Editor’s note: Title IX — the landmark legislation that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding — was signed into law on June 23, 1972. In recognition of this anniversary, we’ll be profiling Trojan Title IX trailblazers throughout the academic year.
Velina Hasu Houston learned at an early age that she needed to carve out a place for herself in a male-dominated world.
Houston, USC resident playwright and Distinguished Professor of Theatre in Dramatic Writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, grew up in the predominantly white community of Junction City, Kan. She stood out from her peers simply by being a young girl from an immigrant family of mixed-raced ancestry that includes Japanese, African American, Native American, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean roots.
“Even as a little girl when I was attending elementary school, I was well aware of differences in terms of how males and females were treated,” said Houston, who cited one example of the reaction she witnessed when she won a county spelling bee in sixth grade. “My success generated a lot of discussion, not just because I was a female, but also because I was a person of color and the child of an immigrant. I was retested on the spelling of the winning word and the audio recording of my win was replayed for several white male evaluators.
“When I went to the state spelling bee, the skepticism about an immigrant-kindred female being able to win a county spelling bee was even more pronounced,” she said. “Indeed, there were many more young men in the room than there were young women, and the presence of females was disconcerting to many. Sometimes I felt that I was expected to prove myself just a little bit more than my white male counterparts.”
The attitudes did not hinder Houston. Instead, they motivated her. She went on to be a gender equity and racial equity trailblazer in her work at USC and beyond. Houston’s work is internationally acclaimed, with over 30 playwriting commissions and other outputs in musical theater, film, television, essays, poetry, journalism and blogging. The former Fulbright Scholar also teaches story-building at the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, and is an associated faculty member of USC’s Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, affiliated faculty with East Asian Studies and American Studies and Ethnicity, and a member of the USC Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association.
The courses that Houston teaches organically embrace inclusiveness. While she integrates elements of Eurocentric, patriarchal culture into her curriculum, she firmly believes it is vital for students to be educated in the perspectives of nonwhite, nonpatriarchal cultures as well in order to function meaningfully in society, including as a global citizen. Beyond her curricula, she creates artistic panels and invites guest artists to engage with her students. With intentionality, she includes guest artists who are ethnically diverse, gender-inclusive or from other marginalized groups.
Title IX trailblazer ensures a level playing field
In addition, vis-a-vis her artistry and academic endeavors, she is committed to ensuring a level playing field for students who are historically at a disadvantage and marginalized by the mainstream.
“I feel that if we don’t actively bring in our perspectives in terms of gender bias and other types of biases then students affected by such attitudes are left to climb uphill and without any water,” Houston said. Marginalizing bias is in the DNA of heterosexual, Eurocentric patriarchy and its institutions, Houston noted: “With regard to openness and fairness, we must be active and intentional about how we teach, create and indeed live our lives to make sure that students feel comfortable in the room and to ensure equal access to all.”
I believe students appreciate hearing perspectives that are filtered through varied backgrounds and not just one.
Velina Hasu Houston
Her students have noticed and appreciated the efforts as well, Houston said. “The richest feedback for me is what my students will say to me once they’re exposed to that kind of thinking,” she said. “When it comes to literary creation, I believe students appreciate hearing perspectives that are filtered through varied backgrounds and not just one.
“They feel that it’s beneficial for them to be able to hear a woman or a person of color speak about their involvement in writing. It gives them a path forward for their own work and an understanding that, as a female or as a person of color, they too can achieve success.”
Title IX trailblazer: Motivated by the groundbreaking legislation
Houston said that Title IX has been an important personal motivator, creating a means for her to take her rightful place at the table for whatever situation she may encounter — the classroom, the faculty meeting, the campus — even when she faces microaggressions that often show up as inquisitive looks about why she is in the room.
“In Tokyo while choosing where to have dinner with a friend, he teasingly suggested a sushi bar that only had male patrons,” Houston recalled. “I asked him why and he said it simply had always been that way. Immediately, I decided on that place.” Clearly, the male patrons were surprised to see a woman present, she pointed out, noting that history has erected barriers for too many people. There is an invisible sign that says no women or BIPOC people allowed, she remarked. “And so I go in.”
She’s also becoming more aware of the issue of age bias as she gets older. Much like her feelings about gender bias and biases against people of color and immigrants, Houston is not deterred by ageism, but, rather, she is motivated to continue her work with vigor and not waste her energy on any form of hate-based biases.
The marriage of gender, race, immigrant and age bias is potent, but a circus to which I don’t buy a ticket.
Velina Hasu Houston
“The marriage of gender, race, immigrant and age bias is potent, but a circus to which I don’t buy a ticket,” she said. “My focus is my work. Artistic projects and academic experiences have not slowed down, and I approach them with innate energy and dynamism.”
She expressed feeling bolstered by USC’s recognition of Title IX’s 50th anniversary because it highlights the ongoing importance of advancing gender equity. “Diligence and intentionality are required,” she said. “I think Title IX has changed USC in terms of attitudes toward women, which has a significant impact on the overall culture of the university. There is still work to do, and we must continue to do it. None of us can afford to sleep on the job. Gender bias requires a constant, active conversation.”
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