CESA 2018 Plenary Talk by Maile Arvin

Dear Critical Ethnic Studies,

By which I mean


The people gathered here in this room

On the gorgeous, traditional, ancestral territory of the Hul’q’umi’num speaking, Musqueam people

You and your ancestors, you and me, and all the people connected to us through family and friendship, following us on Twitter, watching this video months or years later

And you

As in all the dear folks doing the work with and for us year after year, in big and small ways, in the evenings after the babies are down, or the minutes between classes and office hours and that stupid meeting,  

This is a love letter for you, and myself too.

ʻO Maile Arvin koʻu inoa. My name is Maile Arvin… I am a Kanaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian, feminist. I am an assistant professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. I have been a member of the CESA board going on four years now, and as a member of the conference committee for this conference I am the one who sent you emails, so many emails.

The opening chant I shared with you, E Hō Mai, is a Hawaiian language chant that is a kind of protocol, asking the spiritual and material world to grant us access to knowledge, knowledge from above, and the subtle knowledge hidden in song.

Of all my hopes and dreams for this conference, which I have been helping plan for about two years now, my dearest wish is that this conference has provided you with the space to seek and be granted knowledge that is meaningful to you. I hope that the knowledge you have shared here has held nothing back but has also been nourishing to your soul. I hope you have found time to listen and learn from your own bodies in addition to each others. I hope you have had a conversation here that was real talk and made you feel seen and understood in a way you don’t often get to feel seen and understood.

I helped write the call for proposals for this conference, and I hope you actually had an opportunity to speak to each other about what it means to be in alliance, and how we can do the work of organizing across difference against white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism, homophobia and transphobia, imperialism and so much more in ways that are humane to ourselves as organizers. I hope you are leaving with some ideas about how to be in better relationship with each other, about how we can be together in the academy and in the streets fighting against institutions and policies and systems trying their hardest to break and separate us without depleting ourselves or each other.    

I have been grateful and humbled to have some of these conversations and generate some ideas, and I want to say a few things to you, to us, as this conference nears its end.

I am here, in the academy, and at this conference, because a long time ago, I fell in love. As a child, I fell in love first with stories and libraries, and much later, when I was in college, I fell in love with people who also loved books and ideas. Yes, there were lovers and teachers who I admired for shared intellectual interests, and there was long before college a deep love of my always fiercely intellectual Native Hawaiian community, but the loves I am talking about here are friends who were not necessarily Native Hawaiian. I fell in love with their thinking, with the act of thinking with them. There was Chris who could learn Hangul, the Korean syllabary, in a few hours at a table in the dining hall, and Paul, who did mysterious things with pipettes and fruit flies but also waxed eloquently about queer theory, and there were friends who would talk to me about imperialism in relation to Shakespeare and Darwin but also in relation to their lives and were interested to hear about colonialism in relation to mine.

In retrospect, my love of those friends, I think even more than the love of the work, drew me to graduate school. And in at least in this one respect, graduate school did not disappoint, because I fell in love again, with brilliant friends with whom I organized and wrote and wondered together about the big things that shaped our lives and our communities’ lives: colonialism, war, racism, misogyny, homophobia. I fell in love with Ma Vang’s careful analytical unraveling of the work of secrets, such as in the so-called secret war in Laos, with Angie Morrill’s ability to find humor alongside the recognition of settler colonial violence – her ability to make other Indigenous feminists laugh is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

All this is to say I am here and I do this work because I love you, and I love us. I do the work of Critical Ethnic Studies because of the relationships. I do it because I want everyone to be able to find their people, to have the friendships where the debates and discussions and karaoke sessions change you and change the way you work together for your communities. The writing and teaching and organizing is meaningful too, but when an institution isn’t created for you, when you are not supposed to be here, or be at all, we remain because of the relationships, because of the love, we have fostered or inherited or been gifted.

With these relationships in mind, and from a discussion with Phanuel Antwi and Lee Ann Wang and Ren-yo Hwang and many others, I have one really big thing I want to say to you all, to us, but especially to female and transgender and nonbinary contingent and junior faculty of color:

We have to work less.

We cannot let this work wreck our bodies and our relationships. Or at least not any more than it already has.

There is a lot of advice out there about how to say no, and I’m going to say a bit more about the generosity of refusal in a minute, but I want to see more advice out there to those who are doing the asking. Can we stop asking each other to do so much work?

It’s not that the work is not important, we know. The advocacy, the mentoring, the writing, the teaching, the conference organizing, the protest organizing. But we also know that the work is not evenly shared. We know there is always more work. We know sometimes we are the only ones who can do the work, the only ones who can make a difference, make it happen. We know the consequences of not doing the work.

