She Inspires Me: Angelica Ross

In honor of Women’s History Month, “She Inspires Me” is a series celebrating women whose current contributions to social, political, and cultural life are making history in the present.
Have you ever had that experience where, once you stumble upon someone who seems like the coolest ever, you find out all your friends already knew about them, and you wonder why they never told you, ‘cause where have they been your whole life? That’s how I felt when I recently learned about Angelica Ross, actor, activist, entrepreneur, and just all-around incredible person.
While watching her speech after accepting her Visibility Award from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), I looked at her strong arms, smooth dark skin, and room-lighting smile and felt an immediate sense of recognition. She looks like me, I said to myself. I love seeing people who look like me commanding big rooms, and being recognized for brilliance and effort that too often goes overlooked. Recognizing ourselves in people who are making a difference helps us imagine how we can make a difference, too.
Now, there’s apparently some dispute over whether, and to what extent, I should identify with her. According to one side of the (frankly, tiresome) ongoing conversation about who qualifies as a “real” woman, some people seem to believe that there’s just one experience of womanhood that a person must have in order to qualify as a “real” woman. As if women don’t all have varied experiences; as if there’s some agreed-upon number of said experiences someone must verifiably have before being considered “real;” as if any of us belongs to the nonexistent official body that would consider such information before deciding who’s “real” and who isn’t.
I don’t know why some insist on an exclusive definition of who counts as a woman. But I do know that while there is so much that I, a Black cis woman, will never know or understand about Angelica Ross’ life as a Black trans woman, there’s also much in her story that I recognize in my own. I know the fury and frustration of on-the-job harassment (particularly in the food service industry, where sexual harassment by both customers and supervisors is disgustingly common.) I know the disappointment and anguish of working in purportedly progressive spaces that nevertheless fail to fully support folks with marginalized identities or honor all that we bring to the table. And I know the anxious liberation of leaving those spaces to start something completely new.
In her HRC speech, Ross remarks that after her much-too-common experiences of harassment and discrimination, including being fired for being trans in earlier jobs, and being tokenized and undervalued in others, “I wanted to offer my community a different experience. So I made one of the most challenging decisions: to quit my job, with no life raft tied to the boat.”
By quitting her existing job when she knew it wasn’t working for her, and taking a leap of faith into the world of social entrepreneurship, Ross also leapt into the longstanding history of Black women, cis and trans, who continually figure out how to make a way out of no way — and improve untold numbers of other people’s lives in doing so.
Part of the “way” Ross made includes being a public speaker as well as playing a leading role in the Emmy-nominated web series, Her Story. She is also the founding CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, a creative design firm that employs and serves as a career and personal development hub for trans and gender nonconforming people.
As someone who works in digital and does social justice work, I find it impossible not to notice how overwhelmingly white and male the digital sector is, and the world of social enterprise. It’s also impossible not to notice, despite their best intentions, how detrimental that dominance can be to the user experience of the tools and platforms they manage, and how their actions (or inaction) can delay justice for the very people they claim to want to help. (Anyone who’s ever been harassed on platforms like Twitter, or wondered how social enterprises that seek to “empower” oppressed people don’t include said people in decision-making roles, can attest to this.)
Moreover, as a feminist who cares deeply about workplace justice (and economic justice overall), it’s also impossible not to be angered and saddened by the persistence of oppression at every intersection of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability status. Part of why I find Angelica Ross so inspiring is that her work challenges this negative reality in words and action. She embodies what it means to not merely talk the talk needed to lament and raise up a problem, but to walk the walk necessary to solve it.
I’m glad to see high-profile people like Melissa Harris-Perry and organizations like HRC celebrate people like Angelica Ross, and hope others will as well. Visibility is vital to getting the economic and social support needed to keep doing this necessary work, and to ensuring that others can see and be inspired by examples like hers. May we all keep walking this walk, until all of our diverse paths ultimately lead to equality.