"What's at Stake? Intersectional Conversations in a Post-Truth Era" - Response by Eman Ghanayem

Thursday, March 2, 2017

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[On Monday February 20th, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a system-wide University of Illinois faculty forum titled “What’s at Stake? Intersectional Conversations in a Post-Truth Era.” The event was co-sponsored by the departments of African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Latina/Latino Studies, and Political Science. The UI forum included Professors Jodi A. Byrd, Ben Miller, A. Naomi Paik, and Gilberto Rosas from UIUC; Nadine Naber and Amalia Pallares from UIC; and Hinda Seif from UIS. Below is a response to the forum from Eman Ghanayem, Dept. of English.]

"Truths — Known, Unknown, and Forgotten — in the US Past and Present"
Written by Eman Ghanayem (Dept. of English)

The event was a timely response to the recent political developments brought in by the Trump administration, particularly the executive orders related to immigration and border security that were accompanied by the proliferation of “alternative facts” and sensationalized fear. In their presentations, the panelists adopted intersectionality as a method of reading and responding to social exclusions, and as a tool for community organizing and academic sanctuary building. Professor Ben Miller (Political Science, UIUC) overviewed Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality and intersectional feminism, and emphasized their value as tools for understanding society and changing it. While most conservatives lean towards the former role because of its sanitized, apolitical nature, the capacities of intersectionality as a tool for social reformation was evident in the panelists’ critiques and hopes for the future. Professors Gilberto Rosas (Anthropology and Latinx Studies, UIUC) and Amalia Pallares (Political Science and Latin American and Latino Studies, UIC) modeled the practices of intersectionality as they explored the responsibilities of academics, themselves and others, towards vulnerable communities. Professor Rosas highlighted that current immigration policies were an extension of the Obama administration practices that resulted in the deportation of nearly three million people. He explained how the Trump administration speaks truth post-truthfully to the legacy of deportation in US history. Professor Rosas reminded us that, in the current moment, the continuous televising of deportation and profiling cases promises a kind of transparency that can aid pro-immigrant activism. The resurgence of refusal within communities of immigrants of color is gradually and rightfully becoming the protest strategy that is bringing people together.

Professor Amalia Pallares also drew parallels between the Trump and Obama administrations. “Post-truth” as a descriptor of the Trump era echoes the ways “post-race” was used throughout Obama’s presidency. Pallares reminded us that “truth” is still here and has always been present, and that the recognition of certain truths can set the ground for resistance. Professor Pallares drew on her engagement in recent efforts to turn Oak Park, IL, into a sanctuary, immigrant-friendly place. One of the problems she and other activists have faced in the process is the reluctance of some staff members in the Oak Park municipal office to endorse an all-inclusive sanctuary ordinance that does not rest on exceptions of certain categories of undocumented immigrants from sanctuary. She described the difficulty of making a case for a sanctuary policy without exceptions, and explained how activists had dealt with this problem by reframing their demand as a call for sanctuary without loopholes. The rhetoric of loopholes suggested that those who sought exceptions were engaged in a dubious practice. This rhetoric of sanctuary without loopholes won over community members who were hesitant to embrace an inclusive sanctuary policy. She was hopeful as she articulated her conclusions about her experience, saying that she realized that “truth” in spaces of conflict can be harnessed by searching for and exposing loopholes in the system. More importantly, she sees great promise in the “creation of truth.” Truth is created when historical precedent is made through local efforts. Turning a place into a sanctuary, and having that backed by the community of that place, whether it be a town or a campus, can be a great goal to pursue and realize as she had worked with others to do in Oak Park. Like Professor Rosas, Professor Pallares ended with the questions: how can we protect our students and community members? And, how can we begin to enact our responsibility towards them as academics in a public university?

Jodi Byrd, Nadine Naber, Naomi Paik, and Hinda Seif

Following a similar thread of questioning, Professor Hinda Seif (Gender and Women Studies and Sociology/Anthropology, UIS) asked, what is the ability of Illinois educators at this time, and how can they offer truth to the government? Professor Seif referenced state cuts to public education as an issue that adds to the current climate of crisis and uncertainty. She highlighted the great diversity on UI campuses and how, as an educator, she always encourages her students to challenge unstable politics by drawing on personal narratives. These narratives can function as truthful accounts that undermine discriminatory state and federal policies and highlight the power of proper education and facts.

