THH Episode 36: Giving Voice: Dr. Nadia Brown

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Nadia Brown

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Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I talk with Nadia E. Brown, a University Faculty Scholar and Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Purdue University. She specializes in Black women’s politics and holds a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies. Dr. Brown’s research interests lay broadly in identity politics, legislative studies, and Black women’s studies. Her award-winning book, Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making, is how I first came across her work. In this episode, we talk about intersectionality, political representation, and how representation in our country is shifting at this very moment.

And now, Giving Voice.

[intro music]

Beckley: Nadia, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to speak with us.

Brown:  I’m thrilled. Thank you so much for having me.

Beckley: Awesome. So, I think that to get started, we can kind of start with your work – can you talk a little bit about the work you’ve done with intersectionality and politics? And maybe even give a little bit of a definition for intersectionality. I feel like it’s a big word that is intimidating, but kind of has a simple explanation.

Brown: Sure, yes, so intersectionality is a term that was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is a law professor, to really describe the ways that Black women and other marginalized women by race, ethnicity, or class status have difficulty accessing legal remedies to discrimination that they face. And intersectionality is described as the intersections in which – like a street, right? Like, with the intersections in which one meets – racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and if a car accident were to happen in the middle of that street – in the middle of that intersection – can we blame the outcome on a car coming down racism road, or is it the car coming down sexism road? But if it happens at the middle of that intersection, is it not the confluence of all those different identities that form the multiple layers of oppression?

And intersectionality comes to us, really, out of this Black feminist home truth: that Black women do not have the luxury of fighting racism or sexism – that they must do both, and that they have a unique identity because of these combined influences of race, sex, class, age, sexual orientation, nativity. And all of these identities make up this one singular identity.

So, in my work, I look at Black women as undertheorized political subjects and use political science to understand how they think and how they operate in our democracy. My work primarily focuses on Black women political elites, mostly elected officials and candidates. However, I’ve started to branch out and do some work in mass political behavior – so what do every day Black women think and how do they relate that to political phenomenon? But I’ve also started to reach out to start to do some broader, I think, more fun work in some ways, on popular culture. And what this work really seeks to do is to challenge the narrative that we can understand through only a race, or a gender, or a class, or a generational viewpoint, how people experience politics and policy. And instead my work wants to make this intervention and say, “no, it’s a lot more complicated – it’s a lot more messy and nuanced.” We have to understand the roles that these other identities play to understand and interact with political phenomenon.

Beckley: That’s great – it sounds like really interesting work. So, kind of going back to our main topic for our main episode, we talked about women’s suffrage in Indiana and women’s suffrage in general. I was wondering – the women who were fighting for that suffrage, they often stated that they wanted the vote in order to enact some of the issues that are more directly related to them and that they felt that they could influence some of those issues better, obviously, with the vote than without. And I was wondering – when women did get the vote, they were able to enact some of those measures – and now that you see – now that we see – more Black women than ever being elected to political positions, what kind of issues do you see them working towards, what are they representing? What are their specific life experiences kind of pushing them to push for?

Brown: Yea, that’s a really important question. Because most times, my research shows that most times policy makers are trying to solve a problem that is informed through their own worldview, okay, so how are we going to think about a political problem that will require a policy solution? And most times, it’s animated out of our own lived experiences or those of others that we’ve come in contact with. And what my research has found is that issues that Black women face are often not championed by white women or Black men. So again, this idea that sharing a race or gender identity will lead elected officials to a set of policy prescriptions that will be impactful for a particular group is just not the case.

So, in my first book, Sisters in the State House, I give an example of domestic violence policy where Black women saw domestic violence advocacy as really failing to prioritize the needs of Black women as survivors and victims. And again, it wasn’t that the elected officials that were not Black women had any kind of malice or ill will – they just had these blind spots up. They didn’t see how domestic violence legislation that they were passing trying to help victims of domestic violence, in many ways, could have unintentional consequences and hurt Black women.

So, an example of that was gun measures, right? And trying to protect people – domestic violence victims – from having guns in the house. But the younger Black women legislators in my study showed that most often the guns that are used against Black women, in terms of intimidation or violence are often not registered in the first place, and if they are registered, they’re usually registered in the name of women, right? So, having their own registered gun used against them.

