Imagine Otherwise: Siobhan Brooks on Reckoning with Violence

by | Dec 9, 2020

Siobhan Brooks on Reckoning with Violence

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 124

About the episode

Despite the cliché, 2020 really is one for the history books. Between a global pandemic disproportionately harming communities of color, racist and ableist police shootings, and legal and personal attacks on queer and trans populations, we have a lot to reckon with as this year comes to a close.

In episode 124, host Cathy Hannabach interviews sociologist Siobhan Brooks about how these events emerge from long histories of racially gendered violence and why our reckoning must contend with these histories to build better futures. Siobhan’s research across her career demonstrates how critical reflection on structures of inequality is crucial to creating alternatives in which life can thrive.

In the conversation, Siobhan and Cathy discuss what it means to reckon with violent histories and presents without losing hope for the future, how critique and creation intertwine in social justice scholarship, what interdisciplinary research looks like in the context of COVID-19 and its aftermath, and why building a world free of violence is how Siobhan imagines otherwise.

Guest: Siobhan Brooks

Siobhan Brooks is a sociologist and associate professor of African American studies at California State University, Fullerton.

Her recent book, Everyday Violence against Black and Latinx LGBT Communities (Lexington Books, 2020), uses the 2016 Pulse shooting as a launching point to examine families, healthcare, educational settings, and religious spaces as both sites of violence and spaces of transformation.

She is also the author of Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry (SUNY Press, 2010), which explores racial discrimination against Black and Latina exotic dancers and was inspired by her union organizing work at the Lusty Lady Theater.  

Siobhan’s scholarship has been published in The Black ScholarSigns: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and Inside Higher Ed and she has been interviewed for publications such as the New York TimesPlayboy MagazineNBC News, and NPR.

Episode themes

  • How to reflect on the devastating events of 2020 without losing hope
  • Why critique and creation are both necessary for social justice
  • Doing interdisciplinary research during COVID-19 and its aftermath
  • Building institutions to prevent violence and support LGBTQ communities of color

“I really want to live in a world where especially people of color and queer folk are free of all forms of violence. I really want to live in a world where both state and internal violence is eradicated, where we’re really safe—psychologically, physically, economically.”

— Siobhan Brooks, Imagine Otherwise

Transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:

Despite the cliché, 2020 really is one for the history books. Between a global pandemic disproportionately harming communities of color, racist and ableist police shootings, and legal and personal attacks on queer and trans populations, we have a lot to reckon with as this year comes to a close.

My guest today, sociologist Siobhan Brooks, points out that these events, in fact, emerge from long histories of racially gendered violence, and our reckoning must contend with these histories to build better futures. Siobhan’s research across her career demonstrates how critical reflection on structures of inequality is crucial to creating alternatives in which life can thrive.

Cathy Hannabach [01:05]:

In our conversations, Siobhan and I discuss what it means to reckon with violent histories and presents without losing hope for the future, how critique and creation intertwine in social justice scholarship, what interdisciplinary research looks like in the context of COVID-19 and its aftermath, and why building a world free of violence is how Siobhan imagines otherwise.

Thanks so much for being with us today.

Siobhan Brooks [01:32]:

Thank you for having me.

Cathy Hannabach [01:34]:

This month we are winding things down for the year and reflecting on what has been a rather unprecedented year to say the least. How are you approaching year-end reflection and looking ahead toward 2021?

Siobhan Brooks [01:52]:

Yes. Wow. This has been quite the year. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful for the direction our government looks like it’s going with the election results. That’s a relief.

Like many people, I’ve experienced the loss of loved ones from COVID-19, and I’ve been angered by all of the police shootings of Black people during the pandemic. But I’m also heartened by the amount of people, especially young people, organizing against state violence. And I’m hopeful that in 2021 that activism and organizing will continue under the Biden administration.

I’ve been on sabbatical this semester. It’s really interesting time to be on a sabbatical. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on how I want to engage my students this spring when I return to teaching. We live across from the ocean which has been really, really soothing during this time. So I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful.

Cathy Hannabach [03:04]:

You also have a really exciting new book out. First of all, congratulations!

Siobhan Brooks [03:10]:

Thank you.

Cathy Hannabach [03:12]:

That book’s called Everyday Violence against Black and Latinx LGBT Communities. I think it’s a really great example of how interdisciplinary scholars and cultural producers can reckon with recent events as well as the very long history that our current moment emerges from.

First of all, maybe for listeners who are new to the book, can you give them a little bit of an overview of what is that book all about?

Siobhan Brooks [03:37]:

The book looks at violence and hate crimes against LGBT Black and Latinx people and the communities that are often at play in allowing the kind of violence that we read about, especially with trans women of color, to exist.

