5 Questions with Robin M. Boylorn
Robin M. Boylorn is an Associate Professor of Interpersonal and Intercultural Communication in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama. As an autoethnographer, she researches herself, her culture, and her identity as a black woman raised in the South, and her research centers lived experience, intersectionality, social identities, and cultural criticism. Dr. Boylorn is also a member of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a scholar activist group, and a commentator for Alabama Public Radio.
1. You coined the terms “ratchet respectability" and "blackgirl” (one word/no space). What do those terms mean and how do they relate to the lived experiences of black women?
“Ratchet respectability” refers to the unapologetic and oxymoronic ownership black women demonstrate as it relates to their presumed performance of race, sex, and class. I initially used this term as a way of deconstructing representations of black women on reality television to consider the simultaneous racialized and class performances of black womanhood. Specifically, I discussed women on The Real Housewives of Atlanta who are read as “ratchet” (low class), because they are black women, but are expected to be “respectable” (high class), because of their income. Ratchet respectability acknowledges and celebrates the ways black women can be both ratchet and respectable at the same time.
“Blackgirl” (one word/no space) is a term I use to explain the indistinguishability of race and sex for black women. I argue that “black” and “girl” are perceived and experienced jointly, and therefore there is no “space” between the two. I have used blackgirl (one word) for more than 10 years to demonstrate on the page the way the experience is felt in real life. I theorize the term, and blackgirl autoethnography, more explicitly in an upcoming book.
2. You’ve used the term “blackgirl autoethnography” to describe your work. How does blackgirl autoethnography differ from other authoethnographic research methods?
Consistent with my description and definition of “blackgirl” in the first question, blackgirl autoethnography is specific to black women and uses an autoethnographic method to interrogate both the beautiful and problematic themes of lived experience that are unique to black women. These experiences can be best understood through lenses of black feminism and intersectionality. Blackgirl autoethnography centers black women’s experience and critiques the misogynoir black women experience as a result of their race and sex.
3. Your autoethnographic book, Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience, describes the experience of multiple generations of black women in the South. Could you tell us about some of the experiences that you write about in that book?
Sweetwater is both ethnographic and autoethnographic. The story relies on the narratives of black women who lived and/or grew up in a common small rural community in North Carolina, and my narrative responses to those stories. Sweetwater surveys the range of human experience and emotion and references often taboo topics including intimate partner violence, alcoholism, father absence, and mental illness, while also documenting family, friendship, redemption, and resilience.
In a revised edition of the book, I consider the importance of revisiting and revising stories by including and engaging reviews of the book, and by making subtle changes in response to reader feedback.
4. What is the Crunk Feminist Collective and what are some of the Collective’s goals?
The Crunk Feminist Collective is a hip-hop generation scholar activist group comprised of feminists of color whose identity is informed by our complicated, undeniable, and inextricable relationship to both hip hop (culture) and black feminism. We are celebrating 10 years in 2020, and our mission is first to one another, and then to our community, to express and complicate our feminist identities and resist patriarchy, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. As crunk feminists, we are entirely concerned with and committed to issues of social justice and activism. We have collectively, and individually, promoted and disseminated crunk feminism in the public sphere through awareness building, advocacy, public intellectualism, education, and the dissemination of information. We work toward our collective goals within and without the academy as mothers, partners, caregivers, organizers, strategists, teachers, administrators, etc.
We have one published book based on blog content from 2010 to 2015 called The Crunk Feminist Collection, and a forthcoming young adult book by three crunk feminists about feminism aimed at a younger audience.
5. An important part of your work as a scholar/activist is your commitment to social justice. How does this commitment drive what you do?
I want to leave the world better than I found it. I want people to live full lives free of judgment, discrimination, and poverty. I consider it my responsibility to use any platform or opportunity I have to encourage equity and empathy for vulnerable populations, and to encourage the difficult, but necessary conversations to facilitate it.
Social justice drives me to challenge and call out injustice whenever I see it, and to commit my work in the public and private sphere to emphasizing and amplifying the experiences of marginalized communities. While I have a particular commitment to black women and girls, I am committed to social justice for all. It means we have to find ways to be engaged in issues that may not impact us personally, but should affect us personally. Our freedom depends on it.