Lolita Buckner Inniss is a Professor at Cleveland State University Law School, where she teaches classes on law in film and literature and on intersectionality and the law. Buckner Inniss was born and raised in Los Angeles and studied at Princeton, UCLA and York University. She has taught all over the country and specializes in the study of comparative racism. She is a mother of three and lives in Cleveland.
That’s a pretty impressive as is. But Buckner also blogs at Ain’t I A Feminist Legal Scholar Too?, where she writes about everything from Black Disney Princesses to what it means when white people use the phrase “baby mama.” On this latter subject, she writes:
We are not yet to the point where mainstream white society can assume that any adoption of black cultural norms is more exemplary of broadening than of appropriation. Some words and phrases stand as much as they ever did for white-racist inspired black oppression. These words still pack a punch for black people no matter how often repeated in white mainstream settings… Nonetheless, while we still have a ways to go in sorting out black-white relations, we are, if not post-racial, certainly post-racist. By this I mean that it is definitely uncool to intentionally employ racist cant, and when it is employed unintentionally, right-thinking white people usually clean that …stuff… up pretty quickly. Or, if not clean it up, wrap it up, sometimes sending racism so far under wraps that it becomes both profoundly obscure and obscurely profound.
In light of this week’s racially-charged imbroglio at Harvard Law School, it seemed especially fitting to speak to Professor Buckner Inniss, a Black woman, a feminist, a legal scholar, and someone who writes, thinks and teaches about intersectionality for business and for pleasure. Professor Buckner Inniss is also the first Feministing Five subject to sing to me as she described her favorite fictional heroine, and let me tell you, she’s got quite a voice.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Lolita Buckner Inniss.
Chloe Angyal: Tell me about your work as professor, and what inspired you to start to start blogging in addition to that work.
Lolita Buckner Inniss: I am a law professor at Cleveland State University and in that capacity I teach a number of classes. I teach a seminar in Race, Racism and the Law, and sometimes I do that on a comparative basis, so I look at Canada and the US and talk about the ways in which the laws have developed in those societies and the extent to which that affects the way that race is experienced in those countries. In that class, there’s an entire unit devoted to intersectionality, but beyond that unit, one of the overarching themes of the course is the intersectional of gender, race, sexuality and class, which is something that strangely enough, we don’t spend enough time talking about in the US. In the first few class sessions, we try to define what race, class and gender are, and people usually come into the class feeling pretty comfortable that they know what these things mean, but it becomes clear that they don’t. Most people thought they knew what race was, but they didn’t. Most thought they knew what gender was, but they didn’t. Most people even thought they understood sexual orientation, but they didn’t, mostly because they don’t tend to see it as something that runs along a spectrum, they see it as a binary. But class, people strangely clammed up about it, because for those students who were middle class or above, they simply thought that they shouldn’t talk about it, and those students who were working class, I came to learn, actually experienced a certain amount of shame about that. If anything, the way they talked about it, was, “we were poor, but I’m going to law school, and I’m going to get a great job, and everything’s going to be great because if you work really hard, everything will be fine.” In short, I think that even in the twenty-first century, we are still very much bound up in the Protestant work ethic and the myth of the classless society, and I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away.
So we talk about the development of the feminist movement, we talk about whether women of color are less likely or more likely to call themselves feminists, and what that has to do with their gender and race. And again, those are just things that a lot of students haven’t thought to think about. One of the most difficult things about it is that people think if, for example, you’re Asian and a woman, that you’ve got these sort of cumulative problems. But intersectionality works very differently than that: If you’re oppressed, it’s not necessarily a cumulative effect, it’s just oppression of an entirely different type.
I started the blog because I wanted to talk more about race and gender issues. For me, it’s about having a voice and being able to say things as they come to me, and not necessarily waiting to put them in formal scholarly writing. It’s about the immediacy of the blog. It’s allowed me to get in touch with a huge range of people out there. I get lots and lots of responses to the blog, most of which I never publish. People write to me in agony about things that I write about. About a year ago, I wrote about a Black woman law professor who was experiencing discrimination at her institution, and I wrote the piece because I heard sort of secretly, quietly and not in any formal way that this was happening to this woman. And I guess my question was why am I just hearing this whispered quietly? Why isn’t this on the cover of a law journal? So I wrote it to say, “hey, this is important. What’s happening to her has happened to lots and lots of people. Why is nobody saying anything about this?” The mail was overwhelming. Some people said, “here’s my name, here’s what’s happening to me.” I think that really crystallized why I was writing the blog. Because lots of the things I ruminate about are occurring to other people. So I sort of think of myself as a voice for a small but significant group.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
LBI: There’s this folk song that I used to sing, and I still sing it sometimes, it’s called Sweet Betsy From Pike. It’s a folk song that tells the tale of a woman who from somewhere in America to go out to California, and if you go through the verses, you realize that this woman is a just a total feminist! First of all, she’s crossing the mountains with her lover, not her husband. And there’s this really wonderful verse where they get to this desert, and she sings:
The alkali desert was burning and bare,
And Isaac’s soul shrank from the death that lurked there.
