“Black women today are well past making waves — we’re currently creating something of a tsunami. Women who look like us, grew up in similar places to us, talk like us, are shaping almost every sector of society.” Slay In Your Lane is the very definition of #BlackGirlMagic — a book celebrating Black British women in all their glory, with the aim of showing young Black girls that there is no limit to the roles they can carve for themselves in the world.
Written by best friends Yomi Adegoke, a journalist, and Elizabeth Uviebinené, a marketing manager. It deals with racism, sexism, elitism and how they intersect, with anecdotes from a host of successful Black British women — such as the singer and TV presenter Jamelia, the children’s author Malorie Blackman, the MP Dawn Butler (who tells a story of being mistaken as a cleaner by a fellow MP), BAFTA-winning director Amma Asante, and the Olympic gold medalist Denise Lewis. They talk about their own experiences of growing up Black in Britain; experiencing micro-aggressions, imposter syndrome, the fetishisation of Black women, feelings of isolation and invisibility, interwoven with stories of success, happiness and smashing expectations.
Encased in a hot pink cover and published by 4th Estate (the same publisher as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) in July, the book has gained non-stop media attention since, and the authors have appeared on BBC Breakfast, British Vogue, and the Guilty Feminist podcast. Now BRICKS gets the chance to grill them on their Black girl bible…
When and how did you get the idea to write Slay in Your Lane?
Elizabeth Uviebinené: I always say that exasperation and optimism inspired Slay In Your Lane. The exasperation part came from when I was working at a big corporate firm. I asked myself, how can I be in the driving seat of my career and prosper and progress? I looked at my boss who was white and my boss’ boss, he was white, and his boss was white, and his boss was white. That was the moment when I was like ‘ok, will I fit in and how can I prosper here?’
I was reading these books, one of which was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and although there were parts that I learnt from and related to, it didn’t address the uniquely challenging experiences faced by me and women who look like me. I guess now, I wouldn’t expect it to because she could only speak to one facet of my being — my womanhood. When I think of myself, I don’t think of myself as a woman, I see myself as a Black woman. So anything I consume regarding culture in media and books, it’s all through that lens.
I noticed that when a lot of Black women enter the workplace, we discover a lot of unwritten rules for getting ahead that we struggle to understand, let alone follow. When I was reading books like that and articles like ’5 steps to getting ahead in your career’, they don’t take into account the experiences of what it is to be a Black woman in a predominantly white space. How do you navigate that to progress in your career when being forthright in a white man’s world and a white woman’s world is seen as something to be applauded and assertive? All while acting the same as a Black woman, it can be read as being aggressive or ‘too much’?
When I think of myself, I don’t think of myself as a woman, I see myself as a Black woman.
So I was thinking about that and then I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, so at that point, it felt like I wasn’t getting enough — it didn’t speak to me. I called my best friend, Yomi during a lunch break at the end of a bad week, I said, ‘Look, I want you to write a book that will speak to young Black girls, not just me, because this is something that’s widespread’, and later on we decided to work on it together.
The book is full of brilliant advice for Black women, but if you could pick one piece of information to give to all young Black women what would it be?
EU: I think the one piece of advice that I would give to young Black women is to explore your passions. I think having a strong sense of self is one of the most important things in life. When you explore your passions, you can examine who you are, work out what’s expected from you, and what you expect from yourself — external from your parents’ or teachers’ expectations — you can then work out what you really want from life. When you truly become that person I think it’s such a liberating feeling. Don’t let life happen to you, be in the driving seat as much as possible, don’t sit by and wait for opportunities to come your way or sit by and watch everybody live their life. Go out there, meet different people, put yourself forward for things; if it scares you to do it, do it.
In the book, you say that role models matter to the next generation more than ever. Who was your role model when you were growing up? And do you have the same role model now or has it changed?
EU: Regarding role models, I used to admire loads of women, it wasn’t only Black women. I think for me one of the themes among the women I admire is that they’re prosperous and powerful, and I think that was what I aspired to be; a powerful woman. June Sarpong, the Black British TV presenter was someone that inspired me early on, especially being a Black woman on TV and seeing her nearly every other day, so that was a big thing growing up. I look now and I think wow, the way she’s been able to progress in her career and pivot to doing different things and have a long-standing career is amazing and I admire it so much because it’s not easy to do — to maintain relevancy and authenticity is something that I admire so much in her. So she would definitely be one of those women that I looked up to then and I still look up to now. And role models matter because you’ve got to see it to believe it. There is so much value in representation, I don’t think we realise it.
