Authenticity is Your Real Power
Janet Mock | Keynote Address to the Class of 2015 | May 16, 2015
What is my life that I’m wearing this robe—what did I do wrong? Seriously, it is an honor to share this space with you today as your commencement speaker and to hopefully offer you parts of my experience as you journey toward and beyond the boundaries of Pitzer College.
Keynote speaker Janet Mock
When I received the invitation that you all chose me to be here as part of your monumental day, I was floored. Because these speeches in my mind were for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling…maybe you just couldn’t afford them but, you know, titans who built media empires or pushed generations of readers to think beyond the confines of their own reality. And in the world I come from, commencement speeches belong to them, not necessarily to me, not to the girl who just a decade ago was sitting where you’re sitting at my own graduation with nothing but a vision in front of me and a story to tell. So today I am going to be here doing what I do best, which is telling a story and lending you my truth, my truth of what it means to be a young person finding yourself and trying to assert yourself in a world that tells you daily that who you are isn’t enough, that who you are will limit you, and that who you are, ultimately, isn’t welcome.
And I hope in baring my truth to you, you gain power, understanding and the strength to go forth in the world exactly as you are.
So I grew up in a low-income neighborhood called Kahili on the island of Oahu in Honolulu, Hawaii. I grew up the middle child of five kids, with a mother who was a teen mother, with two sisters who were teen mothers, with a father who was addicted to crack cocaine. I grew up affected by my family’s joblessness and homelessness. We struggled for resources in communities ravaged by poverty. And if that wasn’t enough, I also had my own identity issues.
I was welcomed into the world as my parents’ first-born son. They named me after my dad. They dressed me in attire suited for boys. They expressed my gender for me at the start. As a child I struggled deeply and fought hard to be myself and reveal myself and express my identity, my femininity in a culture that demeans and devalues feminine people, in a culture that mandates that if you’re born with certain body parts, you are not allowed to express who you truly are if that expression doesn’t align with the gendered expectations thrust upon you and your body.
And despite the gender policing that I experienced as a young person, I still owned my difference. And I marvel at my teenage self, the girl with the unwavering sense of self who never let anyone’s expectations or perceptions of her identity or body make her doubt or question who she knew who she was. And I believe that self-assurance was the key to success and my survival and my resistance, allowing me to reveal my true self and transition through the halls of my high school.
I went on to become the first person in my family to go to college, and it was at the University of Hawaii that I discovered my love of writing. It was there where I began to tell stories. As a staff writer on our school paper, I asked people questions, I listened to them, I offered them space to tell their truth. I remember writing a feature story on our janitor in our school library who spent his lunch hours reading poetry because he yearned to be a poet, and I profiled other first-generation students telling their stories. As a reporter I learned that we all want to be heard, and we all yearn to be seen for who we really are, no matter our path. This is a universal truth. Telling our stories is revolutionary. It allows us to connect with one another but most importantly, it allows us to connect with ourselves. And I knew as a 22-year-old that telling stories was what I wanted to do with my life.
So after graduating from UH, I moved to the city of my dreams to attend NYU, and for me New York was the city of final destination, the city that is a goal, as E.B. White once wrote. I was someone who came to New York in quest for something, and that quest was voice, purpose and self.
In New York, I made the decision to not lead with the fact that I was trans, and it was liberating to be seen as “normal,” to be seen as another girl in the crowd, another 22-year-old discovering who I was beyond all the gender stuff. It was the first time in my life when I felt “normal.” With that privilege of unmarked existence, the privilege of normalcy, I gained access. I learned about writing from some of our nation’s best journalists, I got internships at magazines that I had read in my bed growing up, I earned my master’s degree and landed my dream job at the time as an editor for People magazine. I swore with my cocktails and my curls and my heels that I was Carrie Bradshaw.
And this was my dream at the time, this is what I was told, this was the American dream, I was someone who came from nothing, someone who was marginalized, someone who made something out of nothing. I became someone. In the world I came from, I was told that in order to be seen and be welcome, I had to be twice as good and work twice as hard. That’s why I earned advanced degrees, that’s why I didn’t speak my mother’s Hawaiian pidgin, that’s why I shed my otherness. I had to blend in to survive. Blending in was my armor, my way of protecting myself, granting me access to spaces. I shut off parts of myself in order to stay in those spaces. That sort of isolation forces you to exist in silence, which breeds doubt and creates a skewed reality where you’re constantly shielding and hiding parts of yourself. For me, as a young trans woman of color, I was fearful about opening up about a part of my identity that was stigmatized and de-legitimized. Why would anyone want to attach themselves publicly to a group of people who are constantly told they’re confused, who are told not to use this bathroom, that you can’t live or work there, who in 32 states can still be legally fired for being themselves, who, like the hundreds of trans women of color around the globe killed annually, are hunted down for being who they are.
