Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Conversations with Patricia Leavy Part 3: Social Justice

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty-four books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, a rare feat by any author. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill-Sense, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for The Creativity Post and previously The Huffington Post.

Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” It was recently announced that Patricia is the recipient of the National Art Education Association 2018 Distinguished Service Outside the Profession Award. Established in 1965, previous recipients include Nelson Rockefeller, Jacqueline Kennedy, and a who’s who of vice presidents, governors, senators, and CEOs. Patricia has made history as the first sociologist and first full-time author to receive the honor. Patricia received this award for her internationally recognized work advancing and popularizing arts-based research in both the academy and public. Letters of support called her “a visionary” and “pioneer” and credited her with inspiring countless careers. Patricia is a long-time support of Mental Fitness, Inc, and we interviewed her upon news of her NAEA award. To continue to the celebration, Patricia has agreed to allow us to explore her work in-depth. This is the final part in a series of three conversations, each focusing on a different aspect of her body of work. Each conversation includes excerpts from her published work. And attention authors/researchers, this one includes a call for book proposals!

When did you first become aware of social injustice?

Oh, well, I’ve been aware on some level for as long as I can remember really. I was just a little kid when I became painfully aware of sexism and racism. Inequality against the LGBTQA community maybe took a little longer, but not much, I was a still a kid. I say painful, because it was. It always has been. Thinking back to some specifics, I noticed at a very young age that girls were treated differently than boys, and that boys could treat girls badly with what seemed like little or no recourse. I mean, I saw and experienced that all the way back in nursery school when I was horribly bullied by boys, as many girls were, or when I wasn’t given the same opportunities as my male counterparts. I was aware of racial and ethnic inequality from a very young age as well. There were times I found myself in White-only environments, like private country clubs. Even at just five or six all I could see were those who were and weren’t there. And I knew they had been excluded and by whom. I knew there were no accidents. It was obvious to me. I used to get in a lot of trouble as a little kid because I would speak up and ask things like, “Where are all the Black people?” I was labeled difficult from a young age. But I saw myself as a truth-teller and I had a sense that truth was a powerful weapon. It became more challenging as I grew older because I began to understand that I was not immune from the effects of a racist culture, no one is, even if we are appalled by it. I learned that because I live in a racist society, with stereotypes and racialized norms and values permeating the cultural space like the air we breathe, shaping what we take for granted in ways we may not recognize, I would need to forever interrogate my own beliefs and attitudes. As a child it was about pointing the finger outward, but now that’s only a part of it, the harder part that we all must do is looking inward.

You’re a long-time supporter of sexual assault survivors and an outspoken advocate for social justice for women, people of color, and the LGBTQA community. Where does your commitment to these issues come from?

It’s so difficult to answer because I think we should all be committed to social justice. I’m amazed that everyone doesn’t actively oppose inequality. It’s something I can’t get my head around. I guess my commitment comes from the fundamental beliefs that every human being deserves their full dignity and humanity and no one is free, unless we are all free. People often talk about what they would have done if they lived in a certain time and place, such as Europe during the Holocaust or the United States during Civil Rights. What we sometimes forget is that each day of our lives is an opportunity to be who we would be. Each day of our lives. There is no historical timeframe immune from the need for people to stand up for each other, fight discrimination, and protest genocide as if it was happening to a group to which they belong. You see the thing is, for example, it’s not about being Jewish and fighting anti-Semitism. It’s about recognizing that each form of hate and discrimination, each form of bias, is no different than that which could be leveled against you, past, present, or future. So it’s about being Jewish and fighting anti-Muslim prejudice.

How do you see your commitment to social justice as connected to your work as an author and editor?

It permeates my writing, from the topics I tackle to the kinds of examples I use to the characters I create. We are who we are and it always comes through in our scholarly and creative output. It’s probably most explicit though in the book series I’ve created and the kinds of projects I’ve signed to those series. It’s important to me to extend my work beyond my own output and create platforms for others, especially voices that ought to be heard but are often dismissed or silenced.

Creating spaces for others is a hallmark of your career. Let’s talk about your social justice book series, for which you’re creator and editor. The first justice-based series you created is called Teaching Gender. Why did you choose to start with the topic of gender?

