About Karma Chávez, Ph.D.:Karma Chávez is Professor and Chair of the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and holds appointments in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, the Department of Communication Studies, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, the Center for Mexican American Studies, and the LGBTQ Studies Program.
Dr. Chávez is a widely published and acclaimed scholar, whose research has appeared in leading journals including Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies and Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. Dr. Chávez is the author of three books, Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities, The Borders of Aids: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, and the collection of interviews with Palestinian activists Palestine on the Air. She has also edited four scholarly collections, including Standing in the Intersection: Feminist Voices, Feminist Practices in Communication Studies.
Prior to teaching at The University of Texas, Dr. Chávez was Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dr. Chavez has a PhD in Human Communication from Arizona State University, an M.A. in Women’s Studies from the University of Alabama, and a B.A. in Speech Communication and Religion from Hastings College.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in rhetoric as a way to study activism, social movements and coalition building?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] I did speech in college and that was really where my interest in rhetoric emerged. I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do with my life except maybe coach speech. I was told you could get a free Master’s degree if you coached speech at some places. I thought that sounded pretty good. So, that’s what I did. I went to the University of Alabama and got my Master’s. I quickly decided coaching forensics was not for me, but I wanted to go on and get my PhD.
I’ve always had an interest in questions related to activism and social justice more generally, though I don’t know if I would have phrased it that way early on. I was drawn to thinking about how to make things better, probably from the time I was very young. That’s probably as a result of being a working class, mixed-race kid. Then, when I got to graduate school, I was introduced to the thinking of women of color feminism and Black feminism, which is where I first started thinking about coalition building. So, my work is deeply indebted to those lines of thought: Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and others like that.
[MastersinCommunications.com] While your work is primarily rhetorical, and at The University of Texas you are affiliate faculty in the Department of Communication and the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, your main academic appointment is currently as Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Mexican American and Latina/o Studies Department. You also describe your scholarship as driven by queer of color theory and women of color feminism, as you mentioned a moment ago. For those readers who might be unfamiliar with these fields and critical perspectives, how would you describe them and how do you view their relationship with rhetoric and communication studies more generally?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] For most of my career I was communication first and ethnic studies adjacent. For a variety of reasons, I shifted, which made a lot of sense for me personally and professionally. Part of that, too, is it’s a very different experience to be a queer person of color and to do women of color feminism within an ethnic studies context.
Women of color feminism is an idea built from the experiences and perspectives of people who experience the world based on more than one axis of oppression. Women of color feminism was a tentative concept, always, and was derived by people who were female-identified, who were racialized as nonwhite, and often times who were queer and working class at the same time. It’s a perspective that suggests you have to take all of that into consideration to really understand how power works.
Queer of color critique extends directly from women of color feminism in many ways but brings in queer theory’s critique of normativity to help us think more concretely about how power operates as well. There’s lots of ways we could talk about the genealogy of queer theory, but when queer theory starts to gain legitimacy in the US academy, particularly in the humanities, it does so in a way that’s not just about gay and lesbian sexuality, and not simply about being alternative to heterosexuality; it does so because it brings to bear a critique on gender and sexuality in particular but also racialization of the way that norms operate.
There are a number of important books written in the 1990s and early 2000s that really question how gender and sexuality norms essentially structure everything in society — they structure the way that the nation understands itself, they structure the way that race operates, and, of course, the way that we can behave in terms of our gender and our sexual identifications. Queer theory’s critique of normativity remains very powerful in that it helps us interrogate what we take for granted or what we assume is supposed to be a particular kind of way.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book, The Borders of Aids: Race, Quarantine and Resistance, came out last year with University of Washington Press. What is the central narrative you tell about how power in the United States capitalized on the HIV/AIDs epidemic as a way of constructing certain people — Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, migrants, queer people, trans people, sex workers, and those who occupy the intersections of these and other cultural positions — as “alien” to the nation-state? What strategic logic or aims do you understand these alienating discourses and practices as serving?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] Part of what I’m doing in the book is something that’s very simple, really. It’s to identify what I think is a deep logic of the US nation-state’s founding, which also may be the deep logic of the founding of lots of nation-states, and the founding of many communities, which is this ability to define the alien outside: this ability not just to alienate but to alienize, to construct particular people as alien to, or even alien within. It’s a deep logic and it manifests in a lot of ways. What I’m interested in in the book is how disease becomes an opportunity for powerful actors to manifest that logic, sometimes in ways that are surprising but sometimes in ways that aren’t surprising at all.