And as I list these injustices, I also had to go deeper within myself, and unpack my internalized shame, my inherent fears about my identities. At the time, I walked around thinking that being trans, that being black, that being Hawaiian, that being a woman, that being “othered” limited me. I felt and I believed and I learned that I was “less than.” I felt that my voice maybe wasn’t worth hearing, that maybe I wasn’t worth being seen and counted because I saw no one like me in the media; on my TV; on my bookshelves that allowed me to see myself. And it took me years to come to the realization that just because we do not see images and stories that fully reflect who we are does not mean that our voices are not worth hearing.
Goddess Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I adopted that as my mantra. There was a story inside me that needed to be told and only I could tell it. So in 2011 I raised my hand to be counted. I used my voice so I could be heard, I took off the armor of exceptionalism, the armor that allowed me to be seen as normal, because being exceptional is not revolutionary; it is lonely. Choosing to tell my story of “otherness” emboldened me, giving me voice and visibility, allowing me to shift conversations, conversations about living at the intersections of gender, race and class, conversations about how restrictive gender norms oppress us all, conversations about the importance of media representation, and the power of Beyoncé.
And I’ve been successful at this mission. I’ve written a New York Times bestseller, I have my own TV show, I even high-fived Oprah with this hand, and cameras were recording it. I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish so far. But most importantly, I am proud that I get to be a mirror for young girls, a mirror that I didn’t have growing up. Yet I can’t ignore the fact that my experience, my success, is outside the norm for girls growing up like I did.
Many of my sisters are grappling with being homeless and jobless, with having a lack of access to health care and education, and this space of lack pushes them out of hostile homes and intolerant schools into detention facilities and prisons, and deeper into poverty. These alarming, interconnected issues remain widely unaddressed because we as a society deep down are afraid of difference. So we push those who are unlike us away. We aim to marginalize the “other” even further out of the scope of our vision, away from our reality. We push them further out because seeing others’ suffering proves that we are culpable to their suffering. And accountability isn’t fun. It’s work. Because we don’t want to be burdened with responsibility, we create and hold up tokens. Rare examples of marginalized people who have “made it,” who blend in, who we applaud. Their hyper-visibility alleviates us of that burden and our guilt. My success deludes many people into believing that my success is possible for all trans people, for all people of color, for all women embodying intersectional lives. The reality is it is not.
No one wants to talk about how our culture, our entire culture, made it impossible for me to be here. And being a public woman, outspoken trans woman, a visible woman of color, I know first-hand about what it means to be a token and not fully seen. The public’s continual gaze on my trans-ness is frustrating and limiting. I am often reduced to a single facet of my identity. My narrative is flattened in an attempt to make me less complicated, less layered, more digestible, more “normal.” It flattens me to a boring, basic token of normalcy that blends.
Growing up “othered,” I was told that normal was the goal, normal was a pathway to acceptance and contentment. But I’ve learned that none of us should try to reach for “normal.” Normal is basic. The goal is not normalcy. The goal is not to become this homogenized, coherent, easy-to-digest blob. The goal is not to blend. Dare to stand out. Be different. Embrace the other. Embracing my otherness has emboldened me to step further into my power. There is such power in me proclaiming that I will proudly and unapologetically embrace myself in a world that doesn’t want me to exist. For me, and for each of us, to own the parts of ourselves that are deeply othered, the parts that are so outside the boundaries of the norm, and say that those parts are ours, allows us to bring otherness to center. Authenticity is your real power. There can be no equality, there can be no justice, there can be no love until we learn to embrace the other in ourselves and one another. So today, Pitzer Class of 2015, my hope for you is that you are able to excavate that part of yourself that you have been hiding and allow others to see you, just as you are, right here, without shame, without doubt, without apology.
My hope is that you go out in the world, centering the piece of yourself that you’ve kept on the margins in order to blend in, and recognize and celebrate those pieces in yourself and in others. Pitzer Class of 2015, I wish you love, contentment and power. I am rooting for you. Thank you.