(Issue 8) Politics Feature: Whit Washington

Interview by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Vanessa dos Santos

Whit Washington is a show tune lover, my son’s favorite uncle and one of Washington D.C’s leading Criminal Justice Consultants fighting for the rights of trans people in police custody. In our intimate and enlightening conversation, they discussed their experience growing up as a queer mixed kid under white supremacy, their parents’ interracial love story, and how intentional use of language can help us challenge notions of morality and progress in our criminal justice system.

Photo by Vanessa dos Santos

Where were you born, where did you grow up? Who is Whit Washington?

I grew up in Lynnfield, Massachusetts with my parents and my older sister. In a way, I grew up as an only child. My sister went to boarding school when I was eight, so most of the year I was home alone. I’m really close with both sides of my family but it hasn’t always been that way. When I was little we spent more time around the white Italian side of the family but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become closer with my dad’s side. I spent a lot of time with my nana, my grandmother on my mother’s side. She’s magical. She really nurtured my creative side, she had this junk drawer where she put rubber bands, broken utensils, tape and random shit. She’d let me make huge messes. She was a very clean woman but she’d let me make these art projects.

Whit, Nana, and their older sister Karli. Both photos are 16 years apart. The top image was taken at Nana’s 90th birthday, the bottom image at event neither sister wanted to be at.

My middle name is Evalee, that’s my dad’s mother’s name. She became ill when I was very young but before she got sick, I remember her always having bacon for me when I went for a visit and humming while we did the dishes together. She was a remarkable woman, she had a high school diploma at a time when that was not a given, especially for Black femmes, and she was a homeowner, again, a rare feat for Black femmes of her generation.

Evalee Washington, Whit’s paternal grandmother and their namesake.

Are both sides of your family from Massachusetts?

My parents grew up together. My dad’s mother grew up in Massachusetts but her family is from Opelika, Alabama. My dad’s father’s people are from the West Indies. I think he was a chef in the Navy- I don’t know so much about him because he and my father had a strained relationship. My parents grew up around the corner from each other. My dad was friends with my mother’s brothers. My mother was one of two girls, her older sister Joanie was developmentally disabled and while she did not attend school like her siblings, she was known by everyone in town because she is the ultimate social butterfly and made friends with everyone. My mom went to Catholic school and was not as much of an extrovert as Joanie, so she grew up kind of as the secret Pietrantonio sister.

All of my uncles on both sides were all big athletes and they grew up playing sports together. My mother’s brother and my dad’s brother actually went to a boarding school together for football and my grandparents would drive up together for the football games. Even with this though, it was a whole hectic deal for my parents to fall in love and want to start a family together. My mother’s family stopped talking to her for the first five years of my parent’s marriage. When their relationship first got found out- they kept it a secret for a long time- my grandparents sent my mother to Italy for a couple months hoping that she would decide not to marry my dad.

My mother knew how her family would react so she kept the relationship secret from them when my parents first started dating. My nana tells the story of the time when my mom wasn’t sleeping well, she was shaking in the night and having physical negative reactions. She couldn’t figure out what it was. When I talked to my mom about it, she said it was because she was in love with my dad and knew she wasn’t supposed to be. She was freaking out and didn’t know what to do. Her cousin Ellie drove her to a church in Boston so she could confess outside of her community and be like, “I love a Black man and I don’t know what to do.”

That’s so heavy.

Yeah, my mom was like, “y’all are trash and I love Greg.” My nana still talked to my mom but no one else in the family did. It was not easy for them but they really loved each other and made it work. They’ve been together for 45 years. I’m still very close to my parents and they were intentional about not putting their own children through the experience of being isolated and ostracized. When I came out to them as first a lesbian and then as non-binary, my mom remembered the physical emotional trauma that she experienced for existing in a way that people were trying to make her feel bad for that she couldn’t help. My parents and my nana have given me the space to exist in a way I think many white folks in particular do not give folks the space to exist.

So they might not understand something at first but they go into conversations knowing what it feels like to be ostracized.

They’re like, “we love our kid, we don’t want them to deal with all of that.” And they’re not great with my pronouns and I acknowledge that it comes from a space of having trouble knowing what pronouns are and when to use them and not because they do not support me.

