Touching on the myth of journalistic objectivity, growing up transgender as a Hawaiian native and the feminism of sex work, Janet Mock seems to know it all.
An activist, author and journalist, she spoke at the Cahn Auditorium on Tuesday evening to a few hundred students, faculty and members of the public. Mock spoke in honor of Multicultural Student Affairs Queer & Trans* Empowerment Month, and promoted her most recent book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. The event was open to the public.
Rainbow Alliance co-president Bo Suh sat down with Mock for a thirty-minute interview, and then Mock took questions from the audience. Suh asked Mock many questions about race and intersectionality, such as her thoughts on Raven-Symoné’s recent comments that she would not hire someone with a “black” name.
“Hon, you need some therapy,” Mock said. “You internalized some deep racist ideology, and we all have to unpack how we internalize inherent shame about our race, bodies, identities.”
However, Mock also criticized the media attention surrounding her comments.
“We give too much attention to people who say one ignorant thing instead of people who say a million brilliant things,” Mock said. “I don’t want to further attack her and push her down when there are entire systems applauding her for this behavior.”
When asked to speak about the concept of white feminism, or feminism that ignores intersections with race, sexuality and gender identity, Mock had a simple reply that inspired cheers and snaps from the audience: “I don’t really have time to do that.”
Mock also discussed growing up in Honolulu and her native Hawaiian culture. Mock said the Hawaiian concept of “Mahu,” or someone who expresses gender outside of what they were prescribed at birth, allowed her identity to be celebrated. However, as a self-described poor black woman, Mock turned to sex work to “fight for her own survival.”
Though she said she wished sex work had not been her only option, she praised the opportunities it gave her. She said the trans women she met through sex work created their own “underground economies of resources” that gave her access to healthcare, encouraged her pursuit of education and protected her from abusive men. She criticized modern condemnation of sex work, and implored feminists to ensure that their activism is supporting all women.
“To be a young black or Latina trans girl on the streets, pushed out of hostile homes and intolerant schools and told that their only resource is their body and so they use their bodies to save themselves and be their own heroes, I don’t know a greater feminist act than that,” Mock said. “If we aren’t centering these girls and women and people in our politics, then our feminism is phony.”
Though she loved her home island of Honolulu, Mock yearned for the big city. The aspiring journalist started off as an intern, and shared a special bond with other black women working at the same company. She interned for InStyle magazine, and said that in the cafeteria during lunchtime, every black female intern sat together at the same table, sharing experiences and supporting each other’s careers. During these “brown bag lunches,” as she called them, young black women helped each other craft cover letters or edit resumes, even though they knew that the system was forcing them to compete.
“There could only be one black girl on staff,” Mock said.
Intern no more, Mock now has her own pop culture show with MSNBC. As a practicing journalist, she said she disagrees with popular notions of objectivity in journalism, and does not delineate between her activism and reporting. Mock argued that whatever experiences and beliefs a reporter has before they approach a story inherently create bias, and that being honest about one’s preconceived judgments is the only true journalistic objectivity.
“Don’t let anyone say that you writing about the stories you care about or through the lens with which you come to those stories, don’t let them say that that’s not journalism and that you’re being an activist,” Mock said. “White journalists write about anything and nobody ever makes [comments] about their identity.”
With regard to opportunities for improvement in the world of transgender media, Mock said that the transgender community might be too easily pleased with representation.
“There is a commodification of trans-ness right now in our media and culture – every show’s going to have a trans character – but I don’t think visibility is enough,” Mock said. “To raise consciousness is more than just having a trans body for hire, that trans person needs to create the content.”
As a trans woman, Mock said sharing her own story allowed her to take ownership of her own self-worth.
“Writing Redefining Realness was, on a personal level, to validate and affirm the fact that my story deserves pages, and that my unconventional girlhood deserves a place to be celebrated,” Mock said.
In the question and answer section, audience members asked for advice in the worlds of journalism, graduate school and gender identity.
The youngest member of the audience, a student from Lincoln elementary school, asked Mock if she was “a little surprised” when she discovered her gender identity. Leaning in to address her young fan, Mock said she was “surprised in a good way,” and that knowing other people felt the same way she did made her a little less lonely.
Ross Cohen, a School of Communication sophomore, said he was simply in awe after Mock’s talk, and praised Northwestern for the diversity of voices brought to campus.
“It’s really special that Northwestern has had two incredibly high profile trans women of color come speak in two consecutive quarters,” Cohen said.
For Isabella Gutierrez, a Medill junior, it wasn’t her first time seeing Mock: Gutierrez interned for MSNBC last summer, and got to work on Mock’s show.
Gutierrez had nothing but good things to say about Mock, and said that it should’ve been mandatory for all Northwestern students.
“Everything she says is gold,” Gutierrez said. “She’s exactly what media needs.”
Editor's Note: Bo Suh is a designer for North by Northwestern's print magazine.