The Feministing Five: Dr. Kali Nicole Gross

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Dr. Kali Nicole Gross, who is an associate professor, associate chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department, and core faculty in Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Kali Nicole Gross Along with her scholarly work on black women’s history with the US criminal justice system, Dr. Gross has written powerful pieces on police violence against black women for online outlets such as the Huffington Post, Jet, and The Root. Her brilliant work has moved our team here at Feministing and we are so grateful that she shared more of her thoughts with us.

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Dr. Kali Nicole Gross!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. To get started, could you describe your scholarly field of focus and some current projects that excite you? 

Dr. Kali Nicole Gross: I consider myself a black women’s historian. I focus specifically on African-American women’s experiences with the US criminal justice system, and I make the women’s experiences the center of my study. I became interested in this subject after some friends and I team-taught a history course to a group of women who were in prison at the State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, SCI Munsey. That was my first experience going to any kind of carceral facility and while I knew that black men had been disproportionally represented in prison, I had no idea that the problem was as stark, and in some instances even more disproportionate, for black women until I went to Munsey. When I was teaching, I realized that I didn’t know anything about these women’s experiences. It’s how I began researching black women’s history with the criminal justice system, and my work has always carried an emphasis on connecting that history to the present.

Currently, my work goes along two trajectories. The first path is that I look at historical experiences with criminal justice, with crime, and with violence. My second book is about to be published, and it examines the case of a black woman, who was in adulterous love-triangle and then became engaged in a murder and dismemberment. It was a huge case because the  authorities found the headless limbless torso of a man, but they couldn’t determine his race because he had really light complexion. Especially because they thought a white man’s life was on the line, the police wanted to know what had happened. But by the time they did realize that it was in fact a black man, or what they called back then a mulatto, the case had gotten so much attention, that they continued the investigation and focused on this black woman who was involved.

Just learning about this woman’s experience with the legal system has also been very intriguing. I’m interested in her because she has a long record of violence, conflict, and strife. She’s not the type of woman that we hear about when we think of women’s history, especially black women’s history. She isn’t a reformer, she isn’t sacrificing for the race. She’s married, she’s having an affair with someone ten years younger, she’s engaging with these conflicts at home and outside of it. The source material has been very engaging as I am trying to understand more about her and what contributed to her prolific kind of violence.

The other work that I am passionate about is raising awareness of black women’s experiences of police brutality and of injustice in our current system’s timeframe. It has been very troubling to see how quickly the discourse of #BlackLivesMatter focused primarily on heterosexual, cisgender, black men. It’s not that this focus is unnecessary — clearly it’s so important, but we also have a lot of other black lives who have also experienced police brutality that are equally traumatized or who have been fatally shot. It’s disappointing to see that, until fairly recently, black women’s lives had not been garnering the same type of attention or outrage from the community, or from mainstream America. A big part of my other work is finding a voice and a window through my op-eds to drive home those points.

SB: Your piece on the Charleston Massacre is so incredibly powerful. Could you describe your thoughts as you were writing it? 

KNG: Like everyone else in the country, I was horrified by the massacre. When I learned that there was a five-year-old girl who had to play dead to survive, I became completely undone. It hit home for me because my own daughter is five. Just the thought of her being in that circumstance and wondering if she would be savvy enough to pretend to be dead was devastating. I reflected on what it is about black childhood that is so dangerous that a five year old has the presence of mind to play dead among the dead bodies of people who were probably close relatives and friends. It says so much to me about the violence of racism in this country.

That piece was incredibly difficult to write. I cried at several points, trying to put my reaction into words. It was important to me to stress that the massacre is an ugly flare-up of what has been ongoing throughout the history of US system. The racism that Dylann Roof is enacting is the same racism that motivates these white officers when they pull the trigger on black people whose hands are raised, backs are turned, who are bound, and who are assaulted  in police custody. It is the same racism that motivated a white police officer to grab a bikini-clad black girl by her hair and force his knee into her back. That rage is the same. There is this whole rhetoric to criminalize black people to excuse not just police violence, but the violence of the criminal justice system itself.

In some respects, I want to echo the voice of Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who wrote The Condemnation of BlacknessA few months ago he said that racism is baked into the criminal justice system. I would add that it’s not just racism, it’s anti-blackness. The US justice system’s birth and evolution follows right on the heels of black people’s, I guess you could call, freedom. The more freedom black people have, the more investment in a criminal justice system that’s about police brutality.

I also want to stress that it’s easy for us to be horrified by the supposedly extreme version of this racism, but letting these officers go, not making them stand trial is as violent as these folks going and pulling the trigger.

SB: You have also recently written that police violence against black women needs to be a major election issue for 2016. You bring up the idea of actively evaluating candidates based on their proposed policy and past efforts. Could you share more about this? 

KNG: I have been outraged that black women vote at a very high rate, but reap the least of political rewards. When I look at police brutality, I’m glad to see that candidates recognize that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and that merits a governmental response. It’s good news, but I’m noticing already that they are talking about it as if it only affects black men.

This is a huge problem for me because black women vote at a high rate and as a really powerful constituency, particularly for the Democratic Party. When people talk about the black vote, often they are talking about black women voters. We need to have a serious dialogue about how we want to use that power to hold candidates accountable when they want to go into the community. We need to ask, “That’s fine, but what are you going to do for us? Are you going to fight for minimum wage? Are going you to fight for health care, to make child care helpful? Are you going to stop racial profiling? Are you going to demand more action when the police abuse women? Are you going to make sure that battered women aren’t criminalized for defending themselves?” Marissa Alexander is the case and point. It’s especially important that women are protected from domestic abusers. At a bare minimum, women who defend themselves should not be put in jail for it. These candidates also need to demand that when there is any type of police abuse, there should be an independent investigation into what happened.

There are a lot of great organizations that do research on black women’s issues in relation to policy. It would be great if we could track down different candidates and ask them their thoughts on these issues and if they have a response for black women voters. We could then use this information to create a score card that would better inform the public. If these candidates aren’t addressing black women voters, than we need not to vote for them. We need to vote and we need to count.

SB: What are some helpful techniques that you use as you move between your activism, your life in the academy, and your op-eds? 

KNG: Along with widely reading from different perspectives, I participated in The Op-Ed Project, where these journalists come and basically teach us academic egg-heads how to make our relatable theories legible to a wider audience. We had two amazing instructors, Debbie Douglass and Teresa Puente. They helped me become a better writer, more focused in terms of critical thinking, and encouraged me to think that I had something to say that might help or be significant.

Women of color get messages from every corner that we don’t matter. That we are invisible and voiceless. For women who dare to be different, there can be cost and consequences for standing up for yourself. We have to get over that fear about what the potential backlash could be. If you think it’s important, you need to find a way to make your voice heard. A lot of time we have these brilliant sisters whose voices we never hear because they have been beaten back and constrained by a hostile climate. The Op-Ed Project really helped me express myself to be legible to broader audiences. I am really thankful for it. The prospect of being a historian that does historical work with an eye on our current circumstances and the future has always been a guiding principle.

SB: Let’s pretend that you are stranded on a desert island. You can take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

KNG: My one food would be curry chicken. My drink would be a Scotch and soda. I have to have two feminists — Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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