My mom interacted with us in a way that she acknowledged the impact anti- Blackness had on us without explicitly naming it. She and my father sent us to private school because as Black femme identifying folks at the time, we were going to be heavily discriminated against so they put us into private school in hopes of counteracting that. While that makes sense, there’s also the step of now we’re in all white spaces so let’s have a conversation about how that’s going to impact our mental health and how we exist. That wasn’t there but she was intentional about it in the way she knew how to be.

Photo by Vanessa dos Santos

How did you relate to your own racial identity growing up? I know that for me it was a journey of coming to an understanding about myself and it still is. Do you feel like your parents’ individual attitudes and specifically your dad’s anti-Blackness influenced how you saw yourself?

Definitely. I was very much under the impression that I would never be as good as my white peers. My family is very average middle class but I was going to school with the one percent of Boston. So there I was thinking I’d never be as smart as those people but those people had tutors and teachers who were grading them differently because they were white, they had space to be free and make mistakes and define themselves whereas my experience was colored by my race. When I was in second grade I was told I couldn’t read. I was reading chapter books at home but somehow I was in a reading class with a kid who couldn’t read the word “the”. I remember sitting there and not understanding what was going on. I also remember begging my physics teacher to let me take AP physics because I enjoyed the topic so much and being told that I was not good enough in math to take the class. There were other people in my same math level for whom math didn’t get in the way of their passion for science. 

I had a similar experience, but at least for me there was the language factor of having grown up in a trilingual household. There were still racist and xenophobic underlying reasons for them putting me in a English language learning class, but I spoke three languages and I got confused a lot. No one took that into consideration when they were determining that I couldn’t read. My mom flipped out and felt like it was her fault for teaching me Portuguese first, like somehow speaking multiple languages was a disadvantage.

That ties into the work that I do. If you were given something to read that had words that you knew in each language, it could be three different languages combined on the page and you’d be able to read it fluently. That is a skill, but that’s not acknowledged as a skill so you get in trouble for it. Similarly, if you make something illegal then people who engage in that action are “criminals.” People take for granted that the answer to everything we criminalize is punishment.

Photo by Vanessa dos Santos

Absolutely! I felt I had to overachieve and that had to do with race and being a child of immigrants. My mother will acknowledge first that her experience is colored by her being an immigrant before being a Black woman in America. It doesn’t click in the same way because she came here when she was approaching forty whereas I was born here. We have a very different understanding of race.

When we come from different cultures, we have different definitions of what is acceptable. Anything is acceptable until someone says that it’s not and you have to be mindful of who it is that is saying that it’s not. Because of what they experienced in the beginning of their relationship, my parents acknowledged that there were rules that didn’t make sense, that they existed in a way that didn’t align with said “rules” and instead of hating themselves for it, they chose to just live their life. There was this intentionality that came through when they were raising me that allowed me to realize that if I don’t like the rules of a place, I can create new rules to make myself feel comfortable or go somewhere else where they have better rules. That’s what I was doing when I left Massachusetts. I was trying to find where I fit it and I realized that everywhere I went people were going to have weird random rules. Instead of trying to follow the rules, I was going to do what I wanted to do and let the people around me deal with their bullshit. 

I had two recent conversations with friends about family planning and the future. My cis het friend was feeling distraught because her relationship didn’t work out and she felt that she would not be able to have a family. My queer friend, who has similar desires, was telling me about the different ways she was planning to grow her family regardless of her romantic relationship. This to me highlights the ways that cis het life has stupid rules about how to achieve specific social requirements. In queer space, there is more freedom and openness to find your specific happiness, whatever that may mean.

Photo by Vanessa dos Santos

Do you think you always knew you were genderqueer?

It’s funny because I was talking to my mother the other day and she was like, “I was talking to my friend about how when you were little you used to always talk to your imaginary friend Prairie Dawn and it got me wondering if that was some sort of externalization of your femininity… that maybe you were two people but one.” And I thought, “damn Gail, that’s wild, I love that.”