A more clear cut, kind of easy to see issue happened in the Maryland State Legislature where Maryland had quotas for businesses that should to business with the state. They had quotas for women and quotas for minorities, and this was a long-standing policy in the state for almost 30 years and the state really prided itself on trying to open up avenues for women and minority business owners. And Black women, once elected, came in and said, “What about Black women business owners? Do they fill out the forms as a woman contractor or as a minority contractor?” And the state really scratched their heads here and thought, “Well, this is really a personal issue. Maybe women – Black women – can decide which they want to do. Let them figure out how they want to be assigned.” And this put undue mechanisms that Black women contractors had to go through. Which meant that these women had to go talk to the gendered quota side and say, “Hey, do you guys have any room? Okay, you know, great, we’ll file with you.” Or, if they said no, they’d have to go over to the race side and they’d say, “Hey, contractors who are filling out these forms for being a minority, do you have room over here?” And if they didn’t, they’d have to go back and figure something else out. And so what the Black women legislators said, “Why don’t we just make an exception – or changes the law, so that Black women and women of color don’t have to do all of this extra leg work and that there are quotas written within both this minority and women’s quotas for contracts?”

So, when I started doing this research, it was so telling because the chair of the subcommittee that had worked so hard to put forward these minority contractors as a minority business enterprise was so proud of his work. I mean – I still see his smile when he’s describing to me how he got this through the state legislature and the work he did to expand this program. And when I asked him to talk about challenges that women of color face, he was just crestfallen and he said, “Yea, maybe that’s something.” And kind of abruptly stopped the interview at that point. So, again, I don’t think that anyone was trying to be – you know, have some kind of ill will or bad intention, it was just an oversight. And so, we see that these things happen time and time again in policy making because legislators in a deliberative body in our democracy, come from us, come from our people. And we bring our life experiences into government and if you are only around a certain subset of people, or if you’ve only seen a certain set of experiences, there is a tendency to think that there is not a problem if it doesn’t happen to you or to those that you are most intimately connected with.

And this project that I’m working on now, with the CROWN Act, which is an act that would ban legal discrimination based on the way that Afro-textured hair naturally grows out of people’s heads. And the legislators told me that they held community events, these kind of open town halls where constituents came in and wanted to talk about their own experiences with having their natural Afro-textured hair and being discriminated against. And in some ways it was cathartic for constituents to come in, particularly I was told a story about young med students who were really pushing for this bill in New Jersey because they were afraid that they would not be seen as professional and that they would be unlikely to match – what would this mean for their careers when they had done everything right? You know, go to school, work hard, all those things. And now to be on the precipice of the beginning of their careers and to say, “Well, I might not be able to find a job.” And so, the legislators who help these town halls said it did two things. One, it was cathartic for community members to kind of talk about and explain their challenges with hair. Then, to also have legislators convene this and want to find a way to try to solve this problem. But the other thing that was so eye opening was that legislators who do not have afro-textured hair or do not represent communities with large numbers of people with afro-textured hair said that they never thought that this was a problem. And seeing the outpouring of people who came to tell their stories, who came to implore government officials to do something about this, really changed their mind.

And so, this book that I’m working on now around hair and politics really illuminates how much we, as communities, are still in silos. As people of color, we don’t do hair in public places, you know, we don’t take out braids. So, these are things that majority communities don’t know much about, so had not thought about hair discrimination as a racial issue, right, as part of expanding anti-discrimination things. So, things that were on the books, weather it was with the U.S. military, from school districts, from employers, from other industries like the airlines and food service industries, that had all of these discriminatory policies on the books that said those with Afro-textured hair cannot wear braids, cannot wear dread locks, or would be subject to fines, suspensions, expulsions, for wearing their hair in ways that are culturally significant and can grow and protect ones hair. That was really out of step, right? But without having Black women at the forefront pushing this CROWN Act, this bill would never have happened, and right now, the bill has made its way through 23 states that have either pre-filed or filed this bill.  But it just shows that without other voices at the table, we miss the opportunity to legislate on things that are disproportionately hurting people that have been historically marginalized from politics and policy creation.

