Women and Gender Studies Colloquium

Roundtable Discussion

The Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies’ (WGSX) 18th Annual Colloquium took place March 22 and 23. This year the event was centered around the intersectionality of feminism, race, and gender.

“The Colloquium,” as professor Joe Lucchesi, WGSX program coordinator, referred to it, was dedicated to the memory of professor Joanne Klein. Each event during the colloquium began with a tribute to Professor Klein’s career, passion, and inspirational effect on her students and peers alike.

Dr. Lucchessi

As one student described, Klein had a significant impact on students’ outlook and perspectives regarding gender and race. “Once you met her, you never stopped thinking,” a student said in a letter about Klein.

Three distinguished guests presented in Cole Cinema at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) over the duration of the two-day event, culminating in a roundtable discussion. The three speakers, Sherri Irvin, a philosophy professor at the University of Oklahoma, Brion Gill, a spoken-word poet and activist, and Andrea Ritchie, a lawyer and advocate, lead the colloquium discussions about police brutality, victim’s visibility, and race, titled “Policing Race and Gender: Resisting Justice, Reclaiming Justice.”

Professor Sherri Irvin was the first speaker at the WGSX colloquium. She is a Philosophy presidential professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her work is described as focusing on the “aesthetics of art.” For her lecture, titled “Looking At and Looking Away: Gender, Racialized Police Violence, and Invisibility,” she presented an essay she wrote under the same title. The presentation covered the erasure of black women in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the visibility of black men’s bodies, and the role of mothers in media portrayal of the movement.

Professor Sherri Irvin

Professor Irvin spoke about the fact that the narrative of BLM dealt specifically with black men, and largely ignores the police violence against women, which happens at a similar rate. Dr. Irvin examined various explanations for this phenomenon, including the existence of a video showing the brutality in questions, the vilification of black women’s needs, and the frequency of the attacks.

Irvin refuted the first and third claims by showing statistics of police killings, as well as proving the existence of videos which could have driven the same narrative as Mike Brown or Eric Garner.

On the topic of videos, Irvin mentioned the problematic nature of their media usage. She explained that the videos cause a racialized spectacle and their viewership normalizes the atrocities they show. Furthermore, when videos like these are discussed, the language surrounding them tends to take a cue from the police. Pundits name the actions in videos by their own, declaring their own definitions of them. Moving an arm can be coined as “resisting arrest.” The movements and bodies of black individuals are given screen time, but Irvin argues that their personhood is not.

For example, Natasha McKenna’s death was caught on video. Her brutal murder at the hands of police had all of the necessities to become a national story, but as Irvin said, it has been widely forgotten.

One place where women are allowed to be seen, according to Irvin, is in grief. As seen by a screenshot from CNN, black women become a part of the narrative only when their position is one of despair.

The second speaker, also addressing SMCM on March 22, was a spoken word artist. Brion Grill, who goes by the stage name “Lady Brion,” is a professional poet, activist, educator, and National Poetry Slam Champion who is living and working in Baltimore, Maryland.

Gill prefaced her talk with an excerpt from her poem, “Say Her Name,” which covered an emotional account of the death of Tarika Wilson and her infant son. Gill explained after her performance that she believes in reciting the names of young black people so that they aren’t forgotten.

“Lady Brion” defined policing not only as an act of law enforcement but the act of controlling a community. She discussed how the police academy polices her identity as a cis black woman when it comes to her poetry: while others have the privilege of determining what poetry is, she is forced to create a space for herself that counters that narrative. This sense of exclusion, Gill explained, is an act of violence in itself.

Lady Brion

Gill finished her lecture with another sobering spoken poem, titled “The Rally Poem,” which she performed during the Baltimore Uprising in 2015.

Andrea Ritchie gave the first talk on March 23. She is an academic and activist who works at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.  

Andrea Ritchie

In her discussion about the visibility of victims, Ritchie asked attendants to name the victims of police violence who first come to mind. Names such as Freddie Gray and Eric Garner came to mind, at least for the millennial generation of attendees.

Ritchie went on to say that we often think of victims of police violence as black men. This, she proved, was an unfair portrayal by the media. In New York City (where a lot of her research is based), men and women were assaulted by cops equally as often. Ritchie went on to explain the gender-specific assault that individual women face, such as internal cavity searches.  

Ritchie also discussed the unfair profiling that trans individuals face. A trans client of Ritchie’s had been profiled by a cop because of her sexuality, outfit, and location; she was wearing fishnet stockings late at night in a non-affluent part of the city and was searched by a police officer.  

The officer found multiple condoms in the woman’s purse and used those condoms as evidence against her in a prostitution solicitation charge.  

Through her statistics and stories, Ritchie made clear the importance of including the stories of all types of victims as a way to expose all types of police assault.

The grand finale of the colloquium consisted of all three speakers, Dr. Sherri Irvin, Lady Brion Gill, and Andrea Ritchie, at the Round Table event.

Roundtable Discussion, Moderated by Professor Kushner.

The three speakers discussed the theory of agency or the need for black women to assert themselves. A question was raised concerning black men’s invisibility as well: does their invisibility in cases of police brutality subsequently render the women’s invisibility? Black men are often immediately regarded as the perpetrator in cases of systematic brutality; however, this assumed role in the narrative is being challenged by advocates of equality and justice.

As the speakers brought to light this idea of invisibility, they also raised a central point: not only does their personhood disappear with this type of narrative, the agency of black people, especially women, becomes intolerable by viewers in the sense that their stories are dismissed or overlooked.

Oftentimes, the women only appear in the story if they are associated with black men or if they are portrayed as grieving mothers. One of the speakers relayed a story about one black man killed by police. Once he was shot, his sister ran to his side and was consequently abused by police.

However, her narrative was not included in the coverage of this story. The brutalization of women is frequently not the narrative that is focused on, and the three speakers claimed that this denied visibility of women connects back to their initial idea about agency.

When black women assert themselves, they are habitually repressed or attacked. Despite the negative connotation repeatedly associated with women’s assertion of themselves, all three speakers agreed that assertion is a way for women to become visible.

The speakers were asked for advice on activists pursuing group objectives. They came to the conclusion that it is “important for leadership to not be male, [straight], and white [in order] to introduce other perspectives and outlooks.”

Some conversations about people who are different than straight, white males are habitually left out or kept separate from the general discussions about race and gender because there is oftentimes an unacknowledged sense of homophobia in the black community.

In order to combat homophobia, sexual harassment, and brutality on a large scale, these issues should be dealt with within the community. The problems need to addressed in the community before they are addressed within the police system because “the community does it too!”

The colloquium is an annual event made possible by the support of many departments. It takes place every spring during Women’s History Month. Dr. Joe Lucchessi announced on March 23 that the WGSX department is already initiating efforts to plan for next year’s event.

Co-authored by Miranda McLain, Caitlin Andrews, and Cecilia Marquez