I’ve been committed to feminism my entire life. As a woman, I’ve always had to deal with sexism and gender inequality. My research and writing is centered on women’s lives, placed within the larger contexts in which they live out those lives. Back when I was a professor I founded a gender and sexualities program at the Catholic college I was teaching at. That’s a story in itself as you can imagine. So when it came to developing the justice series, gender was a natural place for me to start. But that doesn’t mean the books focus exclusively on gender. It’s merely a starting point.

Gender has become a hot topic in the social and political sphere. What are some of your thoughts?

There are multiple things we could talk about. For starters, there seems to be more visibility for people who challenge our outdated, limited, binary view of gender. We’ve seen this in the public discourse around transgender and gender fluid identities, for example. I’m heartened when I see some schools coming out with statements letting students and staff know whatever pronouns they prefer will be honored. I work in the publishing world and I see it there too, in various ways, for example the kinds of books being signed and published and more copy editors conscious of reinforcing gender binaries. However, many of these positive signs are responses to the horrific policies and practices of our current “leadership.” From transphobic bathroom bills to targeting words used by the CDC, it’s a bleak time and all those who defy the gender binary are under attack, and to me, that means we are all under attack. We live in a culture where hate is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. So we must all stand with those being targeted as if we were defending ourselves or our children. This is just one way gender has been at the forefront of the social landscape recently. There’s also the resurgence of the #MeToo Movement and newer Time’s Up initiative. Both are showing how pervasive sexual harassment, assault, and pay inequity are. It’s interesting because these have been issues buried under the carpet for decades and now, in a time when our so-called “leadership” waves the banner of misogyny, many people have had enough. We were pushed too far and have been for far too long. I’m glad that topics that have been impacting people’s lives for many years are getting more mainstream attention now, but time will tell what the long-term impact will be. As an author, all of this has been the backdrop for a book I coauthored with Dr. Anne Harris, called Contemporary Feminist Research from Theory to Practice. It’s in production now and only available for preorder, but as we’ve been writing it the world has been changing. It’s been interesting to try and keep up with it because on the one hand these core issues have been around for decades and even centuries, but at the same time, there have been shifts.

Please describe the Teaching Gender series.

The Teaching Gender series publishes edited volumes and monographs that deal centrally with gender and are intended to be used in college classes although many can be read by anyone with an interest in the topic. We’ve published books on all kinds of topics including popular culture, sports, the vampire narrative, schools, feminist teaching, sexting, and gender in Latin American, Latino, and Iberian cultures.

You’ve published op-eds and blogs on many topics. Over the past few years you’ve co-authored several that deal with racism and sexism. For example, one is a conversation you co-authored with Dr. Donna Y. Ford about Trayvon Martin, another, also co-authored, focuses on race in Hollywood, another you authored about rape culture. These are challenging topics. Why take them on?

We need to use our voices. Any platform I’ve created is useless unless it can be put in service of social justice. I believe whole heartedly in public scholarship. I’m not interested in writing things that only circulate within a small, elite academic circle. I want to be a part of meaningful, public dialogues. One of the best parts of the digital age is the ability to be a part of these conversations. Blogs and other media are vital to the essence of the work I do. Now if you’re asking specifically about the subjects you mentioned, yes, they are challenging. Each piece has developed organically in response to world events as they unfold. For example, Dr. Ford and I had been Facebook friends for a while. We had never met in person but have mutual colleagues. Like many, I was enraged by the killing of Trayvon Martin and what it revealed about our system of un-justice. Dr. Ford’s Facebook posts at the time were powerful and moved me deeply. As a White woman, while I was horrified, there’s a difference between being horrified and being afraid for your own child or grandchild. As a Black mother to a son and grandmother to a grandson, Dr. Ford was responding from the belly of the beast. I was so moved by her impassioned posts that I emailed her and asked if she’d consider writing something together, as two mothers, across races. She graciously agreed. Honestly, it was profound experience working on the piece with her, very emotional. I hope the piece put something useful in the world for readers to consider, especially White readers. For me personally, it reaffirmed my belief that things can get better. So it’s been natural for Dr. Ford and I to come together from time to time to address what we feel are pressing issues about race and racism.

Please describe the Teaching Race and Ethnicity series.

It’s a counterpart to the Teaching Gender series and publishes edited volumes and monographs that deal centrally with race and/or ethnicity. They’re also intended to be used in college classes but can be read by anyone with an interest in the topic. We’ve published books on topics including Trayvon Martin, Israel/Palestine, race in higher education, personal cultural heritage and identity, and more.

