Raquel Willis: “Our Task Is to Figure Out How to Sustain This Momentum”

The activist discusses why systems of oppression negatively affect the oppressors, and why a media reckoning is a good thing, in the long run.

Raquel Willis

Welcome to The People, our series highlighting those who have emerged as central figures in the anti-racism and Black Lives Matter movements. What began as a series of protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white former Minneapolis police officer, has become a global racial reckoning. No industry or corner of culture has been untouched by this essential push for change—and there’s still so much more to do. In this series, we’ll speak with those who are at the forefront of this shift, redefining what it means to be an activist, and the folks transforming their platforms to disseminate information and resources about the way forward.

This week, we spoke to the New York City-based activist Raquel Willis, who has been on the front line for Black trans rights, far before the current Black Lives Matter movement began in May. Willis, who studied journalism and formerly held the position of executive editor at Out Magazine, now splits her time between writing, strategy, and activism work—she is the founder the organization Black Trans Circles and, as of three weeks ago, was named the director of communications for the Ms. Foundation for Women.

Although Willis has occupied this line of work, these spaces, for over a decade, you might not have heard of her name before June 14, when she stood in front of a crowd of over 15,000 people in front of the Brooklyn Museum and delivered a speech during the Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration. Her message that day was clear: trans people’s history is rich, brimming with heroes to admire, like Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy—and that Black trans people “deserve to be respected in all of our expansiveness.”

In this Q&A, Willis discusses how to keep a propulsive momentum for the movement, why systems of oppression negatively affect the oppressors, and why a media reckoning is a good thing, in the long run.

Raquel Willis at the Black Trans Lives Matter rally on June 14.

Photographed by Serichai Traipoom

How have you spent the past few weeks?

I’m definitely a little busy bee, as usual. I’m trying to take care of myself, extend a little break to myself, but also, continue to show up for my community as much as possible.

I wanted to ask about something you said in a past interview: that people have to figure out ways to sustain this kind of revolutionary energy. How do you think other people can sustain the energy? And in what ways are you doing it for yourself?

I think taking each day one day at a time, is important. Having a balanced agenda was immediate and urgent, but we also kept in mind things that were more long-term and visionary. A lot of times, we get stuck in the moment—we can’t see the larger trajectory, and vice versa.

What are some issues you’re looking at as more long-term, and what are some issues you see as requiring more immediacy?

What is always the most important is figuring out how we keep our people alive. Especially in the fight against white supremacy and police brutality, it is especially important for us to to prioritize safety and security—whether it’s around housing security or food security, or healthcare. Long-term, it’s about how we can shift the institutions and structures that currently exist, to better serve the most marginalized people. Sometimes we will find in our journey that things can be reformed, transformed, and shifted; sometimes we will find that things need to be completely dismantled. It’s about having that flexibility.

Why do you think at this moment in particular there is a conversation happening on the ways that, generally speaking, the public almost only focuses on cisgender heterosexual men?

I think there are multiple conversations we’re trying to have at once. Let’s be clear: white patriarchy is its own thing that we have to grapple with. White men are the leaders, elected into positions of power and maintain positions of power. And economically, white men control most capital. So that is its own thing.

We don’t talk enough about how both white supremacy and the patriarchy are detrimental forces. There are plenty of people who understand that racism is an issue. They do not understand how misogyny and sexism and the children of misogyny and sexism—which I consider to be homophobia, transphobia—are targeting all people’s lives. The big fight here is, how do we get white people to see their liberation bound up in black and non-black folks? How do we get straight people to understand that their liberation is bound up in queer folks? How do we get cis people to understand their liberation is bound up in trans folks? And it goes on.

When I think of white supremacy, obviously the folks most devastatingly impacted are black people or people of color, but white people are also not served by white supremacy. There is a stripping of anybody’s humanity when they can no longer see other people as humans. And that’s something we don’t often have space to talk about it. Yes, we know that discrimination of more marginalized people is horrendous. But there is also a negative impact on those people who have the privilege to wield discrimination on other folks. When I’m talking about the patriarchy, I’m talking about not only the ways that women, girls, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people are negatively impacted by restricted ideas of gender, but men, boys, and masculine people are also negatively impacted. When men and boys are told that they can’t fully express themselves, or have a full range of emotions, or move through the world in a way that doesn’t simply revolve around the need to be in control, they are dehumanized because they have been indoctrinated by society to see themselves as that way.

