BSU commemorates Black History Month
By Haley Silverstein
Janet Mock, the founder of the #Girlslikeus project, – a campaign to increase visibility for trans women of color – host of MSNBC’s “So POPular!” and a New York Times best-selling author, spoke to an audience of more than 200 Binghamton community members and students in Old Union Hall on Feb. 24.
Mock was the keynote speaker of this year’s Black History Month event sponsored by the Black Student Union. Mock addressed the theme of “all black lives matter” in a question-and-answer format moderated by Luis Rubio, a junior majoring in creative writing and women, gender and sexuality studies, and Maria Chavez, a doctoral candidate in English.
According to Mock, the theme challenges the meaning of “black” and what it represents – reconsidering the idea of a monolithic black community.
“Often times when we say black, we think about a very specific black body,” Mock said. “We think about a cisgender, often times male, hetero body. We’re not necessarily rallying around a gay, feminine black man and the struggles that he deals with. … We’re not thinking about the fallen trans women of color, black poor trans women.”
Mock acknowledged that in the past, a trans woman like her would not have been the front-runner to represent the black community.
“When we think about black movements, who are the voices we tend to hear from the most? They tend to be cisgender, straight, college educated, black men,” she said. “That’s who the microphone usually tends to go to. We’re in a space now where the charismatic male leaders are being challenged.”
Growing up in Hawaii, Mock was surrounded by her mother’s indigenous culture, a culture that, according to Mock, embraces non-conforming gender identities as a fact of life, rather than a condition that needs to be corrected.
“There is an openness in the culture to something beyond the binary, to something beyond the binary of male and female,” Mock said.
Mock moved to New York City to attend New York University (NYU), where she studied journalism as a graduate student. She was happy to come to place where her identity as Janet Mock, an aspiring writer, preceded her identity as a transgender woman. Yet Mock never found a space at NYU where she truly felt comfortable as a person of color from a poor family.
“I was a 21 year-old, figuring out who I was in spaces that weren’t really built for me to express my fullest self or show up as my fullest self,” Mock said.
Mock’s first job was writing about celebrities for People magazine. In New York, however, Mock came to understand the power of journalism when she wrote a feature story for school on a man who had spent his entire adult life in the criminal justice system.
“I was struggling with the idea of just being in a space, writing and using my skills and resources for something that I didn’t feel was that important or socially responsible,” she said. “I wanted to bring some depth to the shallowness.”
This realization motivated Mock to tell her own story of growing up trans to Marie Claire magazine in 2011 and in a memoir called Redefining Realness in 2014.
“That is one thing with having decided to be public and share my story and to have the book: That has been one of the biggest shifts in my life, that I’m able to be all of myself without having to really negotiate how to perform and make other people comfortable,” Mock said.
Mock said that Audre Lorde, a black, lesbian, American writer and feminist, influences her writing.
“I think most importantly what her writing did for me was not make me fault myself for the things I had to do in order to navigate systems and morals and cultures that weren’t really built for my own survival,” she said.
According to Mock, there are organizations with vast resources that focus exclusively on political or racial identity, sexual orientation. But what about the overlapping identities, the ones that don’t fall neatly into one coalition?
“Because we work and think in single identity-focused politics, we forget people who don’t fall simply in line in that kind of way,” Mock said. “They fall in between the cracks of those coalitions. For me – I write for, I speak with and I exist alongside those women.”
Since touring colleges, Mock has seen the frustration of minority students. She encouraged students to advocate and claim their space on college campuses.
“I think the ownership of knowing that this is your space and if you don’t like something, if you don’t like your representatives, the fact that there is not enough access for different kinds of people in certain spaces and conversations and bathrooms and all of the things, then you need to change that because this is your space.”
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