Five questions with Marisol LeBrón: Decolonizing scholarship in feminist studies/critical race and ethnic studies

Author: The Editors

Cover of the book Policing Life and Death by Marisol LeBrón

Marisol LeBrón is an Associate Professor in Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Prior to arriving at UCSC, Dr. LeBrón held appointments at the University of Texas at Austin, Dickinson College, and Duke University. Dr. LeBrón received her PhD in American Studies from New York University and her bachelor’s degree in Comparative American Studies and Latin American Studies from Oberlin College.

An interdisciplinary scholar, Dr. LeBrón’s research and teaching focus on social inequality, policing, violence, and protest. She is the author of Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019) and Against Muerto Rico: Lessons from the Verano Boricua (Editora Educacion Emergente, 2021). Along with Yarimar Bonilla, Dr. LeBron is the co-editor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm (Haymarket Books, 2019).

Dr. LeBrón is the fourth speaker in the ”Decolonizing Scholarship“ lunchtime lecture series hosted by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. This series runs through the 2023 spring and fall semesters and features scholars from multiple academic disciplines. Her lecture will take place on Friday, April 14, 2023 at 12:30 p.m. in 1050 Jenkins Nanovic Halls.

Event Information

In advance of her visit to Notre Dame, the EITW editors asked LeBron to share her thoughts on the importance of decolonizing scholarship and some ways in which scholars can decolonize their thinking, communication, and teaching:

Europe in the World: Why do you think it is important to decolonize scholarship?

Marisol LeBrón: I think before I can respond to why I think it’s important to decolonize scholarship, I first have to explain what decolonizing scholarship means to me. In many ways, the academy is a colonial enterprise. We can think about the ways that universities provided intellectual cover for colonial logics and violence as well as the ways that they materially benefited (and continue to benefit) from colonial dispossession. Settler colonial violence literally paved the way for land grant universities, for example, while many research universities continue to benefit from Department of Defense funding in exchange for creating technologies that will be used to murderous ends. In this way, it can be difficult to disentangle our scholarship from the colonial structures and legacies that animate the contemporary university. So, to me, when we’re talking about decolonizing scholarship, we are talking about stealing from the university in Moten and Harney’s sense. As they contend in “The University and the Undercommons,” a criminal relation is the only ethical relationship with the university as we must steal the resources and legitimacy of the university in service of radical social transformation. We must steal back everything that the university extracts from oppressed communities.

Marisol Lebron 400x

EITW: What methodologies do you employ to do this work? (e.g. archives or sources used, interdisciplinary approaches, etc.)

ML: I’m trained in American Studies, which is an interdisciplinary field, so I use a lot of different methodological approaches in my work including archival research, interviews, cultural analysis, and participant observation. Through all of these different sources, I am always trying to find and highlight voices that challenge the dominant narrative that attempts to facilitate and naturalize unequal power relations rooted in colonial, racial, gendered, and economic exploitation. So, for instance, in my work on policing, I am less interested in what the state has to say about “crime” or what the police have to say about themselves and what they do. Instead, I am interested in how those who are criminalized experience policing because that gives us a more complete and nuanced understanding of what is actually occurring. The police will tell us that a particular community has issues with drugs or violence, but people in that community might tell us about a lack of recreational space for young people which leads them to join gangs, or insecure housing and dwindling employment opportunities.

EITW: When you are addressing different audiences (e.g. students in a classroom, the public, other scholars in your field), what do you have to bear in mind? How do you adapt your approach?

ML: In general, I strive to be really clear and accessible in my writing and when I discuss my research. Given the topic of my research – policing, race, and resistance in Puerto Rico – it is crucial that people are able to grasp what I’m talking about because it has serious consequences for people’s everyday lives. I try to convey the complexities of what it means to live under colonialism and the ways that people fight for alternative futures without obfuscation or romanticization. Ultimately, I hope that the people I write about are able to recognize themselves in my work and that others are moved to action and solidarity.

EITW: How can we incorporate decolonizing materials into our teaching? Are there any strategies you recommend?

ML: I like to use a lot of different materials in the classroom in order to engage students and operationalize some of the complex concepts discussed in the course materials. I like to bring in primary sources so that students can read or hear what folks engaged in social struggle and transformation say about themselves and understand their reality as opposed to only having it filtered through academic writing. I also use social media, zines, and films in the classroom that give students another modality to engage with the work of social movements.

EITW: Can you provide a short list of writers or texts that inspired you to pursue this work?

ML: I think everyone should read Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Robinson, Stuart Hall, Frank Bonilla, and Fernando Pico – always. But I’d also like to share 5 texts that I think help us understand the current struggle for decolonial futures in Puerto Rico:

  1. Ariadna Godreau Aubert, Las propias: apuntes para una pedagogia de las endeudadas (Editora Educacion Emergente, 2018).
  2. Jose Atiles-Osoria, Profanaciones del verano de 2019: corrupcion, frentes communes y justicia decolonial (Editora Educacion Emergente, 2020).
  3. Yomaira Figueroa-Vasquez, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
  4. Hilda Lloraens, Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice (University of Washington Press, 2021).
  5. Rocio Zambrana, Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico (Duke University Press, 2021).