Interview with Ianna Hawkins Owen

Ianna Hawkins Owen is a doctoral student in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley. Some time last year, I had the pleasure of seeing a short talk by her about race dynamics on AVEN. David Jay was also in attendance, and the talk led to an unconference workshop on race and AVEN and now, due to the effort of Teamocil and AVEN_guy, there is a stickied AVEN thread for asexual people of color. Since this is such an important topic for asexual communities, we’ve asked her for an interview.

Could you tell us, briefly, what your department is about, and what you study?
African American Studies at UC Berkeley is an interdisciplinary department that was established following student and faculty protest. It houses our doctoral program in African Diaspora Studies, which uses the framework and various theories of diaspora to do its work. Different scholars use diaspora to describe forced dispersal, political mobilization, anti-capitalist cultural exchange, relational practices, acts of translation, and much more. Students in the department apply these diverse notions of diaspora to spaces that range from high fashion photography to Jamaican maroon communities. I am studying articulations and recitations of diasporic failure.

Could you summarize your study on racial issues on AVEN?
I met Siggy of The Asexual Agenda at the 2012 St Clair Drake Symposium where I presented a paper concerned with the ways race is reproduced in online asexual community. In the paper, I reviewed AVEN threads from 2004-2011 by black asexuals looking for other self-identified black asexuals and reflected on the user interactions inside those threads. The threads typically pull responses from users who state their identity as asexuals of color or white asexuals and responses from users that decline to identify. Often, white asexuals and those who do not identify themselves use these threads to make statements that, 1) AVEN is a safe, diverse environment, 2) AVEN is a race neutral place and asexuals are color-blind, or 3) race is anarchronistic, un-important or itself “racist.” All three of these tendencies work to minimize the significance of race, to obscure “white” as a race by claiming neutrality, and to dismiss user interests or lived/digital experiences.

Do you think there is anything about these responses which is unusual to AVEN or asexual communities, or do you think it’s similar to the rest of the english-speaking internet?
These responses are certainly reflective of the broader social conditions. On the one hand, I do not think that these responses are unusual because racism and white supremacy are extraordinarily ordinary. One of the problems with whiteness is the extent to which it is unremarkable or unremarked upon, instantiating itself as normal, perpetuating myths of its own neutrality. Richard Dyer, author of White, writes that we must struggle to make ‘white’ strange, to name that which is white in order that we might begin to recognize it. From there, we might be able to do something about it.

On the flip side, one of the difficulties with AVEN is its collective readiness to pursue what is usual, similar, what is normal, what is “just like everybody else”. This line of defense or tactic used with the mainstream media might win over white viewers/readers but we have to consider whether this comes at the expense of other, more productive alliances. Here I am thinking of Eunjung Kim’s fabulous article, “How Much Sex Is Healthy?” in Against Health which touches on the overlaps of asexuality and disability work and how the pressure of pathology leads us to disavow our possible allies. Vlog critiques of the “unassailable asexual” have spurred great conversations concerned with the problems of representation, but typically do not mention race.

What do you think would help solve the problem?
It’s easier to name a problem than to work toward its resolution. As a lifelong student I am inclined to say that education always helps. But more than this, I have learned my best lessons from friends and from throwing myself into political organizing and making myself very vulnerable to the idea that I could be wrong.

I think, more than policing or censoring conversations on the forums–which one might be inclined to do to create safe space–I think it is important to acknowledge that no space is safe for all people. The idea of safety necessarily has at its center one group or another, and that groups’ particular needs. (For example, responding to a white user’s concern that “race isn’t a big deal” and struggling to convince them of this necessarily alienates those users of color for whom race, racism, and white supremacy are a daily reality not needing justification.). Rather, by acknowledging the violence involved in race dialogue (or gender dialogue or sexuality dialogue or ability dialogue, for that matter) we are more honestly situated to grapple with the very real consequences of entering into dialogue/posting/what-have-you. This comes from an excellent article by Leonardo and Porter called “Pedagogy of Fear” that wrestles with the question of what a humanizing violence might be able to do for the educational process.

I think that engaging in conversations that are explicitly interrogating AVEN politics around race, around economic justice, around prisons, might help to shift the dialogue away from unhelpful, colorblind, dismissive, and racist forum comments like “i didn’t know race mattered, lol” and “everyone is a minority here!” toward a more thoughtful deliberation around what kind of world AVEN users would like to see. Asexuality will never exist in a vacuum and so, as an activist-minded group, how does the mobilization of an asexual orientation speak to other struggles for justice?

One of the frightening things about the internet is its (possible) permanence. Everything we ever did wrong, there for all to see. But one of the simultaneously most promising things is that as an archive of our failures, an archive of our process, the messy work of building community together is also available for all to see. How have we tried, how have we failed, how have we tried again? What tools have we developed that might help other people, struggling toward communion and political change?

Sometimes it seems like minority communities have a tendency to marginalize minorities within their community. How does this impact people at the intersection of multiple minority identities?
Without excusing this, I would say that minoritarian groups and cultures in the U.S. are faced with the phenomenon that what the individual does is taken to represent the group. So, at different times, groups might eschew, suppress or oppress difference inside the group, believing that such actions might preserve what little social advances the group as made. (The beginning of Cathy Cohen’s Boundaries of Blackness talks about this). At the same time, things like racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia have material effects, and ideologies like these, unchecked and unexamined, can guide, distort, and ultimately destroy not the false notion of group cohesion (for no group is entirely coherent), but trust, and then what are we left with?

But it’s important to note, the marginalization of some minoritarian subjects fall within structural, historical, legally codified patterns and cannot, therefore, be considered in isolation. The marginalization of black people, for example, taps not only these sorts of histories but also ongoing conditions and inheritances. When marginalization is enacted upon a group, it is not enough to censor that activity. We must ask, How are we socialized to treat the other? Whose lives are considered valuable? Whose are not, or are less so?
We need to complicate these categories, historicize them and call into question their coherence, disturb any easy intersectionality.

Do you come to this topic from an internal or external perspective?
Internal, as an ace.

What motivated you to study this topic? Did you have any personal encounters with the attitudes you studied?
A couple years ago I was catching up with my Uncle (who I love), and in the course of the conversation he professed a series of assumptions about relationships that made me mad and put it in my mind to write “against sex.” By which I mean I wanted to think critically about a world unquestioningly “for sex”. Like a lot of people, after getting acquainted with AVEN and asexuality more broadly, I didn’t spend much time on the boards anymore. So, personal encounters, no. But when I come back and read the boards it becomes personal.

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
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12 Responses to Interview with Ianna Hawkins Owen

  1. ace-muslim says:

    This is a fantastic read. Is the paper on race and online asexual communities available anywhere, or a summary or abstract?

    • ibik23 says:

      hey there, thanks for reading. i haven’t posted it anywhere yet. i’m working on it again this summer hopefully for a journal, if that happens i’ll definitely send it your way, ace-muslim (coincidentally, i already follow you on tumblr, yay). i am finishing up a different article for Karli’s forthcoming book, Asexualities, that deals more specifically with whiteness in i hope a useful way. should be out soon! hope you are all well! ❤

  2. Aydan says:

    Thank you so much for doing this interview, Ianna!

  3. This interview is really awesome.
    Here’s hoping AVEN develops a policy that doesn’t involve punishing people for expressing anger about racism, and recognizes that even seemingly “benign” racism (and denial of racism) is a problem.

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