People must see the humanity of other people, regardless of their identities or experiences. All of these things are connected if we’re trying to dismantle all systems of oppression and domination.

You have such a unique position as an activist and a writer who’s been behind the scenes of editorial. After George Floyd died, it was the first time that I personally have seen news, magazine, and general online coverage shift so drastically. How did you feel about this change in coverage?

I definitely feel that there is a reckoning happening across many industries and many corners of our society. When the protests and the mass unrest began to pop off in the service of black lives, many people in power, including in the media, were shook—because now, the calvary of accountability is coming. Even the people who would pat themselves on the back, because they had figured out how to be good to people of color, good to black people, are now realizing, “Oh, actually, I only got a piece of it. I didn’t get the full picture.”

We’ve seen backlash of different publications like the New York Times for allowing op-eds that are moderately insensitive. We have seen other outlets with leaders who have been exposed for racial insensitivity in their personal and professional lives. And that is a good thing, in the long run. I believe that we shouldn’t see people as disposable. Of course, I believe that everyone has a journey of transformation, but I also understand that when this reckoning isn’t full steam ahead, it’s going to be very difficult. There’s going to be a lot of growing pains for a lot of people who have had power for so long. And if we continue to center the ways that people who are already powerful are being impacted over those that they have negatively affected, then we won’t be able to change any of these systems. So I welcome this time of new leadership—and it’s not just diverse leadership that is Black and brown, queer and trans, more women, more non-binary folks. It also needs to be a different type of leadership that sees empathy and authenticity and vulnerability as essential elements.

And this approach could be applicable for any industry.

I agree. People will think it’s enough to replace one leader with a leader with a more marginalized identity. None of us are above critique, and we all have to be able to grow. We need leadership that can understand that it doesn’t have all the answers, and that it has to be in service of, and beholden to a larger collective.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been going on for years, and issues like police brutality and the disproportionate killings of Black people are far from new. But these issues are being discussed widely now, and I’m curious if this time feels different compared to past instances when these conversations have entered the mainstream.

In some ways, yes. But honestly, I can only go based off of my lifetime. It does feel like things are a little different now, particularly for black trans people, because our experiences have been particularly maligned and ignored in larger discussion. But when I think about the black experience writ large, I think that we still have a lot to reckon with before we can say that the revolution is fully here. There have been numerous uprisings throughout American history. And our task this time is to figure out how to sustain this momentum, transform as many folks as possible, document, and record this history so it is never forgotten, and pave a new road for future generations.

I did want to speak with you about the Black Trans Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn. You made a speech there that really resonated with people. I’m wondering if you can take me back to that time when you were writing your speech, coming up with what you were going to say at the rally.

I knew that I didn’t want to rely on something that felt too constructed. I wanted it to feel of the moment and I wanted it to feel authentic. A lot of what I said, I gleaned from conversations I’d had recently, with other Black trans people. A little bit of what I said, I had written, but also I just spoke to what I was feeling that day: it felt energetic, it felt reinvigorating, it felt cathartic and transformative—and it felt different. It did feel like something new was on the horizon for our community. I also wanted to really lay out that Black trans people have such a rich history in this community, and that we deserve better.

There has been a conscious effort to sideline us. We don’t talk about that enough—that structurally and systematically, we have been sidelined by our larger communities, whether it’s in the LGBT+ community, we have been sidelined by mostly white cis people who have not ever fully trusted our leadership or honored our leadership and who have siphoned resources that could have gone to our efforts to keep us alive. They have decided at various points to prioritize legislation over the urgency of what’s happening to Black trans lives.

I also wanted to speak to how, being Black and trans, you’re often told that you’re not enough, whether it’s in our own personal lives, or in our communities, or from people who are supposedly our loved ones. We are more than enough and we deserve to be respected in all of our expansiveness. And I also wanted the allies that were there that day to understand that they have a responsibility and duty to elevate black power and that it’s not just someone else. We’re capable of a lot, but we can’t do it all alone.

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