Shifting Futures: Digital Trans of Color Praxis

The Shift












The shift. Created by the cut and the algorithmic computer generated imagery of the morph. The android reaches their hand up to their ear, inputs a code, and flickers from white to black. They could be said to be hacking the black and white binary. Yet this is more than a binary transition, as they are flickering from a white artificial skin of plastic or metal, to a human brown skin of an African-American woman. The crossing is in multiple planes, and by slowing the video down in digital video editing software one can see that it also includes a slight movement, a slight change of shape. The scene is quick, a few seconds at the beginning of “Many Moons”, the introductory video for Janelle Monae’s extensive three part concept album, Metropolis, a post-apocalyptic science fiction “emotion picture” (Janelle Monáe Official Website, 2014). What is important here, though, is not the states before or after the flicker, but the ability to modulate visibility. Modulating visibility, which may include changing one’s form, location or appearance, may be called shifting.


The android, Cindi Mayweather, is being hunted, a fictional account which may refer to the frequent murders of black and gender non-conforming people in the US today. Janelle Monae has stated that the main character of her third album, “The Electric Lady”, could “absolutely” be a transgender woman (Atlanta 2014). On June 9, 2014, Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time magazine in an article titled “The Transgender Tipping Point” (Steinmetz, 2014). As the article’s title conjures, many people saw this as a historic moment indicating a widespread acceptance of transgender people, and the event was made possible by a black trans woman, a trans woman of color, who came to fame through Netflix, a digital streaming video service on the internet. And yet, in the following month four trans women of color were murdered (Molloy, 2014). 


How can one understand the moment in which a trans woman of color is being hailed by so many as advancing “civil rights” for transgender people, while trans women of color continue to be the number one target of murder and violence in the US among LGBTQ people, and black trans women continue to be the most targeted group among trans women of color (Democracy Now, 2014, Giovaniello, 2013)? Time magazine’s formulation of transgender rights as the new civil rights implies a post-racial notion that the struggle for civil rights for black people is over, and being replaced with “newer” struggles like transgender. Additionally, this creates a false teleology that figures transgender as a new phenomenon, which it is not. How can one develop media poetics that can work for justice for trans women of color, a category which is in itself an assemblage of two categories, each with their own shifting, historically and geopolitically situated borders?


Laverne Cox has described the present moment as a “state of emergency for trans people” (Hughes, 2014). Her formulation calls for a consideration of Giorgio Agamben’s idea of the state of exception as it applies to human rights discourses, and Mbembe’s reformulation of Agamben’s claims as necropolitcal for colonized subjects, or trans people of color who share histories of colonial violence. The form of contemporary governance has been described by Mbembe as necropolitical in that it no longer only promises to ensure life for citizens, it also promises to guarantee death for those deemed other, including non-citizens who attempt to cross national borders, racialized groups and gender non-conforming people (Sacchetti, 2014). Agamben argues that contemporary governments operate with impunity through a permanent state of exception, and Mbembe extends this to modify the contemporary notion of sovereignty to include the right to kill, using the plantation and the colony of models for this form of power, where people are often deemed necessary to die as a result of their race. The frequency of murders of trans women, the fact that more trans women of color are murdered than white trans women, and the fact that the murders are often ignored or not even mourned, all indicate the importance of extending Mbembe’s model to include gender. Under necropolitics, the state decides who will die, often through acts of neglect, and often non-state actors carry out the killing.


What enables this violence to exist simultaneously to the discourse of an emerging transgender rights movement is the modulation of visibility. This modulation can be seen enacted by oppressed peoples and by institutions of neoliberal, necropolitical power that define the contemporary moment. A focus on a static state of visibility or invisibility is insufficient to account for what Kara Keeling has referred to as the “digital regime of the image”, characterized by a mutable, flickering, signifier (“I = Another”, 56). This mutability is the specialty of trans women of color who face multiple forms of violence on a daily basis, shifting their body and appearance as necessary for survival, at one moment passing invisibly as a cisgender woman and at another standing on stage speaking out against racist, transphobic violence. Cindy Mayweather’s shifting from white to black is at precisely the moment just before stepping on stage for a performance.


Next: Passing

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  1. Many Moons HD excerpt, slowed