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January 27, 1997

Psychology professor Aida Hurtado eager to contribute to public debate

By Jennifer McNulty

For psychology professor Aida Hurtado, Proposition 209 was a wake-up call. Voters approved the statewide ballot measure to eliminate affirmative action programs in government and education in part, she believes, because they were operating in an information vacuum, and she takes some responsibility for that.

[photo of aida hurtado]"As academics, we failed to join the public discourse, and we failed to dispel the fears people have about abuses of some affirmative action policies," says Hurtado, a social psychologist who specializes in issues of race, gender, and class.

"Academics debate amongst themselves, and they limit their influence to their students and to people who read their writing. We really thrive on isolation and pride ourselves on being above the fray," says Hurtado. "But then we're appalled when the public does something that flies in the face of all of our data."

As a researcher at a public university, Hurtado feels she--and her University of California colleagues--owe the state's taxpayers more than what they contribute in the classroom and laboratory: "We've been shying away from public debate, but what is a democracy if we don't contribute our ideas?" asks Hurtado, who is also research director for UC's systemwide Latino Eligibility Study.

With a propensity for speaking her mind--and a renewed commitment to public debate--Hurtado has authored a new book that tackles the persistent and thorny problems of gender and racial allegiance within the women's movement and progressive politics.

[photo of book cover]The book, titled The Color of Privilege: Three Blasphemies on Race and Feminism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), makes a powerful contribution to feminist scholarship by taking on sensitive subjects that have been considered "untouchable"--hence, the use of the word "blasphemies" in the title.

In her first "blasphemy," Hurtado addresses the question of why women of color have not joined the white-dominated women's movement. The answer lies in Hurtado's theory of "relational privilege," which describes the importance of the relatively close proximity that white women have to white patriarchy.

Hurtado also explores the cultural identification that Chicana women experience in their communities and suggests that their feminist identification has been inhibited by a women's movement that expects them to sever those ties and swear allegiance to the movement.

In her third blasphemy, Hurtado critiques 1960s progressive movements for their lack of sensitivity to gender issues. "Nothing is sacred--not even the civil rights movement," Hurtado says with a laugh, but her analysis ends on a positive note by calling for a "politics of inclusion" rather than exclusion.

"As a society, we have to create structures that lead to positive behaviors, and we have to create people who are strong enough that they'll have the guts to speak up in situations where they don't want to comply," she says. "We have to get rid of hate without hating anybody."

Hurtado says her ideas have been well-received--even by the subjects of her criticism--in part because they are offered within the context of celebration and appreciation.

"When Betty Friedan wrote her book The Feminine Mystique, it was called 'the problem that has no name' because no one could understand why highly educated white women with big homes, healthy children, and husbands who supported them were unhappy," explains Hurtado. "Thirty years later, there are women's studies departments at every Ivy League university. It's been an extraordinary, peaceful revolution."

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