Feminism, Graffiti, Gender Fluidity: An Interview With Jessica Pabón-Colón, author of Graffiti Grrlz
written by michele zipp
images courtesy of Jessica pabón-colón
There are feelings you can get when meeting someone, and if you’re an intuitive person like me, those feelings can run very deep. Jessica Pabón-Colón is a force: that’s the inclination I felt when I first met her. Jessica is an Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY New Paltz. She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University, and an MA in Women’s Studies from the University of Arizona. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with specializations in Gender Studies, Women of Color and Transnational feminisms, LGBT/Queer Studies, Hip Hop Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, and Black Studies. She teaches courses including Women: Images and Realities, Feminist Theory, Gender and Sexuality in Hip Hop, Performing Feminism, and Latina Feminisms. She is a partner, friend, mother, and activist, and one of her latest projects is authoring Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora.
A woman's mark on the creative and social aspect of graffiti seems to be underrepresented, at least in mainstream view, and Graffiti Grrlz is poised to change that. What inspired its creation?
I grew up around graffiti writers in Boston, but they were all boys. I had never heard of or met any girls who wrote graffiti, but I also didn't really think twice about it until I took a Feminist Art History course as an undergrad, and then a course on Lesbian Art in America in graduate school. I was thinking through the absence of lesbian artists in the fine art world; once again the absences of girls and women in the subcultural art world of graffiti writing came to mind. A subculture that was otherwise cool but not intriguing became my intellectual focus. I'm a feminist, so there was no way I would let [women’s] erasure from the canon of graffiti history go without intervention. Something had to be done to uplift their presence. In the process I learned a lot about gender performance, deviance and respectability, sisterhood, and of course, feminism.
Did you encounter any surprises as you researched for the book?
I would say, though it feels obvious now, that what surprised me the most was that the majority of the graffiti grrlz I interviewed didn't think of themselves or their participation in the graffiti world as feminist. To me, it was so clearly feminist, and initially I couldn't make sense of the distance they kept between their sense of self and that label.
The number one thing I learned from graffiti grrlz was that to see the value of their work for graffiti subculture and feminist movement, I had to understand and appreciate feminism as a verb, as an action. I've always had a really difficult time defining feminism as a noun, because for me that makes something truly dynamic really problematically static. When you pay attention to what folks are doing, I feel you can much more effectively assess the value of those actions toward a feminist future. If someone calls themselves a feminist, ask them what they are doing to enact that identity; way too many folks call themselves feminists, especially now in the era of celebrity feminism, but then do things that are blatantly anti-feminist.
There is a stigma attached to graffiti, but it's true expression, activism, art, for some. Can you talk a bit about that?
The stigma attached to graffiti is rooted in the "quality of life" method of policing public space called broken windows. The public has bought into this idea that writing on walls signals violence, and ties that to things like gang activity and troubled teens. But the writers I know are no different than anyone else. In some cases they have high-profile, income generating, "respectable" day jobs. When people see graffiti on the side of buildings or bridges, they associate it with the downfall of society; when they look at advertisements on literally every single surface available, that's ok because a corporation purchased permission to invade our visual space to provoke consumption. Graffiti upsets people because writers don't ask permission to take public space – it is a raw energy that feels uncontrollable. We are taught to fear that kind of thing.
As a feminist scholar, what do you see as a barricade that holds women back from pursuing dreams and goals?
White supremacist cisheteropatriarchal capitalist institutions. I realize this is a string of words for an answer but this is a huge question. It ultimately comes down to how women are dominated and oppressed because of race, sexuality, class, etc. These structures dominate in varied ways, but it doesn't take much looking to find how these forces rob women of their ability to dream and their goals.
What are some causes you are focused on right now?
Right now, I am really focused on the lack of response by the mainstream feminist movement when it comes to Puerto Rico. The phrase "if your feminism isn't intersectional, it's bullshit" comes to mind. It's been over six months since Puerto Rico and the USVI [United States Virgin Islands] were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. To date, no major feminist organization in the continental US has made relief efforts a priority, or even a one-time campaign effort (never mind the truly necessary steps of advocating for the elimination of the Jones Act and PROMESA). To me, this is indicative of how "white feminism" continues to dominate mainstream feminist movement despite the supposed popularity of [critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw's] intersectionality theory. For many, they use the word without knowing that it is not an identity, but a strategy for theorizing and organizing that would make it impossible to ignore the social inequities and post-hurricane crisis the people of Puerto Rico are living through.
How has becoming a mother changed your views on feminism?
Becoming a mother hasn't changed my views on feminism. It has given the most challenging opportunity to apply my feminist ideals. My child was assigned male at birth, but we are raising him gender fluid. Some think protests and marches are no place for children, but whenever it is feasible, my child is at my side. “Power to the people” is his favorite phrase. As a person who will walk through this world as a biracial "man" who looks white, he will have much unearned privilege. So it is my job as a feminist mother to apply everything I know about power and privilege to how he is raised, in everything from teaching affirmative consent to body positivity to gender fluidity to the importance of being active in your community.