Support All Black Girls (Not Just the Ones You Know)
Updated: Jul 16, 2022
When I attended my first class at NYU Tisch, I did what I always do: count the number of Black people in the class and convert it to a percentage. In my first class— a documentary production course— I was one of two Black students in a class of nineteen students in total. This fraction amounts to 10.53%, which is higher than 8%, NYU’s 2023 undergraduate Black population. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. Attending a predominately white high school had made me accustomed to being a part of the 10.53%. On film sets, in writing workshops, and in Zoom courses, I’ve often found my limbs wedged into uncomfortably slim percentages. However, few of these places ever acknowledged the absence of diversity — maybe one or two Black students seemed to be enough. It felt clear to me that once I — a biracial Black woman entered these rooms — the door promptly shut behind me.
Introduction to Macroeconomics is one of my favorite courses I’ve ever taken at NYU. On my first day, I conducted my usual headcount. Out of a lecture of 335 students, I saw only two other Black women in the lecture hall. I was one of the 0.59%. That day, I learned that one of the foundational principles of economics is that resources are scarce. Was this why some sources estimate that there are only 12 Black Economics students at NYU in total — not 12%, just 12 in general? Maybe there were simply not enough resources, not enough seats in the classroom for every bright and motivated Black girl to sit in them. There is a belief that once one Black girl finds her way into an important room, she’ll bring the rest of us with her. But what happens when academic, professional and creative institutions led by non-Black people only allow one Black woman in that room? And the next? And the next? What happens when that one Black woman begins to fear that if another Black woman is let in, she will be pushed out in turn? What happens when that one Black woman does attempt to share her success with other black women but institutional barriers prevent her from doing so? White institutions and the Black women who hold positions of power within them must resist the artificial scarcity of existing diversity initiatives. We must extend opportunities to all Black women, not just those who benefit from proximity to whiteness, wealth, or influence.
Me working on a Black-woman-directed short film. (Credit: Zahri Josita Jackson)
This artificial scarcity — or the idea that there is not enough space for all Black women in a room — has bred a sense of elitism that has existed throughout Black history. From the divide between “uppity” wealthy Black people and “ghetto” lower-income Black people to the light skin versus dark skin divide, those with greater degrees of privilege have drawn invisible lines in the sand to bring themselves closer to whiteness and all the opportunities that come with it, furthering the colonial weapon of “divide-and-conquer” that white institutions have exploited for centuries. When people of privilege within the black community (whether through skin tone or access to wealth and influence) ascend to these positions of power, all black people are told to accept these as universal wins despite the continued exclusion of the majority of the black community. “Look at Obama and Oprah,” says America’s whittled-down version of Black history month. “What more do you people want?” This implies that one Black person in the room is enough to support the building. It is not, and it has never been.
Despite my struggles with a lack of diversity throughout my academic experience, I have had the honor of meeting and working with talented Black women who are capable of achieving their wildest dreams. Black women are among the most educated groups in America in addition to being the fastest-growing group of business owners in the country. Black women from every stratum of society are educating themselves and doing the hard work to succeed. However, Black women constitute only 8% of private-sector jobs. As a result of the pandemic’s detrimental impact on employment opportunities, the unemployment rate among Black people as a whole is 6.1%, which is higher than the unemployment rate of white, Asian, and Latine people in the U.S. The hard truth is that while legions of Black women are preparing themselves for important rooms — rooms they deserve to be in — many doors remain shut, preventing us from entering them. The handful of opportunities offered to Black people — especially Black women — are meager compared to the wealth of talent and ability we possess as a community.
It is important to note that Black women are not a monolith. There are varying degrees of privilege amongst Black women (influenced by skin color, sexuality, gender identity and socioeconomic status) that have material consequences. As a Black woman on a scholarship without direct industry connections, I often found myself excluded from opportunities. Despite my efforts to show up and say “yes,” I did not have access to the same opportunities some of my peers did. Simultaneously, affluent Black girls with famous family members were able to open doors to professional and creative opportunities using a key I didn’t possess. While I admire the achievements of my ambitious and hard-working peers, it is important to acknowledge that the few spaces available to Black women are primarily inhabited by a small group who benefit from combinations of nepotism, colorism, and/or economic privilege. This is why you may never see more than a few black women on a film set despite there being many in the industry.
I am not exempt from this equation. As a biracial and light-skinned Black woman at an elite private, white institution, I have also undoubtedly benefited from being amongst the 10.53%. I have witnessed firsthand how dark-skinned Black women, disabled Black women, lower-income and other further marginalized Black women are barred from opportunities they are more than deserving of. Transgender Black women in particular face multiple forces of oppression —transgender people experience an unemployment rate of 26%, with over 34% living in extreme poverty. Marginalized Black creatives and professionals are exploited and forced to over-work themselves in order to achieve and maintain recognition and relevance. Only a small portion of Black women actually receive a portion of the recognition they deserve. Every Black girl deserves to have that chance without sacrificing their health or dignity.
Harriet Tubman Statue in Harlem, New York. (Credit: Ava Emilione)
Black women are not to blame for our oppression, nor should they be expected to bear the responsibility of bringing their whole communities with them. This insidious cycle of exclusion is not our fault. All Black women are deserving of their wins regardless of how big or small they are. However, Black women who are (rightfully) rising to success should be careful not to uphold the 10.53%, which often excludes poor Black women, transgender Black women, queer Black women, dark-skinned Black women, fat Black women and disabled Black women. But Black women cannot be expected to do the work alone. These institutions must also contribute to the destruction of the structures that limit Black women’s opportunities, especially because they both uphold and benefit these harmful structures.
How can both white institutions and the Black women who benefit from them support the other 89.47%? White directors: make the effort to invite more than one or two Black women on your set. Black women who are building creative or professional teams: take a chance on Black women you don’t know. Everyone: stop basing people’s potential and capabilities on who they know and who they don’t. We all must make the effort to evaluate our internalized classism, colorism, homophobia, and transphobia— all of which influence which Black women we open the door for and which ones we don’t. It is important to take every opportunity possible to bring as many black women as you can into these spaces. In other words, open the door more often when you get the chance, and a little wider each time.
It is not enough for employers, directors and members of academia of all races to support the Black women they know or the ones who fit into bias-influenced criteria. We must also support the Black women we do not know. We must support the Black women who look different than us, who go to different schools, or no school at all. We must support the Black women without no industry connections. We must support Black women in wheelchairs, Black women who like women, Black women who are transgender, Black women who live in the countryside, and Black women who defy our expectations. Those who fail to support all Black women fail every one of us.
Edited by: Maia McDonald
Cover Photo Credit: Jasmine LeCount-McClanahan