Moving beyond "woke"

Turning awareness into action to support LGBTQ+ people of color

There’s room for everyone in the fight against oppression, says University of Florida researcher Della Mosley. 

Mosley studies the wellness of marginalized communities, particularly LGBTQ+ people of color, who face disproportionate levels of violence. (In 2018, killings of transgender people surpassed 2017’s all-time high, and the Human Rights Campaign has documented that 85 percent of trans people killed since 2013 were people of color.) Beyond fears of fatal violence, these communities face day-to-day discrimination that Mosley works to counter through her research, studying how oppression affects wellness and how counseling psychology can promote healing. But you don’t have to be a counseling psychologist to help, Mosley says.

“There are ways to be involved no matter where you are, who you are, what your comfort level is. We can always push ourselves a little bit past our comfort level, but even right where you're resting right now, there is something you can do to help prevent or reduce harm being caused to queer and transgender people of color,” says Mosley, an assistant professor of psychology in UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

During Pride Month, Mosley talked to UF News about steps people can take to support LGBTQ+ people of color, what gives her hope, and how research and teaching can create a more equitable future.

Your work deals with critical consciousness. How do you explain that concept?

Critical reflection leads to critical actions, and when you're doing both of those things you are critically conscious. There is a lot of conversation over these past several years around everyone saying they're woke because they're aware of the violence. But if you're not doing something productive or preventative with that awareness, you're not actually critically conscious. We're not changing society when we're not practicing critical consciousness. 

Find examples of critical actions in Mosley’s recent piece in Psychology Today.

How can critical consciousness lead to lasting change?

If people are doing work because it's trendy or because they were told they need to do something about diversity and inclusion at work, or because it's Pride Month or whatever, then it's not going to be lasting. When we truly work towards critical consciousness, we're growing as people. We have these new lenses that help us to see the world differently. The sustainable change comes from making it more personal — finding your reason and meaning and purpose for being involved in the work and committing to that.

What misconceptions do you encounter in your work?

A big one that comes up a lot is that people don't think there's a role for them given their different identities, so if they're white or if they're cis or if they're straight, that there's not a role for them in this type of work. Leadership and voice should be given to the people who are the most directly affected and marginalized, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a space for everyone to be involved in the work.

What can colleges and universities do better?

Literally just setting an intention to do better by queer and trans people of color — deciding that the campus will not be blind to this population and the clearly delineated facts about the barriers to wellness that they face. Campuses aren't talking about how to ensure the safety and comfort and wellness of the marginalized folks that they bring in, and so I really think this needs to be the intention. 

If I were to give a more specific recommendation, it might be to just seek knowledge, to assess the needs and experiences of this population on your campus. If universities at a minimum just assessed the climate and then shared those results, I think that would be an intervention in and of itself. Just understanding who's on your campus, how they're feeling, if they're feeling safe and have a sense of belonging — I think would be a beautiful first step.

And while I generally try not to give specific advice, because every university and student population is different, I do have to share the importance of creating safe spaces. The findings from a recent study I co-authored related to the erasure of this population in counseling settings, multicultural centers, even LGBT centers on campuses is alarming given the physical and emotional harm they are facing in the world today. So creating therapy groups, social clubs or organizations, mentoring programs, and even physical spaces for queer and trans students of color to gather and be in community with one another would be an improvement.

How can we better support queer and trans people of color in the workplace?

It all goes back to critical consciousness. Becoming more aware and taking the next best action based on that awareness. So questions I would be asking are: Are there queer and trans people of color working here? Is there a reason they're not here? What's happening in the hiring process, what's happening in the recruitment process? What's happening when they actually are hired? How are they treated? Are they paid equitably? How are all of these things happening in your space specifically? When you ask these questions, I think the answers might lead you down different paths depending on your workplace. Maybe it will be a focus on inclusive restrooms, or it might be a focus on cultural sensitivity training for staff. We all gain from being in spaces where there is more diversity, where there is more inclusion, where different voices are at the table, and we are all safe and able to do our work.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you're just starting, I think that Twitter is one of the more unfiltered spaces to get good information about what's going on. Following hashtags like #protectblacktranswomen, #stopkillingtranswomen, following activists like Ashlee Marie Preston or Raquel Willis, or Indya Moore from the show “Pose,” who has so many beautiful things to say on Twitter and is educating so many people through their tweets. Reading and following scholars like Andrea Richie or the Audre Lorde Project — groups like that who have been doing this work who are steeped in it. Or following and listening to podcasts like Marsha’s Plate. I think that's a really, really great place to start.

What impact would you like to have with your work?

Through my work I want to facilitate wellness, facilitate liberation, particularly for those who are the farthest from it. I want to help those in power in counseling settings, in educational settings, in companies, in their family systems, etc., to see both their complicity in oppression and their potential as healers and agents of social change. I want my work to help queer and trans people of color to stand in their dignity and experience wellness: physical wellness, emotional wellness, academic wellness, spiritual, and on. I want my research and teaching and advocacy work to help make the barriers and the pathways to wellness clearer, really inspiring action. 

The small goal is to be a model where my students can see that they can make a difference: that their lived experiences, their embodied knowledge, actually matters and that when they put that alongside some of the psychological science, some of the tools of diversity science that I’m teaching them, they can create and move towards systemic change.

What gives you hope?

Working with all of these queer and trans students of color, all of these allies to queer and trans people of color, these super-bright UF students — they give me a lot of hope. They're hungry. They're brilliant. They're critical. They're not giving up and they have a commitment to the work that is really inspiring.

And just the fact that these bigger, farther-reaching systems and networks are starting to invest more in queer and trans people of color and their wellness really gives me a lot of hope. You think about something like how many people have Netflix in their home and the access they have to like the stories like Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us" or Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” — how many people are accessing these critical storytellers and more positive images of blackness compared to what has been most accessible in the past. Or even a system like the University of Florida: for them to invest in a young black queer scholar who has been doing the work of promoting queer and trans people of color’s wellness … that gives me hope. There's an increased reach that comes when these bigger systems and networks invest in scholars, creatives and activists with marginalized identities. It makes me feel like change is possible in my lifetime, and that I could be a part of it.

On SoundCloud, hear Mosley describe what it was like interviewing at UF right after Richard Spencer's speech, her approach to creating an inclusive workplace, and how counseling psychology can create a better world.

Photo by Brianne Lehan/Text and audio by Alisson Clark June 24, 2019