We asked you to pick an excerpt from one of the series books to share. Please set it up.

I chose the opening of U. Melissa Anyiwo’s “Introduction” to Race in the Vampire Narrative for two reasons. First, everyone has been exposed to the vampire narrative in pop culture to some extent whether through books or films or television. I imagine many do not even consider issues of race when enjoying these bits of pop culture, and yet, there are powerful stories of race being communicated. Second, the author begins the chapter speaking from her personal experience, and to me, that’s always inviting and powerful.

When I was ten years old, the librarian at my primary school solemnly handed me the book that would quietly change my life with a smile and a whispered “now don’t read this one before you go to bed.” That book was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it was a book that led me on a strange journey through identity, race, and marginalization. Of course at the time, what stood out was that I immediately unknowingly identified with the monsters in the book, Dracula himself and Lucy Westenra, those two dark creatures, both damned by their birth and both demonized for discovering an imperfect way to exist in a world that saw them as nothing more than innately evil creatures. This was the early 1980s, and I was the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, in a period in which being black, and worse still African, was a particularly dangerous signpost to carry around. I was one of three black children in my primary school, two after my brother abandoned me by graduating, and was always reminded of my difference and inferiority in endlessly passive and not so passive ways. It was through books like the Lord of the Rings, the Talking Parcel, and Dracula that I discovered characters equally made prey by qualities deemed innate by the wider overwhelming world that comforted themselves by making them, me, the bad guys.

(Anyiwo, U. M (2015). Introduction in Anyiwo, U. M. (Ed.) Race in the Vampire Narrative Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill-Sense, p. 1, reprinted with permission from Brill-Sense)

Your latest book series is titled Personal/Public Scholarship. What’s the mission of the series?

The Personal/Public Scholarship series has two guiding values. First, we prioritize public scholarship, meaning scholarship that is accessible to both academic and popular audiences. Second, we’re interested in the interconnections between the personal and public in all areas of social, economic, and political life. Toward these ends we publish both edited volumes and monographs across disciplines and on a wide range of topics.

You’ve published a book of your own in this series. We spoke about your latest book, Privilege Through the Looking-Glass, when it was first released. Since that time it’s become a bestseller for your publisher. Congratulations!

Thank you. The contributors’ writing is important and I’m thrilled readers are discovering it.

What’s Privilege Through the Looking-Glass about?

It’s an edited book. It’s a collection of original essays grounded in personal experiences that explore privilege, oppression, power, and status characteristics in daily life. Our environments become taken-for-granted and difficult to perceive when we’re immersed in them. This book seeks to make visible our environments and subsequent effects on individuals. The book teases out connections between the personal and the public. The authors apply an intersectional approach, looking at how status characteristics intersect or overlap to create avenues of privilege and oppression. Identities are not one dimensional. We at once embody bodies marked with race, gender, sexuality, and ableness. The contributors did an amazing job. I think each essay is powerful and taken together they are even greater than the sum of their parts.

We spoke about the issue of timeliness when the book was first released, but for people who didn’t see that interview, let’s talk about it again. Given what is happening right now in the US and abroad, the book is urgently needed. The fact that it became a bestseller so quickly seems to indicate that. What do you think about releasing this book at this time?

We had been working on this book for a couple of years. The truth is that privilege has always been a topic in need of discussion in this country. With that said, for anyone interested in equality and social justice, this past year has been brutal. There’s no question the book came out at a time when it felt profoundly relevant. In this political landscape we need to share our stories as an act of resistance and so that the historical record cannot omit stories that don’t mesh with the party line. That’s what the contributors have done. From travel bans that discriminate on the basis of religion to bathroom bills that discriminate on the basis of gender identity, these are dark times. It’s not about one party versus another, it’s about human rights, dignity, and equality. People always say that if they lived during the Holocaust or during Civil Rights they would have done X. Well, now is the time. Now everyone is showing us what they would have done by what they are doing now. You’re either on the side of justice or injustice. It’s simple. It really is. If you suggest Nazis marching is okay because they have permits, you’re on the wrong side of history. They are terrorizing people. Let me say it again. They are terrorizing people. The September 11th hijackers had plane tickets. Terrorists who ram their cars into crowds have driver’s licenses. So if you find yourself using these “excuses” to support the American Nazi party, regardless of what name they dress themselves up with, I beg you to critically examine your own position and how it may be harming others. I’ve said this before, but in many ways this book is for those who are not on the margins, those for whom life has not truly changed in this past year. For people who have long been facing discrimination and prejudice, what’s happening now is a new permutation. It’s those who didn’t realize how much hate and discrimination is embedded in our society that I desperately hope to reach. This book is a tough read at times, but it’s also hopeful. We need hope. We need a path forward and the authors have offered one. I think this book meets the moment.

