Slay in Your Lane – termed ‘The Black Girl Bible’ – is a powerful, compelling, inspirational tome, written by university friends Elizabeth Uviebinené and Yomi Adegoke. Conceived when both were in full time day jobs (both award-winners in their respective fields, Adegoke is a journalist and Elizabeth a marketing manager), their work sparked a bidding war between nine publishers, has won multiple awards and was dubbed “the book for 2018”. Ilana from Motley caught up with them earlier this year.
IL: When I first started Slay in your Lane, its description ‘The Black Girl Bible’ led me to expect the book to have an inspirational, self-help style; but it reads like an anthropological study, with huge depth of research and sources. Why did you choose to write it that way?
Yomi: With the kind of issues that face black women in Britain today, you have to look at the root problems. We don’t speak about them at all, they’re invisible. It’s so often said we all now live in this equal society, meritocracy is real, there’s a level playing field; for us, we wanted to demystify what it is like to be a black woman in Britain today.
We used anecdotes, interviewing 39 trailblazing black British women to add a personal touch and to inspire our readers. These anecdotes backed up mine and Elizabeth’s personal anecdotes about our experiences; that’s where the research came in. As black women, we don’t have the luxury of being believed when we speak about our experiences and how difficult things can be. It’s often whittled down to a chip on the shoulder, so we thought it was important to have that empirical evidence, research, citations, to show that this is the reality of the situation. That’s probably why it’s such a long book.
And once we’d spoken about what those root causes are, not just on a personal level, but in a systematic institutional level, then we could speak about how we can combat them. Some of the issues that we’re facing as black women in Britain today can’t be sorted out in a one-off way; they’re so big. We thought it was useful to speak about the different levels and layers of oppression, and try to tackle them as best we could.
The book talks a lot about unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. How do you educate someone who behaves in that way?
Elizabeth: Because of the way microagressions happen, you might not have an opportunity to be sufficiently calm and connected to able to sit someone down. It’s a privilege to get to a point where you can educate the person about a particular microagression, or why a particular comment is invalidating and frustrating and offensive. The book recommends that if you want to educate someone, ask them the question – “did you know that is offensive?”. Ask a question, as opposed to making straight comments, like “that’s a bit racist”. When you want to check someone and their comments, asking them a question with a comment attached is more powerful and exposes their own biases.
In the book, we talk about how a lot of black women feel their positions can be undermined in the work context, where they don’t get the same recognition as their white counterparts. For example, I was called a junior marketing manager as opposed to a marketing manager, by one of my colleagues. I sat down with him and I said, “Did you know that could be offensive because of x y?”. It’s one of those things where you have to ask questions as opposed to blowing up; but if you don’t want to take that approach, that’s fine too.
Talking of blowing up – the book often refers to the stereotype of the angry black woman, and being allowed to be angry. Do you think in our culture more broadly we need to give people space to be angry?
Elizabeth: I think it’s important for us. Anger is sometimes looked down upon when it comes to black women because of the stereotypes, so we police ourselves and we police each other even more when it comes to how we express any annoyance or frustration. Anger is a healthy emotion and we talk in the book about black women always having to take the high road, more than most people, because we don’t want to come across as the stereotypes of an angry black women.
But there is so much to be said about how you can turn your anger into something that’s positive. We saw that through our interviews, we’ve seen it in society with female activists. This book came from a place of frustration and anger that there wasn’t something for black women. How you channel your anger is very powerful on a macrolevel. But on a microlevel, if anger is something you want to express at a particular time, no one should be able to refute it. As black women we know how hurtful these things are, and we didn’t want to police black women’s behaviour because that happens a lot from other people.
Something that came out very strongly in your narrative is around intersectionalism. Are their certain questions that a white interviewer might ask that black never would or male that female never would?
Yomi: While I’ve not personally experienced itself, people talk a lot about the barriers of getting into that setting in the first place. For example, having an ethnic sounding name; you already feel like you’re on the back foot, so you might try to overcompensate by being overly formal, affecting posher accents. In almost every setting – interpersonal, professional, educational – black women tend to be treated differently. For example, they might receive backhanded compliments like “you’re really articulate, very eloquent” – that would never be said to a white person with the same level of education.
