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Speaker’s message: ‘Be strong and celebrate who you are’

Diversity series lecturer encourages embracing multiple identities

GRCC —  “I wish someone told my younger self that I didn’t have to assimilate to be accepted,” Jazz McKinney said, speaking to an audience gathered at the Applied Technology Center at Grand Rapids Community College. 

McKinney, executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center, was the keynote speaker for GRCC’s Diversity Lecture Series, offered in partnership with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The series provides GRCC students and the community access to scholars, thought-leaders, activists, and innovative artists shaping a culture of inclusion and social justice. 

Growing up Black, Native American and queer, McKinney, who uses gender neutral pronouns, spoke about embracing multiple identities and communities in their talk, “Complexed and Vexed: Celebrating Afro-Indigeneity as a Queer Two-Spirit Person.”

Jazz McKinney, executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center, was the keynote speaker for GRCC’s Diversity Lecture Series (courtesy)

Celebrating All Identities

McKinney grew up in Detroit with multiple generations living in one house and a love for Motown music. Attending an Afrocentric elementary school taught McKinney to speak Swahili and be proud of their culture.

Growing up around other Black people, McKinney hid their Native background and queerness to avoid harassment. They said it was difficult to learn more about their Native American heritage when it wasn’t taught in school. 

“In order for me to get to a point where I could celebrate all my identities, I had to educate myself; that’s where it starts,” McKinney said. “I would have loved to have a teacher teach me about powwows. Even just telling me about it would have opened up a world of things.” 

McKinney described what it felt like to choose one identity or the other to fit in at school and in the community.

“Other people try to choose what side you are, but I’ve always been Native. Why can’t I be part Black and part something else? When you see me, you see a reflection of all my ancestors.”

Proudly Two-spirited 

McKinney explained how they did not learn the history of two-spirit people – referring to an Indigenous person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit – until they were older. 

“Growing up, I identified as a lesbian because that’s the term I knew,” McKinney said. “Through the oral history of Native people, they forgot two-spirit people existed because my ancestors took on the gender roles of the colonizers.”

They added: “The term ‘two-spirit’ was created in the 1990s to talk about something we always knew was there.” 

‘In order for me to get to a point where I could celebrate all my identities, I had to educate myself; that’s where it starts.’

Jazz McKinney, executive director of the Grand Rapids Pride Center

McKinney also addressed how individual identities are nuanced and sometimes intersect with different communities of people. 

“How I identify as Black may be different from another Black person’s identity and that is okay,” they said. “Be strong and celebrate who you are. You are enough.”

Creating spaces in the community that celebrate all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or socio-economic status, McKinney said, will help people feel more comfortable talking about issues of injustice.

“We need to talk about justice for Black people, Native people and queer people. Intersectional communities fighting for and supporting each other against white supremacy.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio


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