You say your book is #BlackGirlMagic-personified, and it really is a wonderful celebration of Black women. Do you think there has been a turning point in our society where the Black female experience is being recognised and talked about, or do you think more needs to be done to fuel conversations and awareness?
EU: I think it’s a ‘what a time to be alive’ moment. I look at America and Shonda Rhimes and Serena, but over here in Britain it is also something that is absolutely like we’re doing our stuff as well. I think this book, people like The Slumflower who’s just released a best selling book, she’s an amazing woman. Reni Eddo-Lodge is killing it; then there’s Otegha Uwagba who had a book that was also a Sunday Times Best Seller. These are all Black women, we all are different and all have different perspectives, and it’s incredible to see that we are taking on the publishing world in spectacular form.
So it does feel like a turning point in that sense, and even the September [magazine] issues, we are seeing Black women on the covers. It definitely feels like there is something in the air that means there is progress being made and I think the work that [British] Vogue is doing with their ‘new Vogue’ and Vanessa Kingori [publishing director of British Vogue] is doing does actually make a difference. So it does feel like there is a turning point where the Black female experience, especially the Black British female experience, is being recognised and talked about.
I think we can do more to fuel those conversations because I think things feeling diverse and like a celebration is amazing, but I always say that what we need as well as the institutional side of it to work in tandem for it to be really groundbreaking. So that’s why Vogue is really interesting because you’re not just putting Black women on the front cover you also have a Black British female publisher, Vanessa Kingori, and the editor is a Black man [Edward Enninful]; these things matter. Even Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, I think we need more of that but not just because ’oh it looks good’, we need Black women and Black people to be in those positions that can actually affect change and can commission diverse perspectives. Putting famous Black women on covers is important, but we also need institutional change as well — they need to work hand in hand.
I think that’s one of my biggest fears in terms of the conversation stopping in like 2020 because we don’t own the conversation. If a white advertising exec suddenly decides ‘I’m over it now’ because it’s not really important to me — ’I’m over that Black stuff’. He has the power to do that, because it’s like a trend. But when you have Black women with those diverse backgrounds, it’s not a trend it’s just part of who we are, so the lens that we see things — it doesn’t have to be about race, it could be fashion, music — the lens that we see these things will always be starkly different to that white man. The collaboration and the way those things will come about will be more authentically diverse. We’re a big part of a culture as Black women and I want us to own that culture and drive it forward in particular roles and that’s when I’ll be like ’yeah we’ve got it’.
I think the first step is for people to understand that these issues exist. It’s really difficult to discuss because people don’t feel like it exists when you are dealing with things like institutional racism, especially in a country like Britain where we are so polite and our racism is so coded and underhand.
There is one line that really struck me at the beginning when Yomi writes “If white women fear the glass ceiling, Black women fear a seemingly impenetrable glasshouse”. What can we as a society do to ensure that this glasshouse is made less impenetrable (or ideally smashed)?
Yomi Adegoke: I guess that in terms of what society needs to do to make the ‘glasshouse’ less impenetrable… there’s so much that it would be impossible to answer in any meaningful way, in such a short space. But I do think that it’s something we make very clear in the book, that we don’t believe you can slay your way out of systemic racism and institutional racism and sexism. That’s why it was so difficult when we were writing the book, that so much of the stuff that Black women come up against are institutional and are endemic and embedded in society in a way that means that these are things that we have suffered generationally, from everything like how the education system lets down Black women to Black women attempting to thrive in the work place, to Black women struggling in terms of dating.
These are issues that sound completely insurmountable for anyone to come up against, but I guess as a society the first thing we can do essentially — it sounds so basic — but is to just listen. I think the first step is for people to understand that these issues exist. It’s really difficult to discuss because people don’t feel like it exists when you are dealing with things like institutional racism, especially in a country like Britain where we are so polite and our racism is so coded and underhand. It means that a lot of the time when it’s not ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ types of racism it can be almost impossible for us to have any meaningful dialogue about it because so many people, especially outside of the Black community, define racism as essentially physical assault, racial slurs being shouted in the streets, rather than it being swapping out somebody’s CV because it has an ethnic sounding name and not even necessarily intentionally realising that is something that would be classified as racist.