If you take the case of HIV and AIDs in the United States, there’s a dominant narrative of HIV and AIDs in the United States that puts gay white men at the center. There are a lot of good reasons for that narrative to be dominant. However, if you look at the groups of folks who ended up being most publicly maligned as a result of HIV / AIDs discrimination or who actually suffered materially the most, unsurprisingly it’s Black folks. AIDs was used as this opportunity to really target Black folks in a variety of ways. I’m saying that’s a deep logic of the United States and disease becomes one of many opportunities to do this kind of work.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How do you view the alienizing rhetoric surrounding HIV/AIDS that you trace The Borders of Aids as relevant to understanding the current COVID-19 pandemic?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] It’s interesting when we think about the juxtaposition between COVID and AIDS because, on the one hand, there are a number of similarities. Folks like Steven Thrasher and Ted Kerr have written some of the best commentaries about the relationship between COVID and AIDS. I think we do see some similarities. There’s the notion of AIDS being a gay disease and COVID being an Asian disease, so once again you get this opportunity that disease presents to alienize.
I think other things that are worth noting are who ends up actually being targeted or criminalized as a result of disease. It has been predictable, just like with AIDs, that Black folks are going to be targeted. I wrote a brief piece last year about ways that neighbors call the police on their neighbors to report COVID violations, and, unsurprisingly, Black folks are much more likely to be subject to that kind of treatment from their neighbors than anyone else. That’s what we saw with AIDS as well. So those are some of the similarities that I think are significant.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In the piece you just referenced, “The Visual and the Sonic Registers of Neighborhood Estrangement,” you engage with COVID-19 and its relationship to alienizing rhetoric. Why did the visual and sonic environments of neighborhoods stand out to you as important research sites to study this phenomena? Are there salient differences between COVID-19 and HIV / AIDS that this piece helps us see?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] I’ll say something briefly about that piece which may lead us to think through some of the differences.
Part of where that piece on the visual and sonic registers came from was that I kept reading about instances of people calling the cops on their neighbors for COVID violations. I thought, no big surprise there, of course, because disease becomes this opportunity. But then I wanted to dig in a little bit and see if we had a sense of who was getting the cops called on them and for what reasons. I wanted to consider how these deeper logics of who is allowed to be present in a public space, who is allowed to make noise in public space, what kind of noise is acceptable were drawn upon in such situations. Because that’s, of course, deeply racialized, and it was somewhat predictable how that played out.
There are many differences between COVID and AIDS. One that I’ve been thinking a lot about is the fear of a sexually transmitted disease, which is presumably only afflicting already marginalized folks but that is a threat to everyone potentially. Because HIV/AIDs is less communicable it can really work to stigmatize those people. Once we learned how it spread– and we really did know very early on how HIV was spread even if we didn’t have a name for it — we knew most people aren’t going to be at risk of this thing.
COVID requires us to think differently about our intimacies. It’s not sexually transmitted but it is intimately transmitted. What does intimacy look like now? All of a sudden many of us are for the first time, in the Western world anyway, realizing how much we breathe each other’s breath, how much we share intimacy on the surfaces of counters and tables and door handles. Those are actually very intimate encounters that have life or death consequences.
I think there’s something to be said about this distinction between sexuality and intimacy. It’s something I’m still thinking through, but I think is significant.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Is there anything about your thinking on these issues that has changed over the last year as popular resistance to vaccines and mask mandates dominated public conversation? How do you see the relationship between these alienizing discourses surrounding disease and the contemporary antivaccination discourses and discourses that are skeptical of the disease?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] It is the case that the anti-vax movement is very, very white and, actually, generally very middle class. Austin is kind of ground zero of this movement. You have a lot of people who have moved here because it’s become a hub of this. It’s become a very kind of elite movement.