I don’t know if that is 100% true but I do remember that when I was little, I saw a segment on some wild television show about this person who was a chimeran, which is a figure in Greek mythology with parts from more than one animal. In the episode, the person on the show had been twins in their parent’s womb initially but then one twin absorbed the other. The result was that the person was two people in one. I remember one sign was a line down the center of the person’s body and I remember thinking I had a line down my body also my eyes are not symmetric and my eczema flares up differently on each side of my body. I was convinced that I had consumed a twin that was inside of me and my mom was like, “you have always felt like there was someone else inside of you.” I feel like that is a cliche of how people discuss transness but Pauli Murray, a prophetic civil rights advocate, similarly struggled feeling that there was something inside of her that would have shown that they were intersex and that her external body parts that made her a woman were incorrect.

That’s such a great metaphor for folks who have a hard time looking past the binary.

I’m not one thing. I’m a cacophony of brilliance. That’s my gender identity. 

I love that. How does identity influence your advocacy work? Well, if we can back track, can you tell me more about how you came to be an attorney? Did you always want to go to law school?

In high school, I was a hella underachiever. My grades were fine but I wasn’t doing anything until the last minute. I didn’t care about anything but I knew that my ability to do well in school had nothing to do with my ability to exist in the real world. I knew that people got jobs from knowing people and I’m sure I was also using that attitude to shield myself from my own feeling of inferiority. I went to an elite private predominately white school in Boston. The limitations I felt from what I understood about race weighed heavy and overwhelmed me into passivity. 

However, after high school I had the privilege of living and taking classes in Rome, Italy for a year with my sister. I took classes at the American University of Rome, I was creating relationships with people from all around the world and I began to understand that I was raised in an unhealthy bubble. I started doing really well in school. I went from being reamed by an English teacher in high school because my writing was nowhere near standard for a high school student, to praise in Rome for my ability to analyze and discuss literature. I went to Italy for a year to rid myself from Massachusetts and to see what else was out there and what was out there was amazing.

After Italy, I went to college in California in the desert and my world changed even more. I enrolled into a program, the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies where I was able to create my own major. School shifted from rigid topics in cold classrooms to questions about humanity and humanness across disciplines and in conversation with others whether it be in a classroom or at a party on Friday night. It was at Johnston that I hit my stride, but law definitely was not on the table. 

After college I started to get into Black feminism (which was not taught at any of the PWIs I attended) because I had become more critical of white voices and all the things they were imposing on me that never felt right or comfortable.

Photo by Vanessa dos Santos

What’s the first thing you read that sticks out to you?

In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw came out with “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” It’s where she coins the term intersectionality and talks about how our legal system is incapable of addressing discrimination against Black women because of how discrimination works within a court.

I did a whole thing on intersectionality for a communications class one year where I had to teach the class something in 10 minutes and I kid you not, at the end someone raised their hand and was like, “I still don’t understand, what’s intersectionality?”

Cis folks don’t have to think about their gender and white folks don’t have to think about their race. To put thought into something you understood as thoughtless is hard to access and understand. I realized I could challenge all of this in law school. I created my own major in undergrad and it was titled Creating Change: Nonprofit Development and Programming. I was studying art as a reflection of culture as well as the relationship between movement building and expression and how we put words to art. For the final project of my degree, I curated an art show where I displayed work by six friends of mine who were artists. Each one of them would be called a hipster colloquially but their art was so dramatically different from each other. I decided to do a deeper inquiry into the term “hipster” and decided that the way it was being used by society was a means of devaluing our generation’s cultural contributions.

It gets more complex when we think about how there are people who are trying to exist and the outside world is putting the “hipster” label on them and then there are other people who put the “hipster” label on themselves through mimicking an aesthetic. Both are equally hipsters but if they were to come together they might not have anything in common. That situation reminds me of the importance of defining terms when talking to folks about the criminal legal system. Just because someone identifies as a “social justice warrior” does not mean they are not anti-Black, which MUST be centered to achieve social justice. When I am speaking to people, I don’t need to hear the jargon and buzz words, I need to know what you’re thinking and feeling because that’s the only real connection we have to anything. 

Do you feel like that happens when people perform Blackness or appropriate Black culture?

