Faculty Program Spotlight: Race, Colonialism and Sexualities Initiative

RCS Guest Speaker, Uri McMillan (UCLA)
RCS Guest Speaker, Uri McMillan (UCLA)

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

Historically, critical conversations around sexuality at U-M haven’t typically considered how that category might shape and be shaped by discourses of race and/or colonialism. For Professor Victor Román Mendoza, and other scholars working at the cutting edge of sexuality studies, these categories and discourses are inextricably, intimately linked. Mendoza, who was recently tenured, serves as an Associate Professor in Women’s Studies and English; and also as Director of IRWG’s Race, Colonialism, and Sexualities Initiative (RCS).

Established in 2015, RCS grew out of Leela Fernandes’s (Women’s Studies, Political Science) previous IRWG program area concerned with feminist critiques of neoliberalism. The initiative seeks to develop forums and dialogue produced at the junction of postcolonial, empire, comparative ethnic, critical race, gender, and sexuality studies by opening up dialogues with scholars, performance artists, and activists.

In developing their year long speaker series for 2015-16, program co-directors Mendoza and Fernandes, with advice from the RCS steering committee, brought leading interdisciplinary scholars to campus in efforts to showcase a range of ideas on race, colonialism, and sexuality. Last fall, vi (University of California, Berkeley) presented on her recent research on sex workers in Mexico City. Her most recent monograph, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (2015) won the Alan Bray Memorial Book Prize by GL/Q caucus of the MLA. In March 2016, Lisa Lowe (Tufts University) gave a lecture drawing from her most recent book, The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015). Siobhan Somerville (University of Illinois) is finishing up her second book concerned with queering the U.S. settler state, and gave a talk on the naturalization of American Indians. Finally, Uri McMillan (UCLA) drew from his monograph Embodied Avatars (2015), which concerns black feminist performance art, to talk about the grotesque aesthetics of hip-hop giant Nikki Minaj. Professors Mendoza and Fernandes wanted to feature scholars whose work had been recently published or shortly forthcoming. “It was thrilling to see these luminaries so excited to present the work they had been thinking about deeply for years,” Mendoza reflected.

Given the breadth of speakers, RCS draws a wide range in attendance, from undergraduate students to full professors. Depending on the topic and speaker, almost completely different audiences have shown up, but the room always seems full and eager to participate in post-lecture discussions. Mendoza believes this points to the success they’ve enjoyed in picking a heterogeneity of scholars and hopes to continue to build on this momentum to draw in different audiences.

One unique feature of this program is the level of scholarly engagement that goes beyond post-lecture discourse, with speakers often hosting grad-level workshops and occasions for mentoring. The intent, as described by Mendoza, is to offer graduate students the opportunity to learn the process and work of scholarship, while the invited speakers learn about the research projects of emerging scholars. These workshops are popular and well-received by students, who are often already admirers of the scholars RCS brings to campus. As Mendoza explains, “this is their chance to connect with someone whose work they regard highly.” Since Mendoza assumed full responsibility of the program in June, he hopes to continue the speaker-led workshops as an integral feature of the initiative.

Considering the ways this initiative contributes to gender scholarship and discourse on campus, Mendoza articulates his hope that “...the Initiative has brought and will continue to bring a rigorous, critical engagement with the multiple categories of difference—gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability among them—that constitute lived experiences. It seems impossible, or at least maybe irresponsible, to talk about the complex, awful events of the recent weeks—the unchecked sexual assaults on universities, most visibly the Stanford case, the mass shooting of queer and trans Latinx people at Pulse in Orlando or Donald Trump’s campaign—without considering gender, race, sexuality, and colonialism.”  

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