The Future Sounds Like Raquel Willis

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I think it’s also about having folks in your circle who will call you on your BS. That is so real. So I have a very powerful circle of Black trans women that I lean on, that I get advice from. They have called me and been like, “Girl, it’s hard, when someone like you has such a platform and all of these different things, it does feel like, because of how tokenism works in our society, the spotlight that goes onto you, and the visibility that goes on to you, we don’t often get that far.” Ever since I’ve had those real conversations, I think, really, it was probably two or three years ago, I’ve been trying to be more intentional about sharing the mic, before it was an Instagram campaign. I want to make sure that my work is in the service of elevating other Black trans folks in our community. So, for me, it’s about being hyper aware. Am I doing this because I really think it can be in the service of the work? Or am I doing this because I want to be seen, or be heard? And luckily, I feel like I have the kind of conscience that wouldn’t make the latter less likely.

I wanted to talk to you about media as well. I mean, we are doing this conversation for GQ, which is a part of Condé Nast and… you know. [laughs] There have been times, and frankly, this is one of them, where I feel like for whatever progress has been made in terms of representation, in terms of newsrooms and mastheads, it’s often set back by layoffs or just the systemic bias that always keeps these new newsrooms looking the way they look. How has your perception of media changed, let’s say, in the last four years?
In the last four years?

So, since last Wednesday? [laughs]
Okay, exactly, time: who is she? [chuckles] My outlook on media has definitely shifted. I think the reckoning that needs to happen in media is around this idea that only certain people can tell stories, or only certain people are skilled enough to, or have the education to, the experience to. I think a lot of times that’s BS. I think, as an organizer as well, it’s like, part of our job in media should be getting this tool in the most hands possible. And really democratizing it in that way, so that the person from Augusta, Georgia, where I’m from, doesn’t necessarily have to move all the way to New York to be heard. We’ve got to break down this hierarchy in media around who can make certain decisions, who can be at the top of a masthead, who can produce what. Because if we keep going at the same rate that we’re going, it’s always going to be the person probably with the most amount of privilege.

Also, I think about the ways that we as Black people only have so many outlets. We don’t really have a progressive Black outlet. I think about the harm that happens when we allow people who are black to profess to be on the cutting edge, when they really aren’t. Sorry, The Breakfast Club is really not on the fucking cutting edge. They actually inflict a lot of harm on communities from their ignorance, right? I think about the fact that a lot of the mainstream Black publications don’t necessarily have a major black LGBTQ+ presence.

The idea of “objectivity” in reporting is overdue for a reckoning too. A few years ago, I got in a really heated argument with a veteran Black journalist who primarily writes about race and racism for a prestigious magazine. A Black trans woman had been murdered and we were talking about how the case was being reported. He said that it was “activist journalism” to not use trans people’s dead names in reporting. It felt like he was saying “oh, you’re not objective enough.” His idea of “serious journalism” seemed to require disrespecting her identity and dignity.
Let’s be clear, and I say this as someone who went to a journalism school, and studied journalism: As Audre Lorde was telling us, we can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Anybody in journalism today that does not have a critical lens around what they consider to be journalistic tools, are not interrogating white supremacy, not interrogating classism, elitism, privilege. That is where we literally got these tools like “objectivity” from. How is that stripping of your humanity, just to serve a role in the service of that vision, any different than what police officers are doing? Any different than what an ICE agent is doing? Any different, really, [from] a lot of these things that we just feel are there ubiquitous in our society, that we just assess to be the norm?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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