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'Project Black Girl' shows how racism is alive in Utah, and what local black women need you to understand.

Posted at 3:11 PM, Jul 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 14:07:52-04

When her community showed a spike in interest in civil rights, Utah artist Stephanie Nguyen Lake said she was caught off-guard.

"I was frustrated...I felt like [race] was a daily conversation that I had to deal with, and then it blew up," said Stephanie, a bi-racial/black woman. "I was upset because suddenly people were asking me about it, and wanting me to educate them, but I was not prepared. I'm better at expressing myself through art."

Stephanie reached out to photographer Anapesi Brown, a non-black woman of color, and decided a photo project would help tell the complex story of being a black woman in Utah.

"I felt it was important to be a part of sharing this message and help showcase the beauty of black women and their voices," Anapesi said.

Project Black Girl is the compilation of photos showing several young, Utah women who are of black heritage, with various adjectives painted on them; words they'd use to describe themselves. The descriptors include "cultured," "magical," "resilient," "brave" and "lovely."

But when you read the stories behind these photos - posted as captions Stephanie's and Anapesi's Instagram posts - it becomes clear that these positive words have yet to completely match the external experience of being black in Utah.

Some of the women, including Stephanie, grew up in families with white parents or in mainly white communities and LDS wards, and talk about a lack of exposure to black culture.

For example, many of the girls grew up thinking they had to straighten their hair to be pretty.

Project Black Girl participant Nikole writes, "I didn't learn how to take care of my hair until college. My journey with my identity was a lonely one."

Not having many black role models leaves little room for embracing a non-white identity, and also leads young people to believe the racist labels and stereotypes they encounter.

Participant Kami said, “Doing this photoshoot really helped me take my power back. These past few weeks I have felt more define by my skin color then ever. But doing this has reminded me of the power and beauty my skin color holds. I am not just another marginalized black women, I am a powerful and sensitive and brave and worthy Black Women.”

Writes participant Precious, "From this photoshoot, I learned how much I normalized when others tried to label me. I learned that I was able to speak up without being called 'loud;' to wear my natural hair without being called 'dirty.' I was able to show skin and be vulnerable without being called 'immodest' or 'ghetto.' This shoot allowed me to show my true 'color/s' and embrace them. To actually feel beautiful through our struggle and oppression that continues today."

Stephanie wants Utah to know that though Project Black Girl started as an art project, it is growing into a movement with a mission to be the voice for black girls in our state.

"We want to create a space for them to learn, to grow, and be motivated, and to become educators, or leaders, or business women," Stephanie says.

She adds, "We hope by educating them we also educate the families in Utah who adopt beautiful children of color," and that those families reach out to them to connect their kids with their heritage.

She hopes families with black children, and the community at large, makes an effort to connect with their black neighbors, and educate themselves, and reach out to them if resources are needed.

Photographer Anapesi adds, "Please do not shy away from the struggles our black brothers and sisters face daily. Recognize them and validate them, and keep doing it. Not just right now while the Black Lives Matter movement is 'popular,' and truly reflect what the world looks like in your company, your posts, your employees, etc."

Find the photos on Anapesi's and Stephanie's Instagram accounts and learn more at projectblackgirl.com.