Maria Paradinas reviews a panel event on the subject of ‘Being a Black Women Creative’ that took place last week at the Bristol Students’ Union.
Last week, the Bristol SU was blessed with the palpably sublime presence of Chiddera Eggerue (a.k.a, The Slumflower), Munroe Bergdorf, Eva Lazarus and Vanessa Kisuule. Discussing their experiences as black women working in the creative industry, they schooled us on topics from self-care to fee negotiation, dealing with trolls to the therapeutic value of Yankee Candles. Collectively their talents include (but are not limited to) journalism, playwriting, poetry, activism and music, and this span of creative endeavours fed into a rich conversation about the nature and practical reality of this work.
The talk began with a discussion of selfhood. Self-care has become a buzz-word in black feminism, and feminism in general, but it truly can’t be overstated. As black women, we are expected to be utterly resilient, ineffably strong. But despite the expectations, we are often strained, and cracks do start to lurk under the melanin. Munroe stressed the necessity of a strong sense of self as a foundation for confidence, and that all of us should nurture a sense of individuality. Invest your time in selfhood, they insisted, and use it as a source of power.
We need to recognise the measures we can take to self-protect and self-preserve, whether they be days off to mindlessly watch Netflix, paying for therapy or meditating. Finding ways to empower yourself is as necessary as the actual work, and we are told to remember that productivity doesn’t equal self-worth.
If you want to work freelance in the creative industry you’ll probably start out doing a lot of unpaid work. This work will develop your craft, undoubtedly give you good contacts and strengthen your confidence, but with no frame of reference, it can be difficult to know when your time and services are being exploited. The advice that was given on this was to put your foot down in one way or another: if you’re not being paid for your work, negotiate. Oftentimes a company that cannot pay you will instead give you something for free, and asking for this not only will develop your own confidence and sense of worth in your creative service, but keeps the standard high so that other creatives aren’t expected to endlessly work for nothing.
The conversation went on to discuss the internet and social media. The reality is that the internet has done amazing things to connect international communities and underground subcultures, as well as decentralising mainstream media and creating a useful tool for building a career. Despite all the positives, the harsh fact is that the internet is sometimes a really toxic space, and is literally engineered to manipulate our attention which can be damaging to our mental health. Trolls and bots, as well as those who just want to intellectually antagonise, work purely to fling out abuse. Being subject to this abuse is unfortunately inescapable for many empowered black women, particularly black transgender women, who have the nerve to be confident and self-assured enough to express themselves online. Recognise those that only seek to trigger you. Don’t check the twitter mentions; don’t check the Instagram comments and recognise that if you truly believe in the work that you are doing, and are firm in that belief, it doesn’t matter if someone disagrees with you. The truth is that it’s emotionally exhausting to always listen to people who are constantly reaching to anger you, especially when they stay firm in their resolve and aren’t going to listen to a word you have to say on the subject. We also have to bear in mind that it’s not our responsibility as black women to educate the world and single-handedly dismantle misogynoir. Only engage in what genuinely matters to you and is positively serving you.
When asked about the biggest challenge they have faced as black women in the creative industry, Chiddera stated that for her, it’s the reaction to when she brings up the racism and sexism that occurs in the industry – gaslighting and accusations of just having a ‘victim mentality’. People love to ridicule, attack or pick apart your response to these experiences, rather than actually confronting the issue itself.
Munroe discussed her appearance on Good Morning Britain and the gaslighting perpetrated by Piers Morgan, that she so patiently and eloquently dealt with. She was asked if we should boycott media channels that are so enragingly problematic. She responded by arguing that, actually, boycotting mainstream news shows is counterproductive as these conversations are important, they are inevitably going to happen, and we need to be present in them.
Vanessa spoke about the pressure felt by people of colour to perform oppression, and how we are continuously drawn into the same narratives as producers and consumers. This adds further to our dehumanisation, as our stories are limited to the arc of struggle. Her confessions of listening to Avril Lavigne with fishnet arm-warmers as a 12-year old (Claire’s Accessories I’m looking at you), and it not being at odds with her blackness is highly relatable. The white patriarchy puts in place apparently mutually exclusive identifying terms to strangle the expansion of self-growth and exploration. Why not ‘black’ and ‘emo’, and why do most of the awkward coming-of-age films feature white leads? We must grant ourselves our full humanity, and not wait to be granted it.
As many of us have internalised racist and sexist rhetoric, the truth undoubtedly is that self-doubt is holding us back. However, these intelligent, glowing and confident women serve as living proof that it is possible to be a successful, proud black woman creative.
The panel was empowering and liberating, high quality, and featured some highly-sought after and high profile women. Towards the end of the discussion, each member of the panel was asked for a piece of advice for aspiring creatives: discover who you are and find a mentor; being respected is better than being liked; find time for joy and curate your world.
The discussion closed with the final question: what is your definition of feminism? Munroe’s non-essentialising and forward-looking response cracked open the topic of gender. ‘It is not just equality of the sexes, but equality of identities’. Gender and race feed into our identity but do not define our identity.
Illustration by Maria Paradinas.