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share. Please set it up.

This is the opening of Robin M. Boylorn’s chapter titled “Unpacking (Un)privilege or Flesh Tones: Red Bones, and Sepia Shades of Brown.” I placed this as the first contributor chapter in the book, after my introduction, because I think it beautifully explains and illustrates the concept of privilege and why it is so difficult to grapple with.

In Peggy McIntosh’s seminal essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she reckons with the revelation that as a white person she enjoys race privileges to which she, and most other white people, are oblivious. Her lack of awareness of her own privilege exposes the limitations of our personal politics and reinforces the importance of understanding the nuances of identity and privilege. For example, white people will always benefit from white privilege in a white supremacist, capitalist culture. Men will always receive unearned advantages in a patriarchal system designed for their success. Heterosexual people will always be privileged in a heteronormative and trans, bi and homophobic society that is hierarchically designed to render nonheterosexuality invisible and/or abnormal. Able-bodied people will continue to be recognized to the exclusion of others in a system that is both ableist and ageist. By definition, social and cultural privileges are invisible and institutional. We are not socialized to be cognizant of our privileges. Flatout denial and defiant resistance are the frequent responses of privileged folk when called out about their inherited and unfair advantages. Many times, we exhibit willful ignorance about our personal invisible knapsacks of privilege, while being hyper-aware of the ways other people fail to acknowledge and account for their own. When highlighted, privilege is the hot potato nobody wants to be caught holding in their hand.

(Boylorn, R. M. (2017). Unpacking (Un)privilege or Flesh Tones: Red Bones, and Sepia Shades of Brown in Leavy, P. (Ed). Privilege Through the Looking-Glass, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill-Sense, p. 7, reprinted with permission from Brill-Sense)

At the beginning of our talk you said that as a kid you got in trouble for speaking out about inequality. What about now?

If you’re asking if there’s a price to pay, of course there is, for anyone who speaks truth to power. There always is. Sometimes it’s heated exchanges on social media that drain your energy or hate mail which is quite disturbing. Then there are the more serious professional repercussions, like being labeled difficult, something justice workers constantly face, particularly women of color. Or having your work targeted and critiqued, losing sales, and so forth. But the rewards for speaking up for what is right far outweigh the costs. At the end of my life, I want to know I did my best to leave this world better for my daughter. I want to know what kind of neighbor I would have been in the darkest times. And I want to have a body of work I’m proud of. I don’t think I’ll even remember the price.


What’s next for you with this social justice scholarship? 

I’d like to continue to grow the book series we talked about. Sense Publishers with whom I originally worked on these series has become an imprint of Brill so it’s an exciting time to work on the series under the new Brill-Sense umbrella. I hope to continue to support worthy projects as they present themselves. The series also create an opportunity to speak to the moment and give scholars engaged in resistance a venue for their work. For example, I recently created a call for book proposals specifically around the CDC “banned” words. I’d love to see the market flooded with books on topics related to those words. And yes, I know the words aren’t actually banned. The point is they are being targeted. I’m committed to using the platforms I’ve built to resist. In terms of my own writing, these days I’m mostly working on fiction but I do have a couple of edited volumes in these series and there are plans for new editions down the line.


Learn More about Patricia Leavy:


Call for Book Proposals:

Teaching Gender, Teaching Race and Ethnicity, and Personal/Public Scholarship Series (Brill-Sense, series editor Dr. Patricia Leavy): Authors are expected to have a PhD or its equivalent. To submit, email the proposal form (download at (please include a thorough review of the competing titles and a proposed table of contents) and your CV to Mx. Shalen Lowell (assistant to Dr. Leavy) at Submissions considered on a rolling basis. Simultaneous submissions are allowed.


Links to Selected Book Series and Books:

Privilege Through the Looking-Glass on Amazon:

Teaching Gender series:

Teaching Race and Ethnicity series:

Personal/Public Scholarship series:

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