal in person upon appeal? Will they be criminalized for gifting the city their art (attracting tourists and boosting our local economy)? And what of the O+ organizers who have spent a decade building relationships with community members, ensuring that wall space is equitably distributed, which is particularly important for marginalized and underrepresented mural artists?

The proposed policy fits neatly with other efforts by our local government to privatize public space (e.g. the $10 million in revitalization funds benefiting The Kingstonian).

Kingston residents should oppose the policy proposal unequivocally.

Link!

10 Feminist Ways to Celebrate Mother’s Day

1. If you can afford to buy your own facial/massage: consider donating it to a single mom who can’t or an underpaid/overworked teacher who care gives for other people’s children. #MothersDay

2. Bail out a mother/caregiver so she/they can be with her children. @NationalBailOut #FreeBlackMamas: https://nationalbailout.org/ #MothersDay

3. Donate to Nikki Addimando’s defense fund; She’s a mother of two facing life in prison for surviving an abusive husband: http://fnd.us/WeStandWithNikki?ref=sh_9Dl7wOM1DE29Dl7wOM1DE2 #MothersDay

4. Volunteer time, donate, or get involved with an organization that helps people realize their reproductive choice to mother or NOT: @SisterSong_WOC @ReproRights #MothersDay

5. Consider the ways you are mothered by “non-mothers” and THANK THEM. #MothersDay

6. Read about #RevolutionaryMothering : @alexispauline @guerrillamama_ https://www.akpress.org/revolutionary-mothering.html #MothersDay

7. Support moms of trans kids doing the damn thing: https://standwithtrans.org/ally-parents/ #MothersDay

8. Honor or memorialize a mom you love with a gift that supports @MomsRising Together — the movement that stands up every day for women, moms and families: https://action.momsrising.org/donate/dedicate/?source=modal #MothersDay

9. Join GLAAD in encouraging journalists to include LGBT families in their coverage of #MothersDay: https://www.glaad.org/publications/mothersdaykit #MothersDay

10. Volunteer with your local #Pride2019 organizers to give #FreeMomHugs to LGBTQ+ folks at festivals and parades. #MothersDay

Black and Highly Dangerous Podcast

Now this was a fun and engaging interview!

Please check out: Episode 68: Graffiti Grrlz w/ Dr. Jessica Pabón-Colón

For today’s episode, we focus on a unique exploration of a population that typically goes unnoticed – women in graffiti. Specifically, we interview Dr. Jessica Pabón-Colón, an a

Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz, about her book— Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora. We begin by learning more about Dr. Pabón-Colón (20:40) and the motivation behind her research (23:05). We also discuss the importance of understanding feminism as a verb (26:15), explore her concept of feminist masculinity (28:05), and delve into her experience of studying women in the graffiti art world (35:08).  Next, we have a conversation about heterosexism in the graffiti art world (47:00), characteristics of Hip Hop Graffiti art (55:35), and the language of graffiti art (1:03:17). We close by discussing the #FeministsforPuertoRico campaign (1:11:24).

Other Topics Include:

00:30 – Catch up with Ty and Daphne

03:45 – BhD “Oh Lawd” News

18:22 – Introduction of the Topic

1:20:45 – Ty and Daphne Reflect on the Interview

Resources:

About that trauma that lives in the body…

Content Warning: PTSD in real life, abortion on TV, sexual assault on TV, same-sex intimate partner violence on TV

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When I was 18 or 19 years old (1998ish), I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for an introduction to women’s studies course at UMass Dartmouth. The class was held in the Women’s Resource Center (now the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality), which was tucked away in the ground floor suite in one of the dorms. To enter, you had to walk down a wide paved path on a slight hill surrounded by trees. At the bottom of that path, and at the entrance to the building, is where I had my first trauma response as an “adult” (that I now know is called vasovagal syncope common in folx with PTSD).

We were watching If These Walls Could Talk (1996) in the lounge where class was held and during the scene with Demi Moore’s botched abortion, my body became increasingly hot and light; I felt like I was suffocating. (Just looking for the clip on YouTube just now made me queasy.) From what I can remember, I thought I was going to throw up and I ran out of the center and out of the building desperate for fresh air. I landed on the pavement in front of the door. I remember moist air, wet ground. I don’t know exactly what happened after that. I’m sure people followed me (certainly the professor and perhaps my then-girlfriend?) and got me back inside safely. I don’t remember how I got home, but I do remember the profound visceral sensation/knowledge that I had personally experienced what I just witnessed in the film—a “back alley” abortion. But I hadn’t, not in this body. Instead of brushing it off as a fluke/unexplained medical thing, I let myself feel/believe that I had died from a botched abortion in a previous life. I know. That’s delusional, right? I didn’t share that feeling with many people at the time, but over the years I’ve come to realize that perhaps my body knew something my mind didn’t. I don’t mean to say that my body and mind are distinct in the Cartesian mind-body dualism, of course, but as a survivor of various forms of violence in this life/in this body I know that there are experiences that your mind protects you from, and who’s to say past experiences from other lives aren’t included?

I was a baby feminist and still learning my way around the issues then, but that experience turned me into a fierce advocate for safe, legal, affordable, and accessible abortions for all.

I’m writing about this here—where I usually write about women in graffiti art or Puerto Rican Rican identity—because the other night I had a vasovagal response triggered by the Silent All These Years episode of Grey’s Anatomy. (I should note that there was a trigger warning at the beginning of the episode but I missed it.)

