A day before the iconic Angela Davis and feminist thinker Gina Dent spoke to the New York University Florence community about systemic racism within American institutions, two NYU Florence students organized a series of panels to discuss how race and gender impact the representations and interactions of Black women globally. The event was entitled the “Black Femininity Series.” Six Black women, leaders in their respective fields, shared their experiences and reflected on how they combat the prejudices they face that affect their professional relationships and self-perceptions.
I was one of the organizers of the event alongside my friend and colleague Rahni Davis. Rahni and I are young Black women ourselves, passionate about diversity, promoting more nuanced representations of Black women and their role in society, and bringing this diverse conversation to the global forum in Florence, Italy. On a cold October evening together we jotted down a proposal for the Black Femininity Series in the basement of Rahni’s home stay. The idea ascended to heights we never anticipated.
Before the event, we asked students around campus to complete a survey on their experiences of diversity at NYU Florence and their understanding of Black Femininity in order to gauge their awareness of and opinion on the topic. Many of the students who replied to the survey expressed that Black Femininity was about “empowerment” and “strength” and “overcoming the obstacles [of] anti-blackness [and] being feminine….” Their responses reflected an overall positive reception to Black Femininity, but their answers to more complex questions uncovered troubling patterns. Their feedback revealed the lack of visibility of positive Black role models.
Even with a Black woman as the First Lady of the United States, the negative stereotypes of Black women are so prevalent and salient that positive perceptions remain marginalized. For example, we asked students to name any Black-owned businesses they knew of, but only thirty percent were able to recall and identify a business. When students were asked to describe how they believe Black women are portrayed in the media, half of them cited negative “stereotypes.” All of the remarks to this question highlighted the negative perceptions of Black women within society. Students remarked that the media failed to provide “nuanced” representations with “depth”, especially in comparison to their “White counterparts.” From the survey results it was possible to sew a thread of common stereotypes for Black women such as “poor, illiterate, overtly sexual, angry, and fetishized.” Sixty percent of responses expressed sentiments that the Black women were painted as “loud” or “aggressive,” variations of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ image repeated on various media outlets. These personifications dehumanize the Black woman, and characterizes them more as rabid and volatile animals, rather than as women and human beings.
The students’ reflections motivated Rahni and I all the more to provide a platform to celebrate the accomplishments of Black women and frame them as the accomplished women they are. Our panelists offered their own diverse interpretations of being a Black woman in business and in the media space. Brandi Harvey, an educator and civic leader, conveyed her life mission to help Black families break the ceaseless cycle of estrangement caused by hundreds of years of systemic oppression. Saran Kaba Jones told the story of initiating her own humanitarian initiative through FACE Africa, a community development organization working to strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and services in rural communities across sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Clare Anyiam-Osigwe discussed her life and the struggles of starting her own skincare beauty brand Premae, even though there were many obstacles before her, she never lost sight of her goal and ambition to succeed. She told the story of how she used the pseudonym of a White woman to network professionally because she was denied and ignored so many times when requests were sent from her authentic identity as a Black woman. Rachel Wang spoke about founding the film production company Chocolate Films and using it as a platform to celebrate and advocate for the diversity of Black women. Her current project ‘1000 Londoners’ features the personalities of so many different Black women, a stand against the common stereotypes in the media. Zerlina Maxwell discussed ‘rape culture’ and how it permeates society, conditioning us subliminally to believe that the convicted deserve our sympathy, while the victim deserves our censure. Camonghne Felix spoke about being a poet and thinker in a predominantly White space and finding the value in your voice and thoughts even if other people fail to recognize it. They disclosed who they were in order to educate students on the struggles of being a Black woman and empower every student to live their own truth, boldly, without society’s characterizations that may attempt to box or limit them.
The significance of their words was felt by the audience and such is revealed in the responses to a survey we sent to students who attended. After the event we asked students to examine the panelists and their presentations. Eighty percent of the responses recalled the panelists as “friendly”, much different from the loud or aggressive stereotypes that pervade popular culture. All students who responded said they would recommend our panel series to a friend; one student noted the worth in “hear[ing] each other’s stories” and another regarded value in celebrating the “diversity” of Black women and humanity in general.
Our event teaches that ‘Black Femininity’ is relevant to more than just Black women. The intersectionality of this identity encompasses the Black identity and the female gender; it is an expression of the multiple intersecting identities that exist within all of us. Black femininity is not only beneficial for Black women. Regardless of race or gender, the values and stories of these Black female leaders can be an inspiration and add more depth to our understanding of what it means to be a leader in general. As one of the students commented: “Black Femininity does not only advocate equality for one specific race but also for all minorities.” The panelists explored themes of resilience, paving your own path in life, and finding a voice to be proud of. An NYU Florence student noted that the event offered an “incredible range of unbelievably accomplished women from so many different backgrounds and with different personalities” that helped to “broaden [their] horizons” on identity and heritage. The message of the diverse topics discussed at the event were meant for more than just those who may consider themselves diverse, the event expounded upon life lessons and gems of knowledge that everyone can use to shine.
With the help of the Black Femininity Series student committee, the La Pietra Dialogues staff and the amazing panelists, NYU Florence became a platform from which to embrace the future of diversity, a healing experience imperative to the fight for equality and needed in a time when a lot of rhetoric has attempted to divide us instead of unify us.