In the book I identify families, educational settings, healthcare systems, and religious spaces as a large part of the cultural endorsement, if you will, and institutional failure that creates conditions for the kind of violence that we unfortunately read about regarding Black and Latinx LGBT communities.

I actually began the book with the pulse shooting that happened in Florida in 2016.

Siobhan Brooks [04:40]:

I started the book by looking on my Facebook page where activists who are usually really vocal about police shootings and other violence against people of color were silent about this particular shooting. I found myself angered by the silence. Some other queer people of color noticed that too on their Facebook pages. I really saw that as a form of discursive violence and a reminder of how queer issues aren’t viewed as race issues in some of our social movement settings.

From there, I started to pay attention to the way the shooting was framed. The language described it largely as a gay shooting, often omitting the racial identities of the people that were there, which were mostly Latinx and some Black people.

Siobhan Brooks [05:34]:

The massacre also happened a year after gay marriage was legalized. That really showed the intersection of race, sexuality, and class and the failure of liberal politics within mainstream, white LGBT movements to really address the needs of queer Black and Latinx communities.

I explore hate crimes and violence in general against Black and Latinx LGBT people within a legal, social, and historical context. I also illustrate how queer Black and Latinx communities respond to violence—how they take care of themselves—and the ways in which the state fails to protect them.

Siobhan Brooks [06:20]:

I hone in on four hate crime cases to illustrate that intersection of institutional failure. The first case is a 2002 murder of a Latinx teen here in Northern California, Gwen Araujo, who was beaten and strangled to death by four men at a party. Another case was the stabbing of Sakia Gunn in 2003, a 15 year old Black lesbian who was killed at a bus stop in New Jersey. The third is another shooting that happened here in California in 2008 of a Black, biracial, trans teen Latisha King, who was shot in the head in a computer class after they asked a boy out to be their valentine’s date.

Siobhan Brooks [07:11]:

The last one happened also here, actually close to where I live in Anaheim, California, the murder of Zoraida Reyes, a Latinx undocumented trans woman who was found strangled behind a Dairy Queen.

What I do in the book is I interview people who are connected somehow to these cases, either their community members or their family members. I interview them about their thoughts on the murders and how they felt the larger communities responded to them. I think this is where you really see the roles of institutions and ideology at play.

Siobhan Brooks [07:51]:

For example, in the case of Latisha King, some people felt that, when I interviewed them I asked “Oh, where did you hear about this case? How did the immediate community respond?” One of my interviewees was saying that in her community, a lot of people felt Latisha brought the shooting on themself because they were deceiving the boy that they asked out for Valentine’s Day, that their gender identity was sinful. In that case, the school also failed to protect them from bullying.

I also include CeCe McDonald’s case as a story of survival and resistance against racist, transphobic violence, because I feel it’s just as important to document those stories as well, especially as we come upon Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is tomorrow, this Friday [November 20].

Siobhan Brooks [08:47]:

I also interviewed a survivor of the Pulse shooting and other community members that were connected to Pulse.

In the book, I also analyze the Black Lives Matter movement. I interviewed Patrisse Cullors regarding the importance of centering feminist and queer leadership within the struggle and not have the founders erased in the movement, which is interesting because so many people tend to think men somehow founded the movement and they erase these women. And there are so many Black trans women organizing on the front lines of both police and interracial violence within Black communities. So it’s important to link these forms of violence and extend our definition of what state violence is.

Siobhan Brooks [09:35]:

It’s not only police violence, even though that’s a large part of it, but it’s also when one can’t get employment, housing, or health care because of their gender identity, race, HIV status, or class.

I conclude the book by stating that we actually don’t need more hate crime laws or police because, as I show in the book, the police often do a disservice to community members. Instead, deep, structural, and cultural change really needs to happen which value the lives of Black and Latinx LGBT people, especially youth who are most harmed by these policies.

Cathy Hannabach [10:20]:

I think one of the most powerful parts of this book, and there are many, is the way that you weave together critique and creation. You’re historicizing these really intense and deeply ingrained structural violences that queer and trans communities of color face on a daily basis. But you’re also tracing, as you point out, resistance to them, whether that’s organizing strategies, forms of kinship that folks put together, or community mutual aid support.

That intertwined relationship between critiquing the present and also creating alternatives or showing how alternatives are already in existence, I think, makes this a unique book in a lot of ways and one that fits our moment really well. I know so many people are wanting evidence for, what are those alternatives that we’re either already doing or that might be new to me that I can learn something from? I’m curious about that intertwining: Have you found that that combination of critiquing the present while creating alternatives has shown up for you in some of your other projects as well?

