Theory, to many on our campus, is just jargon for the grievously politically correct, dismissed as too dense to be truly relevant and relegated to fodder for bad jokes about buzzwords (as was explored before by Ariel Estrella).
Despite the crotchety reputation, it cannot be repeated enough that theory, although sometimes unapproachable, has the power to give name to experiences that might otherwise be invisible. But I’ll argue that theory can do more than provide comfort to those who seek it out.
For me, theory is indispensable in my pursuit of Macalester’s much-lauded goal of global citizenship (I’ll leave the deeper implications of that term alone), at least so far after a month of studying abroad. That is to say: Theory, which I learned in WGSS classes, is applicable in the “real world” in every hour of every day, a far cry from the common misconception that it is only applicable to radical lesbian separatism.
For context, I am living in Santiago de los Caballeros, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic. My program consists of eight women (seven of whom are white or white-passing) and one man (studly, passes for Dominican and spends a good chunk of his time being all of our fake boyfriends).
Like all of my female friends (and sometimes the guy too), I am catcalled indiscriminately wherever I go. Even though I know it’s cultural and I shouldn’t hate it, I hate it.
But the theory I’ve learned at Macalester has given me the analytical tools and vocabulary to process my lived experience in a more responsible, reflexive way rather than simply getting frustrated.
Theory forces me to remember that I’m not some hapless gringa victim. Although my experiences are personal, their roots are structural, stemming from systems of race, class, gender, ability, colonialism, nationalism and more. Through theory I can understand that I’m not just being catcalled—I’m the momentary target of an entrenched valuing of whiteness, men proving themselves worthy through their heterosexual prowess, a very fluid border between the DR and the States, and various other things that are way bigger than me and my discomfort.
These systems are everywhere. An apt example: my friends and I spent last weekend on a trip to a rural community, whose members enthusiastically welcomed us into their social life. The town was small, so we met most of the youngish men over the course of a day. When we met the guys Saturday night at their makeshift discoteca, it quickly became clear that the eight of us comprised the full female constituency.
Limited time only: eight women, American, majority white, perceived as wealthy, able-bodied and living in the big city. Eight of us, probably 30 men, and merengue and bachata music on a loop. What ensued, and the spectrum of how we were treated—ranging from seemingly absurd admiration to (what I’d call) disrespect to (what I’d call) sexual assault—was a perfect example of intersectionality.
I don’t mean to cheapen the experiences of my friends, some of whom emerged from the weekend deeply shaken, for my argument. (We’re taking steps to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again.) But as a group, we were able to discuss what happened in a deeper, more reflective way because we recognized the intersectionality at play, the complicated and overlapping ways we were benefiting from privilege (class, nationality, gender, ability) while also being put at risk (also nationality, also gender, also ability).
It’s equally worth mentioning that theory (here I can cite Trinh Minh-Ha) taught me to be aware that, when I voice my frustrations, I often instinctively reach for language that appropriates experiences that aren’t mine; namely those of people of color, and specifically women of color, in America. For example, at the discoteca I initially wanted to say that I felt “dehumanized.”
Really, though, that’s not how I felt and that wasn’t my experience; an American woman of color might actually be over-sexualized to the point that she is treated as less than human, whereas I simply felt that my womanliness (and assumed submissiveness) were the central concern. I’ve learned to be wary of dangerous analogies, an idea that’s continually relevant for me as I grapple with the clashing of cultural immersion against my deep-seated beliefs.
I don’t mean to paint myself as any degree of theory expert (I’m a WGSS minor and enthusiast, but that doesn’t exactly qualify), and also I’ve only been in the Dominican Republic for a month, so I’ve got a lot left to see and learn.
But perhaps these concessions only strengthen the point: that the little theory I’ve picked up from Macalester classes has proven immeasurably valuable in my limited time abroad. Although I’m sure I’ve thought and done my share of problematic things, I feel ready and able to deal with what’s facing me here. To me, that says that theory doesn’t just belong in the ivory tower or in the circles of interdisciplinary studies. Theory is how I understand my own life and my own adventures better.
Fun times and deep revelations aside, my main advice from the past month (this is worse than The Onion’s 27-year-old giving sage counsel to the 24-year-old) is for first years and sophomores to take a theory class. Find one that interests you, or even one you can’t fully grasp the title of, like I first did. Unlike a lot of academics, the lessons stay with you and support you well after the class has ended.