I think the vast amount of people that have read Slay In Your Lane so far are white and have been really surprised to even learn of the existence of the things that we’re speaking about, or whether they’ve known it existed but not even realised that what they were doing would be classified as racist or prejudiced in any kind of way. I think the initial thing that I always encourage people to do is to just listen, because once you listen, you understand. Once you understand, you can work out what actionable things you can do, but that’s impossible if you don’t even feel like the thing that we’re talking about is even happening.
In the book you both talk about feeling invisible while growing up. I was wondering when you began to feel visible as Black women in Britain, or if you still have moments when you feel invisible?
YA: [large intake of breath] To be honest I’d say like super duper recently, you always have those bouts of visibility, so seeing people like Jamelia growing up as a musician, like a lot of other people I thought she was American, because being a Black woman in this country was touted as a pop star, someone who was glamorous and who we wanted to emulate. We rarely saw Black women in those positions anyway, never mind they were British. And then you had the likes of Cleopatra, the TV show, the band with three sisters, and I’m from a household with three sisters, they all had braids and dark skin, they made music, and so again you get those bouts of visibility. But I always say that I always saw myself literally in the States – watching shows like Moesha and ‘Sister, Sister’, seeing the likes of Destiny’s Child – those Black visible icons.
I was born in Canning Town and I saw myself more in shows that were based in California or Chicago, then I did with things like East Enders, obviously it’s fictional but it was meant to be based essentially where I lived and where I was born. So I feel like there are up’s and down’s, there are fleeting moments of visibility, like when I found out Malorie Blackman was Black, I was like ‘oh my god she’s Black and she’s a woman’, it just completely blew my mind.
But then I think I spent the vast majority of my life growing up in Britain feeling invisible, at least in terms of the media landscape because obviously I’m from Croydon so it’s like the vast majority of people that I knew and grew up around were Black, and the vast majority of my friendship groups have always been Black women so I knew we existed but it was very much in the grand scheme of things and in the national conscience it was like a complete afterthought.
I feel like there’s been increased visibility with things like Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum and at the moment in terms of representation in a specifically Black British and female context if you still look at the charts it’s dominated by grime artists and Afro Bash artists, but if you really look at it a lot of them are Black men, and when it comes to the female equivalent especially in the music scene it’s like Jorja Smith, and Raye, it’s very rarely Black women that look like the Black men that are dominating the charts. So you’re very unlikely to see a Stormzy looking woman or like a J Hus looking woman, like a phenotypically Black African-looking woman — dark-skinned with a proper Afro – as visible in the charts as they are. So again in those spaces we’re still invisible.
But then again writing in the book about representation as a Black British woman it’s been weird because we’ve done a lot of photo shoots and interviews and press, so now we’ve kind of become part of the representation that we were talking about. So I guess I felt never more visible as a Black British woman and as myself than I ever have before, because it’s kind of like by virtue of putting this book out we have ended up providing better visibility. It definitely fluctuates but at the moment we’re definitely in a good space.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
YA: We always said that we wanted it to be like a movement more than like a moment. We knew that it was a book but we wanted it to be bigger than that. I guess our hopes and dreams are that it genuinely is something that continues. We know that diversity is trending at the moment and that can obviously be a dangerous thing because to be in fashion means that it can fall out of fashion, but we hope that this can be something that has a lasting impact. Black British women aren’t going anywhere; we are still going to be here whether the mainstream no longer care about our experiences. It’s massively important that we feel like Black people are having these conversations but a lot of it we already know so it’s important that often people who can be perpetrators and essentially oppressive without even knowing are privy to this conversation so they can stop and be allies.
What do you hope this book will achieve?
YA:We want this book to actually help implement some form of tangible change by empowering Black women to know what their situation is in this country realistically, but also informing wider society about what is happening and hopefully working together to make things better.
This article was originally published in BRICKS, Vol.5 ‘The Future Issue’