Everyone talks about the “sad little mixed kid” who was like “the Black kids didn’t like me”, which is obnoxious. First, if you’re in white space you have to be mindful about why you are identifying as Black- is it because you feel community with Black folks or is it because the white folks around you are telling you that. Second, if the Black kids don’t like you it’s probably because you are spouting some problematic anti-Blackness and colorism and you should be left alone to work through and deal with that on your own- other people are not required to experience violence while you sort your identity out. Third, you are in these spaces without other Black folks because of white supremacy and the privilege you experience from your proximity to whiteness. I’m not denying that bi-racial folks struggle, I’m just saying that it is not the struggle and most importantly it is not Black folks fault, it is white folks fault. Be mad at them for creating this divide that makes you have to choose who you are, that created a space such that you feel distress in your very existence.

Which brings me back to the question, how does your identity influence the work you do?

When I looked at trans people in custody and when I saw the over representation of Black folks in the criminal legal system, I started looking at the definition of things. What is crime? I took a class called Women, Crime, and the Law and one of the first things I saw was that sex work, adults engaging in consensual sexual behavior for pay, is criminalized but corrections officers have been granted a lot of space to be violent and sexually abuse people in custody by the courts and the federal government. We put people in prison for consensual sex because money is involved, and then we do nothing to address sexual violence against them.  Where is the morality in that? People talk about crime and laws as these moral things but they aren’t moral at all, so what is actually happening? I got deep into the academic study of the socio-historical legal creation of crime in the context of race and gender in the U.S. When you look at the history of the criminal legal system, laws criminalizing Black existance (the Black Codes) and convict leasing meant that prisons replaced the plantation. “Criminal” replaced “slave” and “Black” and poof, all of the progress that had been made to safeguard Black life was deeply compromised. Around the same time of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the criminalization of free Black folks, we see laws popping up that limited civil rights based on a criminal record- even today, people who are in custody and/or have a criminal record can’t vote, can’t have public housing, and can’t get public assistance. By the time the 14th amendment came along to say that you can’t discriminate against someone based on race, criminal conviction had already replaced race. People look at it as progress but there had already been something to replace it. 

And that was policy specifically to continue the disenfranchisement of Black people.

Exactly, because the southern economy could not run without slave labor, so they had to create a mechanism by which they still had access to that slave labor. We talk about living in a post racial era and using laws as signifiers of progress, but the reality is that we haven’t changed. Michelle Alexander said in the “New Jim Crow” that, “there are more Black people in prison custody today (2011) than there were slaves in 1865.”

If that doesn’t make you think… let’s be real.

Let’s be real about how this exists. I work with trans people in prison because Black trans femmes have been beaten out of every space. They encounter the criminal legal system because of the criminalization of poverty and that happened because of racism and that happened because of capitalism. As you keep going back, you see that all of this has purpose. It’s not a weird random coincidence. This is a system that supports this larger system that is hella nefarious. I do this work to acknowledge the harm our society does to trans people by forcing them into custody using the same laws folks used to force Black folks into custody in the 1860s and 1870s. As a Black trans person, my life is different from my siblings in custody because of my approximation to whiteness, because I am for the most part neuro-”typical,” because of the cisness that I expressed until I was older, because my parents are middle class, and because of my parents struggle in their own relationship and how that affected how I was allowed to live my life and become my own person. My access to each of these things is random. Further, my access to these things does not mean my body is not criminalized, it just means that I have privileges that allow me to circumvent the net that is the criminal legal system.

Photo by Vanessa dos Santos

Are you hopeful that it’s possible to accomplish abolition? What are the ways that you think we can realistically accomplish it?

We have to abolish it. There is nothing short of abolition that will get rid of this. You can’t reform racism. It doesn’t work especially because of how deep it is steeped into everything. At some point the system folds in on itself. You look at the recommitment to the criminalization of Black folks in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The media that depicted the war on drugs and the war on crime disproportionately portrayed Black folks getting arrested and put in jail even though we know that Black folks and white folks commit crime at similar rates- I think white folks actually commit crime at a higher rate. So, you have the U.S. government expanding how they criminalize Black folks and the media is sharing images of Black folks getting arrested on people’s TVs in their homes- at that point it has folded in on itself and two sides of an arbitrary coin feed one another.