There are 20 years of living, loving, and surviving in between these instances, but this time I was better prepared to handle my response. Aside from putting my thoughts somewhere, maybe this blog post will be helpful because I’ve got coping tools and I want to share them.

The episode is described fully here, but in a nutshell the episode centers survivor studies of sexual assault and intimate partner violence through an estranged bio-mother/adopted daughter narrative and a ER patient/doctor with a history of abuse narrative. I can’t type out more than that, not only because of spoilers but also because the episode was so difficult for me to watch, and honestly I missed a lot of it.

I was sitting on the couch, and from the moment Abby (the ER patient) walked into the ER and bumped into Jo, I was nervous. She had a cut on her face and the way she was describing what happened was textbook IPV rationalization—just fix it so I can go home and get on with my life. Jo—a survivor of intimate partner violence herself—sensed there was more to the story and asked to examine her more fully. They lifted Abby’s shirt and revealed her abdomen and that’s when I got dizzy…all I remember is blue and purple and ribs and pain and fear coming through the television screen and sticking to my body, now heavy. Abby, it turned out, was brutally sexually assaulted.

I’ll be 40 this year and I can sense when I am about to faint way before it happens; I can make sure that when/if I do faint, I can do it “safely.” I did not faint, but I did disassociate from my body momentarily (flight of the fight/flight/freeze phenom) right there on my living room couch sitting next to my husband. I curled myself into a ball to ease my stomach, turned away from the screen, and closed my eyes to try and regain my composure. He checked in and I said, “this is so stupid I haven’t even experienced this.” He quickly responded “well, maybe not this trauma and not in this way, but other traumas happened.” His affirmation actually helped me move through the symptoms that were obviously a result of being triggered. I realized I was trying to move out of my body so I didn’t have to feel what was going on. By acknowledging that I was being triggered, that other traumas happened, I was able to come back to my body using the skills I’ve developed in my embodied therapy sessions.

I unrolled myself from the fetal position, sat up, slowly, because the blood was not yet returned to my brain and I put my hand on my chest—the part of my body which felt the heaviest, the most suffocated. This is the hardest part of being in your body for me: finding where the body has mapped the memory, finding where it holds the weight of the trauma. I took a deep breathe and it only went so far as the tippy top of my sternum. I began breathing through the blockages by imagining my breath as white light until I could feel it deep in my belly and then coming out of the crown of my head (yes, like you do in yoga). I brought compassion to that trauma response. Instead of running from it, I ran to it. Embraced it even. I sat upright and planted my feet firmly on the ground. I reminded myself that I am here, I am safe, I am an adult, and I kept my hand on my chest until the fainting sensation passed and I returned to a non-triggered state. This took most of the episode.

I will never really know if my triggers are from this life or from former lives. If they are from my personal experience or from an intense capacity for empathy. But I do know how to work through the triggers in a way that empowers me because it gives me back my body. It gives me back a relation to my body-those triggers are alarm bells from a body that is trying to protect me from further harm. I don’t have to leave my body or escape it. The work is realizing I can feel safe in this moment, in this life, in this body by recognizing that I survived, I am surviving, I am survivor.

And surviving is a practice, a journey not an end.

Subcultural #HERStory matters.

Subcultural #HERStory matters. I thought I’d share just a slice of the #graffitigrrl herstory I share in my book for Women’s History Month.

The first all-grrl graffiti crew in the US was called “Ladies of the Arts,” started by Lady PInk around 1980 in NYC. About a decade later, ClawMoney and Miss17 took the scene as PMS.

The first international all-grrl graffiti crew was founded in 2003, the Stick Up Girlz Crew hailed from #NewZealand, #Spain, #Portugal, #Japan,
and #Australia. Members were Fluro, Oche, Lady Diva, Sax, Eire Gata, Rafi, Shiro, and Spice.

Other all-grrl crews include: Altona Female Crew of Germany (1997), Bandit Queenz of Australia (1999), Crazis Crew of Chile (2000), Girls on Top of England (2000), Bitches in Control of the Netherlands (2003), and Transgressão Para Mulheres of Brazil in 2004

In 2005, an unknown #graffitigrrl launched the now defunct but at the time wildly popular website GraffGirlz.com, the first website by grrlz for grrlz and about grrlz.

Also in 2005, Foxy Lady of the Netherlands launched the ezine “Catfight,” which she described as “filled head to toe with the meanest cleanest female graff and streetworks that we could get our hands on.”

In 2008, Joske of Australia launched the first Ladie Killerz Paint Jam and it still annually!

Also in 2008, a graffiti grrl magazine hit the scene called “Chicks on Powertrips” out of Australia. These grrlz are the ones who gave me my favorite sticker AND inspired my book’s dedication.

In 2016, Sany of the Puff Crew in the Czech Republic premiered the
first #documentary film exclusively about #graffitigrrlz in the film festival
circuit: “Girl Power” (http://www.girlpowermovie.com/EN) You can watch the trailer here.

Also in 2016, @GraffitiHerstory took to Instagram and you should follow them! The first post was a picture of oldschool #graffitigrrl Charmin65 of the Ex Vandals!

There is SO MUCH MORE #herstory in my book, Graffiti Grrlz: performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora (@NYUpress 2018) and you can take advantage of the #WomensHistoryMonth discount code they are running! “WMN19-FM” will get you 35% off! https://nyupress.org/books/9781479895939