13 October 2020
In this series of blogs, published over three weeks, Jasmine reflects on a number of prominent social, economic and identity barriers facing young, Black women every day. Drawing on knowledge shared by the panellists at our #YoungAndBlack: Black Female Identity within the UK event, alongside her own experiences, Jasmine discusses just what it means to grow up as 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.
“What does it mean to be a young Black woman in the UK?”
This was the opening question asked during ‘Black Female Identity within the UK’, one in a series of online events forming part of UK Youth’s #YoungandBlack campaign.
The panel, Rachel Ojo, Tatiana Desouza , Ebinehita Iyere, Dunolo Oladapo, Busayo Twins, Victoria Azubuike and Saadia, a selection of intelligent and successful Black women armed with a vast array of knowledge and experiences, initially spoke about the lasting effects of young Black girls not being seen as young girls, but being immediately escalated to women.
Ebinehita put it like so “we see Black women but not Black girls in the UK”. She’s right, the issues we face are at best forgotten, and at worst, deliberately buried. Busayo supposes that the dehumanisation of Black women allows us to go unseen. This, she says, is a result of Black women and girls being an “extension of the Black community” and only being there “to compliment Black men’s lifestyle”.
Indeed, when Black women are overlooked in conversations of racism or sexism, an ‘intersectional invisibility’ allows for them to be marginalised in movements that are supposed to be helping their plights. This is evident in the lack of awareness around police brutality cases against women to the point that only a few people will remain standing in a room when asked if they recognise names of African-American women who were police brutality victims. #SayHerName was initiated, by Black women, to bring awareness to this issue, and shows that we can only truly be seen if our experiences are fully researched and documented.
Violence against Black women and girls does not stop at police brutality either. There is a long history of violence against us that often goes unnoticed and unreported, and we are often left out of national domestic violence conversations. I was amazed at how hard I had to search for data relating to the experiences I know are real, and as Ebinehita rightly remarks, many of the Black male experiences that are documented are experienced by Black women too.
Lack of support for Black girls and women
For our voices to be heard society needs to value Black women and girls. Sadly, it often feels like it is not the case. “No one cares enough” is how Dunola put it. The key for her is building networks within the Black community because the only support systems that truly helped her the most were her secondary school and university girl group chats. It was within these she felt safe to tackle mental health issues and received encouragement to achieve her full potential.
When I think about the spaces I have felt safe in, I have joyous memories from events such as Afropunk Paris (2019) – one of my favourite solo trips, and Black Girl Fest (2019), events accepting of and celebrating the vast range of people within the black diaspora.
Busayo reflected on the lack of safe spaces for Black women, as well as the lack of reciprocation even when Black women consistently create safe spaces for other marginalised groups. This is a conversation that Black women have often, and it is often left to organisations run by Black women to advocate strategically for Black women’s rights. Sometimes those support systems are taken over by other groups with little acknowledgement for the founders. An example of this is when hashtags like #MeToo go viral and the history behind it is neglected for the purposes of other groups, leaving the original people it was created to raise awareness for, left in the shadows (again). History has always seen Black women at the forefront of movements which seek change, justice, and highlight inequality, so why do they often feel alone in the fight when the issues relate to them?
As young Black girls, Busayo asserts that “you’re already threatening, you’re already a problem”, and the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype does little to help. Whether you simply speak up against discrimination or show your emotions, people are quick to label you as angry without acknowledging what it is that triggered you. This often leads to a lack of attention paid to deserving issues, and the pressure of trying to conform and fit in by hiding aspects of your identity to avoid giving anyone the opportunity to assign you with negative labels, or say you have an attitude. My heart broke when Dunolo disclosed that “the biggest fear of my life, as a Black girl and a dark skin girl [are] the layers of trauma”.
Adultification and trauma
One prevalent issue is the early adultification of Black girls in which we are forced to grow up faster than we should, and are seemingly less afforded the joys of girlhood, innocence, and leeway. As Busayo painfully puts it “we are grown women from birth”. Research consistently shows that adults perceive Black girls as less innocent than white girls from as young as 5 years old. Adults were even found to try to change Black girls’ behaviour so they are more passive, and had less empathy for them compared to their white peers. One film that shows the urgency of this issue is the film ‘Cuties’ which shocked a whole nation with its Netflix cover showing what many perceived as the oversexualisation of young girls. Though it was very disturbing to watch, it showed the two sides of the adultification of young Black girls: cultural expectations and hypersexualisation.
As a young Black woman myself, I can remember the cultural burdens and expectations placed on my shoulders very early on; from the expectation to learn to cook and clean whilst my brothers got to play, to being told that ‘girls don’t play football’ even when I expressed a great interest in it. Without cruel intention, those words spoken to me as a football-obsessed pre-teen meant that I traded my love of football for something more ‘appropriate’. In my case this was music and drama. And though I joined in with interform football at my secondary school, I only really got back into football when I was a more self-assured 20-year-old.
In addition, you deal with society’s expectations of who you are meant to be, which are never far behind you. Whether it is ‘loud’, ‘sassy’ , ‘rude’ or ‘difficult’, the negative words associated with Black women are bourne of implicit biases from both students and other educators – causing great harm and trauma that haunt our transitions from girlhood to adulthood. It pains me to think of the many Black girls who are currently internalising the traumas of their negative experiences in order to survive and ‘rise up’. Negative stereotypes of Black women, racism, sexism, and poverty all contribute to this adultification bias – leaving a trail of traumas that eventually manifest during adulthood.
We are discriminated against in vital healthcare systems too. Black women are still five times more likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth or in the postpartum period, compared to their white counterparts. This could be because some medical students still believe that Black people feel less pain, and so do not take their cries seriously. “Because of our resilience to overcome the bad, no one sees that we are suffering”, states Busayo. Victoria also believes that part of being a Black woman is needing resilience to survive, and she has used her own experiences in her work with young girls.
There is also a lack of visibility of Black skin in medical books, with dark skin underrepresented in the case of skin conditions and diseases including six common cancers. Some of these diseases look different based on skin tone, so it is baffling as to why medical books would snub diversity. In the UK, a lack of information about melanoma in dark-skinned people haunts even the NHS website, so thankfully websites like The Black Skin Directory are around to help counteract this lack of awareness.