“Dear old Pike County, I’ll go back to you”–
Says Betsy, “You’ll go by yourself if you do!”
I mean, wow! And at the end of the song, they reach California in spite of it all. That always resonated with me as a little kid, because, we were one of those rare families that actually lived in California for many generations, so I was sort of taken by the romance of people fighting through mountains and deserts to get there, and then to have this woman who really was a leader in making this trip was just great. My sons will tell you: When they were little, I used to put on a record of folk songs and we would sing along and march around the house. That was my idea of a good time.
The other one I would say would be Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the things I really like about Scout is that she’s a reminder that even people who seem not to have a lot of agency, meaning children, and especially little female children, can still have lots of impact on the world around them.
My heroines in real life, I guess the first person I could think of is Angela Davis, the activist and retired professor. She’s probably one of my most significant heroines, because of her work as a black feminist and because of her work as an educator. The first time I encountered Angela Davis was when I was a really young child growing up in Los Angeles, and at that time she was still a professor at UCLA. She was one of the youngest professors hired by the philosophy department, and this completely captured even my very young child’s imagination. But it wasn’t very long after hiring that she got into trouble at the University because of her political beliefs. She was a Communist, she was a Black Panther – or at least she espoused a Black liberation ideology that some felt advocated violence or at least acknowledged that violence was possible. She certainly talked about the fact that it was possible. And that combination got her into trouble at UCLA really early.
I had this really progressive feminist babysitter, and one time when she was watching me, we snuck out to a rally to see Angela Davis. It’s still the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. And it was funny because my babysitter perfectly well understood that my mother would not like this; my mother was a feminist, but in a very quiet way, and she did not like problems or trouble. So I was told, “you can never tell your mother that I took you to see Angela Davis.” And I never did: My mother lived and died, and I never told her. I loved the fact that Angela Davis came to prominence because she was a scholar who happened to speak her mind, and she happened to do so in a way that got her attention. She started as a scholar, she ended her career as a scholar, and when that era ended, a lot of people didn’t know what happened to her, but she was quietly out in California, because she petitioned the Regents for her job back. She ended her career at the University of California Santa Cruz as a scholar, who happened to have this period at the beginning of her scholarly life. So she stands out to me as an example of how feminist praxis can be a variety of things that you can live in a variety of ways.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
LBI: The continuing recent non-news story, about the state of affairs in Haiti. The earthquake in Haiti happened in January, it was in the news everywhere, and it’s now disappeared even though that island is still in a state of apocalypse in terms of people’s access to healthcare, people’s access to help. And I get the paper and I read it online, and I scour every page, I look everywhere, and is anyone talking about what’s going on in Haiti? And the answer is “no, not really.” And I just want to scream. It reminds me of this concept called “disaster pornography,” where people want to gaze upon the broken bodies and problems of people who are not themselves, and then they get tired of it and experience disaster fatigue, and it disappears from the news. And I guess to some extent, that’s what’s happening in Haiti. Haiti is near and dear to my heart; I studied it in college and made it the focus of my independent work, and my advisers was one of the best known Haitianists in the world. And when I practice law, I often to political asylum work for people from Haiti, so I have a long-standing interest in it. And this void of news coverage now that a short time has passed, is really upsetting me.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
LBI: For me it would probably be the fact that too many people, and to my dismay, too many young people, see feminism as more a label than a praxis. When I’m teaching Race, Racism and the Law and I talk about the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation, when we talk about what would be mainstream feminist thought, many students would agree with those ideas , ideals and ideology more broadly. But if you call them feminists, many of them get upset, because they see it as this static label, and they’re not even sure what it means, but a lot of them think it’s bad, even people who would otherwise embrace feminist principles. So that’s probably the biggest challenge: Getting people to understand that there is such a thing as everyday feminism, and that’s what thoughtful people practice. Many of us do feminism all the time, and we should be comfortable acknowledging that. If I asked a class of people “are you a feminist?” half the people would say “no.” But if I said, “do you believe the following things or do the following things?” then I’d see very different results. I mean, if you love and respect and value women, you’re a feminist.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
LBI: Old fashioned water, spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic and a woman who is awesome and good at getting stuff done, Bridget Crawford. She’s a law professor at Pace Law School in New York and she writes the blog Feminist Law Professors. She’d help me build a cabin. She’s amazingly educated and scholarly, but she’d also roll up her sleeves. I’ve been stuck with some of my favorite feminists, and we pushed our car. We stood in mud, we jumped in deep water, and that’s what feminism is about. You gotta do all the jobs.