Even though I think that’s a group of people who have become quite maligned in public discourse — people are really judgmental — there has not been, that I’ve seen, criminalization of these folks. There have been consequences. For example, the guy who can’t get an organ transplant because he refuses the vaccine. That’s a medical consequence. But I haven’t seen criminalization of these folks at all and I think that’s notable and really does speak, again, to who can get away with a lot, how disease becomes an opportunity to alienize, and how it’s not taken up. I think that’s the tell: the way that people might be publicly maligned by liberals but there are no material consequences in terms of criminalization or even meaningful vilification, with the exception of these medical discourses, which I think are a somewhat separate thing.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Much of your work has been focused on the rhetoric of political activism and social movements and you have been involved in a number of socially and politically engaged projects. For example, while you were a professor in Madison, Wisconsin, you worked on a university community collaboration that is the subject of your current collaborative project with M. Adams, After Ferguson: Black, Queer, Feminist Experiments Against Police and Jails. You are also a public scholar and run two podcasts, the Latino Studies podcast Latinxperts and the Women’s Studies podcast Audio QT. Could you speak to how you understand the relationship between your research, your public-facing scholarship, and your activist work? What are the particular rewards and challenges that come with the type of politically engaged work you do or from engaging in activism through, or while working at, a university?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] I think this is increasingly a kind of vexed question. I think there’s a fetishization of a kind of the scholar-activist. There’s a strange privileging of one who does activist work out in the quote unquote “real world,” as if the university is not a real world. I’m on board for that in a lot of ways. But honestly, I’m increasingly a little bit weary of that. There’s a lot of discourse on social media that makes me uncomfortable by so-called scholar activists who, as far as I can tell, use that platform to engage in some fairly problematic ways. So, I have a different relationship to the concept than maybe I would have had five or six years ago.
That’s my caveat. Having that said, for me, I can’t imagine not thinking about the work that I do having some connection to the world outside of the university, too. I think of the university as a workplace and my project within it is to try to make the workplace better, particularly for people of color, queer folks, first-gen students, faculty, and staff. Because universities have so many resources, I just think it’s a disservice to not be connecting what we have to the community that we live in. That’s often been my approach: to be an active community member, to be someone who doesn’t just live a kind of cosmopolitan life, which is often what professors do because we didn’t get to choose the place we live in, it’s often just that we got the job there. I think it’s important to be grounded even if you don’t plan to stay, even if you don’t like it there, those kinds of things. You have so many resources at the university.
Now, that’s if you’re someone like me: very, very privileged, a tenured professor at a major research university. It’s very different for me to be a scholar-activist. I don’t make that as a normative claim that anyone else should have to do it, particularly if you’re someone who is contingent in some way. But if you’re not, if you have a tenured position or a tenure-track position, I absolutely think you need to be speaking out about the things that are important to you and that matter to others.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to students who are interested in rhetoric, social movements, issues of migration and colonialism, or the critical perspectives in queer of color theory and women of color feminism that we have discussed, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Karma Chávez] It’s an interesting time to get a Ph.D. For communication and rhetoric programs, the job market still is not bad. If you’re willing to be mobile, the market is really not that bad. It doesn’t mean you might get your perfect job, but there are still jobs there. But the broader context of the academy is worrisome. It’s a challenging academic labor market. So, I would say to people, if you’re going to go to get a Ph.D. in communication, you should do it for the love of the subject and be very flexible about what your work life might look like after the Ph.D.
There are a lot of academics right now who think it is unethical to recommend anyone get a Ph.D. right now, and I don’t happen to share that point-of-view. I think that if you can get a Ph.D. and not go into a lot of debt — and that’s the kicker there, is to not get into a lot of debt, so if you can get assistantships or fellowships that support you — I think it’s a wonderful choice. You’ll never again have five years where you just get to study, teach a little bit, write the things you want to write, be in a community of really smart people. I think that’s a beautiful thing as long as you’re not going into debt, and you know that there might not be an academic job on the other side.
Thank you, Dr. Karma Chávez, for your insight into your research on racial and sexual marginalization in the context of disease, migration, advocacy, and the justice system!