Siobhan Brooks [11:29]:

Yes. That’s a great question. In my first book, Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry, I definitely critique the racial stratification of how Black and Latina exotic dancers find themselves in the industry very marginalized. But in that book, I also look at the ways in which women have been able to manipulate some of these racial categories or some of these racist expectations in terms of beauty for their advantage, in terms of how they market themselves or the kind of clubs that they choose to work at. I look at how, even within what is a very racially stratified industry, women of color in the stripping industry are still finding ways to, as you say, create these alternatives.

Siobhan Brooks [12:24]:

Even now, there’s a lot of great organizing happening with Black strippers across the country to bring to light the racism and link it with what’s going on with the larger Black Lives Matter movement.

The other subject that I’ve studied where I’ve seen this happen is gay marriage. I wrote an article a couple of years ago called “Black on Black Love: Black Lesbian and Bisexual Women, Marriage, and Symbolic Meaning,” for The Black Scholar. There, I looked at how there are a lot of critiques about gay marriage—it’s assimilationist, it’s neoliberal, is not really the direction that movement should be going, and all this.

Siobhan Brooks [13:10]:

But I looked at how for Black queer women, marriage was really a way for them to be seen in the larger Black community. It wasn’t so much about state benefits, as we understand marriage to symbolize for people, but it was really about recognition of their identities and their relationships within the larger Black community. Those are two examples that I can think of in my work where there’s both critique and really looking at how people create alternative worlds for themselves.

Cathy Hannabach [13:46]:

I know you’ve been working on this book for quite some time. All books take a long time to put together. I am curious how that process—the actual process of writing and researching it—changed in 2020. Because everything else about our lives obviously changed.

Siobhan Brooks [14:06]:

Right.

Cathy Hannabach [14:08]:

How did that affect the project?

Siobhan Brooks [14:10]:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. Being a sociologist, being an ethnographer, so much of my method is going out into the world, interacting with people face to face, and traveling.

The book took about two years, but during the final year, which was basically this year, COVID really changed the way I was doing my research. I had to utilize the internet and my networks, my social media networks, in a way that I never had before. It meant meeting people virtually, meeting people and talking to them on the phone instead of flying to see them and being in their space and having that be part of the field notes. I really had to challenge myself to think about this book as really a 2020 project in that it’s different from any other research I’ve done. Most of it, toward the end especially, was done right here in my living room. I had to figure out different ways to connect with people.

Siobhan Brooks [15:24]:

We’re really fortunate that we have the internet. As a researcher, I think what the shift has done for me is to open up the possibility of not being limited by geographic location. I can now reach out and connect with people regarding the book in different countries if I want to. It actually opened up the possibilities of connecting, of what it means to do community research virtually. So it definitely shaped the way I understood ethnography.

Cathy Hannabach [16:01]:

Have you learned any lessons through those shifts that you had to make that you want to keep around, maybe that you want to use for future projects, even in a post-COVID future?

Siobhan Brooks [16:14]:

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is letting go of expected outcomes, which is really hard for social scientists. We have outcomes in mind. We feel like we are wedded to our methods and COVID really threw it up in the air. So I think one of the lessons that I can take away from this moment as a researcher is to really be patient, to sometimes let go of certain expectations of how you feel research should be and how it should look. It just really opened up the possibility of going beyond our boundaries in terms of what we feel, where we can go, and how far we can reach people with our work. I think I’ve definitely learned to stretch my expectations regarding that.

Cathy Hannabach [17:12]:

So, this podcast is obviously called Imagine Otherwise. I think your work is such a fantastic example of doing just that and the stakes of that kind of imagination. So I will ask you the question that I close out every episode with that really gets at that big why behind all of the various kinds of projects that you do, with all of their changes. What’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

Siobhan Brooks [17:41]:

What a big question.

Cathy Hannabach [17:43]:

I know, it’s huge.

Siobhan Brooks [17:45]:

And what an important question. There’s so much that I want in terms of how I would like to see our society change.

I really want to live in a world where especially people of color and queer folk are free of all forms of violence. I want to live in a world where we are not economically living on the edge. I want to live in a world where we’re physically and psychologically safe. When I teach my courses, I always think, “Okay, what is the world I’m trying to build for my students?”

Siobhan Brooks [18:25]:

I think it’s a world where we’re free from domination and abuse of power, a world where we critique structures to try and carve out different visions for ourselves.

I want to live in a world where people of color, especially Black and brown folk and queer folk, are self-actualized in terms of living out their dreams and their fullest selves. I really want to live in a world where both state and internal violence is eradicated, where we’re really safe—psychologically, physically, economically. I think that’s the world that I try to build for my students in my classroom.

Cathy Hannabach [19:11]:

Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Siobhan Brooks [19:18]:

Thank you so much for having me, Cathy. It was a pleasure.

Cathy Hannabach [19:26]:

 Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests, as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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