Beckley: Absolutely, and I think what you said about not having those experiences yourself – it’s not necessarily that you are intentionally discriminating or intentionally overlooking these issues, it’s just that if you haven’t lived it, you just might not know that it’s even an issue for a lot of people. I know that as a white woman myself, I might not have ever known that natural textured hair is something to be discriminated against until I started looking into the natural hair movement. It’s just so mind-blowing that something as little to me, or, should be to anybody, as wearing your hair as it naturally grows out of your head, can be discriminated against, that’s just kind of mind-blowing, I think to a lot of people. And it shouldn’t be because it happens every day.

Brown: Right. You hit the nail on the head. These are the kind of experiences that require legislation and that require policy makers to take a proactive stance, because they’ve been overlooked for so long, and, again, like you said, this is not something that is done out of malice, but it’s just a blind spot, right? These are spaces where, without walking in someone else’s shoes, we’re ignorant to their experiences and how politics and policies might marginalize them.

Beckley:  Absolutely, and I think that that is one reason that equal representation in government is obviously so very important, because having equal representation in government also means having equal representation of life experiences, and I know that we are very far away from equal representation right now. I was wondering if you see a path forward to help shift that a little bit. And in your studies, have you seen a path that we can take to help even things up a little bit?

Brown: Yea, so I am more optimistic than I have been in a very long time about equal representation. Which sounds so ironic in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a presidency where the country has become much more divided, but on the sheer numbers side, right, we’re seeing more women that are running for elected office and for the first time in about 10-15 years, we’re seeing more Republican women running for this upcoming 2020 election. The Republican Party has really been hemorrhaging women’s voices and women in leadership and Republican women in the early ‘90s were really a safeguard – again not framing these women as feminists for as championing women’s rights as we see them more popularly, but really in stopping some conservative or really Republican far-right policies that would be detrimental to women’s health and to children’s wellbeing.

So, I am excited to see that. I’m excited, really, on the Democratic side, about the number of women of color that are running. The number of Black women in particular are outpacing other demographic groups of women of color and women that are running on the Democratic side. So, I think that there is hope that average, everyday citizens are seeing that they have something to contribute to politics and are willing to offer themselves up for service. The Women’s March in 2016 – excuse me, 2017 – was the largest single day march, protest, in American history, and has been a sustained movement. The organic Black Lives Matter march and the continued spotlight on the murder of Breanna Taylor that has helped Americans have a conversation on state sponsored violence on Black women kind of vis a vi the say her name movement but in some ways just the spotlight on Breonna Taylor and that has helped us think about other Black women. These are things that are changing the national conversation.

And then, couple this with the Me Too Movement, which was started by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, to really talk about sexual violence towards women of color, and particularly economically marginalized women of color in urban areas, have changed politics and policy, right? Me Too and sexual harassment is at the forefront. Candidates are having to talk about this. Joe Biden, as we know, has vowed to name a woman as his vice-presidential nominee. There’s a large, large push to have him pick a woman of color. And I think none of this would have been possible without the social movements and average everyday citizens saying enough is enough. I’m going to run. I don’t see my issues, my voice, people in my community, people that care about things that animate my life in national politics or in state and local politics, are now stepping up.

So, again, I’m positive, I’m optimistic. The downside – the tremendous downside is, well, what will this look like in reality? I think there’s going to be so many problems with voting that there might be a lot of delays and confusion and opportunity for controlling, white patriarchal, white supremist figures to step in and kind of de-legitimate our election process and to kind of call into question the validity of these candidates and the will of the people.

Beckley:  So, it sounds like overall optimistic, but still cautious of what that might bring in and some of the problems that we might run into in the future.

Brown: Yes. That’s a good way to put it.

Beckley: I think that we’re going to end on that note. I really appreciate you talking with me and taking the time out of your day to discuss some of these issues and I really appreciate your time.

Brown: No problem. This was really enjoyable, and I am happy to do this.

Beckley: Well, thank you again.

Brown: Thanks, Lindsey.

Beckley: Once again, I want to take the time to thank Dr. Brown to take the time to talk with me. If you’re interested in Dr. Brown’s work, we’ve posted links to where you can find it in our show notes, which can be found at blog.history.in.gov. We’ll be back later this month with the second installment of our Indiana women’s suffrage series. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

Show Notes Giving Voice: Dr. Nadia Brown

To learn more about Dr. Brown’s work, visit her website here.