But dear ones, we have to work less. Sometimes we have to say no in order to continue to have a relationship. Sometimes boundaries are the best and clearest path to staying in good relation, with people, with places, with knowledge. In Hawaiʻi, kapu (often translated into English as taboo or prohibition) recognize precisely this: that there are limits passed down from ancestors that are honored and practiced because it protects not only a sacred place or person from harm, but because it protects ourselves too. 

Dear friends, I want to be with you but we don’t always have to work. And at the same time, I want to be with you but I also know that simply being together takes a lot of work. There is a lot of invisible work that goes into putting on a conference, to maintaining an academic association, to teaching, to writing, to organizing. I am asking you, and I am asking us, how do we create different ways of being together that are not work, or at least do not require that the burden of the work fall on some bodies more than others? How do we make visible the labor that sustains us? How do we keep the jobs that buy us food and drinks and stylish shoes without making that work, the work of the institution, structure entirely the relationships we have with each other?

This is a love letter, not a break-up letter, and I hope it’s not heard as merely a letter of complaint about the work of sending you emails and writing your nametags, because again, I do this work because I love you, not because I am trapped or tricked, but because I want to be in relationship with you. I am asking yes, how might we redistribute the labor of this association and this field, but also, how might we do less and have more fun and still fall in love with each other’s thinking and each other’s unique ways of being in the world? 

In the midst of the last two years of conference organizing, I have been finishing a book that is in part about what I call regenerative refusals, which I understand as an Indigenous feminist analytic. Regenerative refusals are actions that seek to restore balance and life to Indigenous communities that continue to live with structures of settler colonialism. Thinking with the theories of other Indigenous feminist scholars including Leanne Simpson and Audra Simpson, regenerative refusals are, in my framing, concerned with divesting our communities from racialized and gendered hierarchies. Indigenous feminisms seek to draw attention to how settler colonialism is fundamentally a gendered process that relies on the instillation of heteropatriarchy to destroy colonized communities’ connections to their bodies, to each other and to the land. Regenerative refusals seek to restore these connections, often through the clear rejection of ongoing colonial ideologies both imposed upon and sometimes deeply internalized within Indigenous communities. Regenerative refusals in my usage are not about return to exactly what things were like before; it is an ongoing reckoning with settler colonialism, rather than a denial of it.

Indigenous refusals create forms of regeneration that operate, as Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada writes, on a different time scale than settler time—on “geological and genealogical time” that “spans generations and eras and epochs.” I see these scales in Native Hawaiians refusals such as the kiaʻi or protectors who put their bodies between construction equipment and the summit of Mauna Kea, our sacred mountain, to the many expressions of no or aʻole to 2014 hearings on federal recognition. There are many, including some Native Hawaiians, who dismiss such refusals as hopeless and naïve, while advocating moderate steps and acceding to settler forms of recognition, argue that we must grasp what is realizable now, within our lifetimes. But pursuing the expedient measures of the state or Western science too often interrupts the deeper, more significant forms of regeneration that require constant nurturing and care.  

I don’t really know how to end this letter. Maybe with a last lesson from Hawaiian epistemology. In a Hawaiian origin story, the Kumulipo, we are taught that humans are the younger siblings of Hāloa or kalo (taro), who became the staple food for Native Hawaiians. This story is a lesson in  remembering a different time scale and the long-term kuleana, or responsibility and privilege, we have to care for the land. The Hāloa story also reminds Kānaka Maoli that we have many of the solutions to our own problems within our stories and our communities, as it also reminds us of the importance of sustainable and healthy food, noting that the revival of kalo farming and eating poi as a staple could help stem diabetes.

We can and must do less work because we have a long-term kuleana to each other and ourselves. We have to live, for the ancestors who made our lives possible when they were told we were only destined to be extinct. We have a responsibility and privilege to think together in ways that sustain joy and love and connection – for ourselves, for our friendships, for the future generations we know we already love and work for. But those future generations will not be here if we work ourselves to death.

I want to share some final words from Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada:

Standing on our mountain of connections, our foundation of history and stories and love, we can see both where the path behind us has come from and where the path ahead leads. This connection assures us that when we move forward, we can never be lost because we always know how to get back home. The future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years.[i]


Thank you for coming, thank you for your thinking and your friendship, and thank you for starting from right now to do less work.

[i] Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, “We Live in the Future. Come Join Us.” Ke Kapu He Hiale (blog). April 3, 2015. https://hehiale.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/we-live-in-the-future-come-join-us/


Maile Arvin is currently an assistant professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. She is Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), and her research focuses on historical and contemporary issues of race, indigeneity and science particularly in relation to Kānaka Maoli, the Western idea of the Polynesian race as almost white, and the broader Indigenous Pacific. (Kalo, photo by David Eickhoff)

Kalo, photo by David Eickhoff