So how do we get rid of it? I guess you can write policy- but how do you work towards abolition and advocate for people given where we currently are as a society?

It goes back to being intentional about definitions. Right now the Department of Defense has a huge budget and everyone hates it because they perpetuate violence in the name of homeland security. Looking at homeland security through violence, weapons, rape and pilage is one option. But what if we look at homeland security as “inclusive security” or access to bare necessities? It’s still the Department of Defense but it’s defense against human suffering and limiting violence. But the thing is the government and the white and anti-Black folks that run the government want violence. Military is not for peace, military is for violence. You don’t get peace through the violence of military force. There may be a winner of the fight but the tensions will never leave and there will always be someone waiting in the wings to get revenge.

Instead of realizing that this method hasn’t been working and to entertain trying something else, they accept that it is a means to an end. How do we get the masses to be on board with abolition and understanding the necessity of it?

We have to talk to people about the ways in which they are oppressed. White supremacy affects the entire way people live and exist. When I get the most confused about my gender stuff it is because I am internalizing the social limitations on my existence. At the center of those limitations is anti-Blackness and white supremacy. The problem is not that I exist, the problem is that we live in a society that says I should not.

And even understanding what leads people to commit theft. Poverty creates violence. It doesn’t excuse violent non-consensual behavior but they’re often intertwined.

If you call it a crime for someone who’s hungry to take food, then you’re criminalizing hunger, which is wild because humans need to eat. It’s so weird that we’re so removed from basic humanness that we think it is appropriate to deny people who exist access to the things that will help them exist and that includes things as regular as how long people’s work weeks are. What about the coercion involved in forcing people to work under horrible conditions in emotionally violent spaces so that they can meet their basic human needs? The worst part of it is that often the people who are forced to endure the worst are paid the least so they are still barely able to access their basic needs. This is not because of a lack of resources or actual scarcity, we have more than enough resources in the world to take care of all the people that live in it. This is because white folks don’t want to give anything up, even if it is unnecessarily excessive.  

Do you think abolition can exist under capitalism?

No, capitalism needs an underclass. It needs an underclass for people to make the kind of money that is endless. That’s the whole point of capitalism. You have to get rid of both systems. Anti-Black racism in the United States was created to ensure there would be an underclass forever. Anti-Black racism in the United States addresses all of the issues Marx brought up about the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoise. In Bacon’s Rebellion, the wealthy folks in 1770s Virginia Colony were shook at the power of poor people banning together to overthrow them. So, they enacted the Slave Codes, which relegated Black folks in the U.S to slavery. The poor white folks then turned on the Black folks and thus began this terrible dance.

Is that similar to what happened under Obama?

Obama plays into this conversation when you think about how anytime progress is made, there’s always a hitch- a Blacklash (coined by Penny Blue in A Time To Protest: Leadership Lessons From My Father Who Survived the Segregated South for 99 Years) or the white supremacist backlash response to Black progress.

I have been thinking about this a lot in the terms of being a mixed kid in the U.S. How is white supremacy benefitting from this “progress”? White supremacy will only create laws that benefit white supremacy. What is the benefit to white supremacy of repealing the miscegenation laws (laws that prohibited white and Black people from having children together)? White spaces can claim progress for having Black faces in the room without having to rid themselves of anti-Blackness. Mixed children can be raised in white society so that the anti-Blackness that white supremacy requires is deeply ingrained in them. From the standpoint of white supremacy, this struggle either kills them, which is fine according to white supremacy because Black folks are treated as expendable, or like Obama, they can survive and act as a symbol of Black liberation while perpetuating white supremacy. Police were murdering Black folks without consequence and the people who were saying how fucked up that was were met by military and violence, even under a Black president.

In reflecting on my mixedness, I’ve been thinking about how my identity is weaponized against the Black community. I am making an intentional decision to enter the spaces that my proximity to whiteness allows me to enter, and advocate for the dignity of Black folks in the U.S. I focus on the criminal legal system because it is such a blatant perpetuator of anti-Black violence.

You can learn more about Whit’s work at whitwashingtonesq.com or follow them on Instagram @boisquire.

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