Professors A. Naomi Paik (Asian American Studies, UIUC) and Nadine Naber (Gender and Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies, UIC) spoke of the recent spike in Islamophobia and its relationship to the Trump presidency and his executive orders. Professor Paik emphasized that Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiments share the same root. She also reminded us that policing immigrants based on their backgrounds is not something new. Accordingly, the question to pose is not whether or not the Trump administration will deport or ban Muslims; rather, we should ask, what kind of social change and shift will this kind of rhetoric and strategy bring? And how can we track and resist these changes? Professor Paik proposed campus sanctuary movements as a necessary intervention. She specifically spoke of recent efforts by concerned UIUC faculty to have the administration announce its campus as a sanctuary for vulnerable, underprivileged, and undocumented students. She argued that the current unstable political climate creates a threat to their safety; therefore, we should proceed with the belief that we cannot count on any institution to save these students because — the truth is — these institutions have partaken in creating instability and conflict.

One of Professor Paik’s best commentaries was her critique of racial liberalism, sexism, and fascism as sharing the same foundation and as reproducing similar hierarchies of value and judgement. Her response to these structures is building horizontal relationships and intersectional practices that obliterate the role of the state as the purveyor of authority, security, and knowledge. She announced multiple efforts on the UIUC campus to help students, which include teach-ins on the sanctuary movement and know-your-rights resource and information databases. Her final advice was “staying woke” in the face of it all and practicing self-reflection and personal accountability always. Her concluding questions: How can we offer help to those who need it? Are we sacrificing anyone in the process? Are we producing new or old exclusions? And how can we take inspiration from the vulnerable few who fought before us and continue to fight beyond the register of visibility and public academic life?

A slide from Professor Naber's Presentation

Like Professor Paik, Professor Naber stressed the importance of seeing the truths about surveillance that have always existed. Her focus was the policing and censoring of Muslim students and community members in Chicago. She also emphasized how important it is that we engage with cases of deportation and surveillance that go beyond the seven countries listed on Trump’s immigration ban. According to her, they only need to be “Muslim” or “look Muslim” for them to be screened and questioned. Professor Naber referenced Lelah Khalili’s recent article on the “Muslim ban” and Maya Mikdashi’s scholarship on Islamophobia as important voices to engage with for a proper contextualization of anti-Muslim sentiments in the US.

Professor Naber explained how the confusion and chaos that accompanied the first couple of weeks of Trump’s presidency were a strategy meant to obstruct the possibility of resistance and its mobility. The confusion embedded in the executive orders is intentional, for how can we resist the law if the law is unclear? Professor Naber drew on multiple examples of policing Muslim students in the UIC campus and the horrifying reality of the kind of federal funding and interest that goes into watching and tracking these subjects and their respective communities. She spoke truth as she laid out these unknown or, at times, undermined realities, and reminded us all that there is more to learn about the deep roots of Islamophobia and the grim future it promises if unstopped.

Last but not least, Professor Jodi A Byrd (English and Gender and Women’s Studies, UIUC) reoriented the discussion around the focal point of indigeneity as the prior to US state violence, national borders, and political making. State-sanctioned exclusions and misappropriation of land grants and public resources emanate from an intertwined network of settler colonial past and present actions, a truth that unfortunately remain forgotten in the US collective consciousness. Professor Byrd referenced the indigenous resistance hashtag #NoBanOnStolenLand as embodying a historical fact that can help us see the “line of continuity from Jacksonian removals and FDR’s Executive Order” to Trump’s immigration and Muslim ban. Professor Byrd drew on recent threats to water protectors in North Dakota as exemplifying a modern-day Indian removal that cannot be seen in isolation and must be productively tied to deportation and evacuation policies for the whole truth of US politics and exclusions to surface. Only then can we have the full narrative, and only then can we create intersectional forms of resistance that can support all.

'No Bans on Stolen Land' (Medicine Wheel Version) - Source: justseeds.org

One of the many lessons I took from Professor Byrd’s presentation is the urgency of confronting colonial histories in public institutions. Before any securities can be ensured and successful curricula created, we have to remind ourselves that political presents are the products of the past. There are so many truths that go unnoticed and forgotten, and the only way to move forward is by seeking them and paying a long-overdue respect to their origins and protectors. At the end of the forum, I found myself assured by the knowledge these professors have generously shared. To account for one’s conscience, educational responsibility, and community, as professors, students, and academic professionals, and to understand the deep implications and stakes of intersectional lives, is now more pertinent than ever.


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