Growing up Black: Being a young, Black woman in Britain – Part three

In this series of blogs, published over three weeks, Jasmine reflects on a number of prominent social, economic and identity barriers young, Black women face every day. Drawing on the knowledge shared by the panellists at our #YoungAndBlack: Black Female Identity within the UK event, alongside her own experiences, Jasmine provides discusses just what it means to be a young, Black woman in the UK, how that experience shapes and defines you, and what needs to change.

Jasmine During is a National Programme Coordinator at UK Youth.

Part three

The importance of role models

Positive role models are so important for every Black woman, especially when considering the lack of visibility we often face. I have seen the benefits from both sides: having AND being a role model. At work, UK Youth’s  CEO, Ndidi Okezie, is an  educated, intelligent and passionate Black woman. She is also of African heritage, has lived in South London, went to the same university as me AND has experience within the education sector. Although it was her ‘People First’ mantra that immediately thrilled me, I remember the big (embarrassingly loud) gasp that I made during her first ever organisation-wide meeting as she mentioned the university she attended. There was this well accomplished woman, who not only looked like me, but was a living, breathing example of what you should be able to accomplish regardless of what you look like and where you come from. Having seen some of the horror stories around discrimination and bias coming out of #CharitySoWhite, and experiencing imposter syndrome myself, the impact her presence had on me was immense.

How many young Black women can say the same about their workplaces? Not many. This is confirmed by the recent findings that only 51 of the top 1,097 workplace roles in the UK are held by Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people. When you look deeper, out of those 51 people, a mere 2 were Black women compared to 14 Black men. This is a perfect example of a) the problem with the term BAME, and b) the importance of considering intersectionality in future solution-focused work. Saadia sees the need for more role models within education too. In her own words, “The curriculum needs to be more representative. They need to be learning about the contributions of Black people. They need to walk in a room and see a Black teacher and be represented”. This is a view that has led to a petition calling for the Black History to be introduced in the primary curriculum, as well as a social enterprise, The Black Curriculum, taking the responsibility to address the lack of Black British history in the UK Curriculum.

To me it is simple: without the visibility of Black women and girls in all institutions, we will continue to be forgotten. Rachel puts it perfectly: “[the] importance of good role models in every sector is because we are influenced by the people around us and our role models. People that tell you, you can be yourself”.

Lack of representation in the beauty conversation

Being yourself should also include having your own beauty standards as well as role models that empower you to embrace your natural beauty. When I think about the power Black women and girls possess to be role models, my mind takes me back to one particular day. As I was roaming the school corridors at the start of a new role, a young Black girl came up to me and expressed how happy she was to see a teacher with natural hair, and that she liked it. This was a huge moment for me as I already viewed myself as a role model to my friends and family who I was empowering to start or persevere with their own natural hair journeys, but this was the first time I truly understood how just being myself could inspire feelings of self-confidence and belonging for all the young Black girls that I would meet in my role. Although I have had many amazing days working with kids in different settings, that day I went home with a full heart.

It is easy to understand why it was such a big day for us both because like many young Black girls, I too relaxed (chemically straightening) my hair during my secondary school days. Most of the Black girls I knew did it for similar reasons: easier to maintain, less nappy hair jokes, and more likely to be noticed positively. When you explore issues of colourism, and preferences for European features, it is not surprising that many Black girls struggle to see themselves as naturally beautiful. Mix this with the rise of social media, Black girls have been inundated with abuse smothered in colorism, misogynoir and bullying – something young Black girls have learnt to internalise.

The dating world also discriminates against black women, with TV shows like Love Island becoming an uncomfortable watch for many of us. It is not just reality TV shows, black women often face negative experiences on dating apps. Research for one dating website even showed that black women receive fewer messages than all users. Tatiana accepts that she was afforded a lot of privilege having fairer skin and a different hair type, and felt that society sees her as what she calls ‘a more palatable Black’.

When she tried to empower her dark-skinned friends to wear braids at work after hearing them affirm that they would never wear it in their corporate jobs, she conceded knowing that they cannot be afforded the same privilege that she has. Some people even go to the lengths of chemically lighten their skin (bleaching). As a dark-skinned woman, Dunolo often had aunties buying her skin lightening cream out of love thinking that is what would help her come up and feel more beautiful. In fact, it is not just harmful products that is a problem, the beauty industry is completely failing black women. It is no surprise Rihanna’s Fenty franchise was a godsend to black women.

But there is hope yet. Ebinehita’s shout out to all the young Black girls who are doing braids and hair, reminds us that we can take back power and create our own beauty standards through entrepreneurship. My own hair journey started through reading my cousin’s Natural hair and beauty magazine; my sister not only creates customised clothing and accessories (in the summer she donated the proceeds from a special edition to  Black organisations), she also taught herself to braid hair with extensions – saving her 100s of pounds. Busayo’s university module on the economics of beauty have shown her that “we can’t afford to have stupid ideologies around beauty…” due to how expensive Black hair care and beauty can be. Hustling is not a new thing for Black people though, and Victoria links the hustle with the fact Black women and girls are always faced with challenges that they need to overcome.

Going forwards

If we truly want to support young Black women, Rachel views the need for more realistic role models of beauty standards over celebrities as essential. Working people who have had similar experiences to them. As Busayo exclaims, there is “Nothing left for Black women to do – we are doing it! Not a question for Black women, it is for everyone else”. Education and entrepreneurship is key for Victoria, who believes that we can now continue to build our own systems. For Ebinetha, to be able to build, you have to support the things that are already there and not be afraid to plug your work.

Due to a lack of our experiences being documented and extensively researched, we have to continue documenting our own girlhood and adulthood experiences too.  Saadia has seen the benefits of giving back to her community so that other young Black girls can benefit from similar opportunities but she also wants to see more research done that aims to understand how each institution disadvantages Black girls and women so that better solutions can be created.

Read, read read! Read books and articles by and for Black women which will help you feel seen and will validate your experiences. This will also help you be comfortable with your identity – knowing that you are not alone. Some books that helped guide me through adulthood include Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say),  We Should All Be Feminists and Taking Up Space. Stormzy’s #Merky Books partnership with Penguin Random House has also afforded us a plethora of books written by Black British authors. Saadia wants Black girls to “…love all elements of her identity and be confident in her own skin and ethnicity.”

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