CROSSING BORDERS: A Vision for the Twenty-First Century

Borders are always fictions. They are sometimes necessary fictions; they provide definitive shape and certainty to the unknown or the uncomfortable. They delineate between high and low culture, valued and not valued, and acceptable and unacceptable. We use borders to define art, music, food, nations, and more, often basing our personal borders on our own passions and pleasures.

More often than not, the borders we accept as natural and unchangeable are more ideological and self-serving than we recognize. When we mark the boundary between ignorance and enlightenment, savagery and civilization, demagoguery and democracy, communism and capitalism, heathen and holy, we are lauding our own achievements and excluding those who don’t measure up. But those borders are more fragile than we often care to admit. Origins are often under debate; ideas and goods and people and nations transgress these borders constantly. Indeed, one thing education provides is the messy complexity of fields of knowledge, the ways that simple concepts and boundaries obscure more complicated, less definitive realities. To continue learning, we must cross those original borders, transgress boundaries, and question certainties.

In times of crisis, we often retreat inside seemingly safe borders and vilify those who live beyond them. Political rhetoric urges that we secure our borders; social media is full of definitive pronouncements about absolute borders: between genders, between races, between nations, between religions, between (and within) political parties, between sinners and believers. That impulse, however understandable, tends to isolate us. We no longer see the many connections that unite us across fixed boundaries, and it can be hard to remember that borders are not natural but arbitrary divisions.

Crossing borders is what Gender Studies has always done. Women’s studies pioneers questioned standard assumptions about scope, methodology, and appropriate boundaries: between theory and practice, public and private, research and advocacy, and the academy versus the “real world.” Gender Studies ranges across the disciplines, moving from theory to practice to theory, and insisting on interdisciplinary inquiry that crosses borders. Some of our foundational theorists have made exploring these borders an ethical imperative. In her 1987 work , Borderlands/ La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua’s uses her own experience growing up on the Texas/Mexico border to theorize the importance of these liminal spaces:


“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravaesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal” (25).

Borderlands/La Frontera made interrogation of arbitrary borders central to gender theory and queer theory, and she presented the “new mestiza” as the antidote to fixed borders:

“The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. . . . She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode—nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. . . . She is willing to share, to make herself vulnerable to foreign ways of seeing and thinking. She surrenders all notions of safety, of the familiar. Deconstruct, construct” (101, 104).

Alzadua’s embrace of ambiguity, vulnerability, tolerance, and plurality continues to define Gender Studies as a theory, a practice, and an aspiration.

This year, our annual theme is “Crossing Borders.” In a historical moment so punctuated by the desire to construct borders (whether they be physical walls or barriers enforced through political discourse and legislation), we want to interrogate borders—their consequences, their origins, and their intersections with gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, nation and region. Most importantly, we want to experience what happens when we cross those borders. Throughout the year, the Isom Center and our campus partners will create multiple border crossings: in our academic disciplines, in the arts, through community engagement, and in our daily lives by taking leaps of faith to propel change. We hope you will join us.

— Jaime Harker

Kevin Cozart