One of the things that struck me most was the book’s comment on – and my own acceptance of – industry norms that are fundamentally exclusive, like assuming the tights colour ‘Nude’ as beige. As someone starting up a new business, how should you be thinking to make your offering more inclusive?
Yomi: There are so many things, and they don’t necessarily pertain to race. They pertain to disability, they pertain to weight, fatphobia is rife in the fashion industry… To be honest, if someone’s frame of reference is white, male, able-bodied, middle class – being white, male, able-bodied, middle class isn’t an issue in itself. It’s understanding that if that’s your frame of reference, it’s something that can be widened and should be widened.
There are so many different levels to inclusion. If you are claiming to be an inclusive brand that speaks to all different types of people, you need to include other people that don’t look like you, that don’t think like you into your decision-making process. While we were collating Slay In Your Lane, we had a focus group which had only black women – because we’re writing the black girl bible – but even within that focus group, we tried to look into diversity within diversity, black women from different socioeconomic backgrounds, careers, ages.
I did send copies to white friends at the time, because I wanted their opinion on how it read to them, operating outside of our experience. We weren’t claiming to be speaking to everyone, though. The book does what it says on the tin – “by black women, for black women”. But if you’re a brand that claims to speak to everyone, it’s really important to consult and speak with and think of people not just like you.
You interviewed so many amazing women for this book. What was the one anecdote, or story, that has most stuck with you personally?
Elizabeth: I would say the story about Clare Eluka, an entrepreneur. When she first started, she wanted to get introductions to the industry; she reached out to people on LinkedIn, but no one was getting back to her. Then she created an alias called Nina Fredericks, a white blonde woman with an Anglicised name, using the same credentials and same messaging, and she was able to get so many more responses. When she met these people she’d reached out to in person, they were confused as to who she was. They just couldn’t get their heads around this black woman starting this type of business and taking up space in this kind of way. It struck me because it speaks to everything about trying so hard as black women, and the processes that come with starting something on your own, and the different barriers we have to face.
Yomi, another theme I noticed in the book is your obsession with Harry Potter. Could you tell me a little more about that?
Yomi: You know what, it’s honestly just by chance. I do really like Harry Potter, I think it’s great and it pained to have to be so critical of it because I really liked the books growing up. Obviously, I’d been latently aware of the fact there aren’t many black female leads or love interests in film. But it was one of the first times I remember actively becoming aware of somebody actually changing a character (Yomi refers to the role of Lavender Brown being recast as white in films of the later books); even though they had been cast as black in every other film. Because she became a main character and a love interest, they changed the character to white. It was clear casting bias. I used to be part of a Harry Potter forum (I was far more obsessed when I was younger) and I remember all the other people on the forum were white, so they were neutral about the fact that that character was going to be changed from a black character to a white character, but me and a few others took it very personally. I was quite young so it was something that really stuck out to me.
You talk about there being limited reading material on the black female experience. What are you guys reading at the moment and what should we be reading?
Yomi: I’m rereading Roxanne Gay’s memoir, ‘Hunger’, which I read briefly before, but then I interviewed her. She’s an amazing writer and a really good interviewer.
Elizabeth: I’m reading ‘Open Up: The Power Of Talking About Money’ by Alex Holder. It’s a book that is trying to encourage us as women and as people generally to talk so much more about our finances.
You brought up some interesting issues in your book about the different experiences in the UK and US, and Black British history is really overlooked. Is there a character from British black history that’s inspired either of you?
Yomi: There was a black activist in Brixton called Olive Morris who passed away when she was really young – maybe 23 – and she did a lot to put the black feminist movement in the UK on the map, in terms of trying to emancipate black women. She was very aware of intersectionality and the importance of amplifying black female voices specifically. She’s someone that I think is overlooked historically but someone who was very important. When we think about civil rights and race and activism, we so often look at it in the American context, but we did have our own civil rights movement here. She was part of the British Black Panthers, and it’s interesting how we’re aware of the American iteration, but less so of the non-violent black British iteration, which did a lot to secure the rights that black women have today.
What would you save in a fire?
Yomi: That’s such a hard question. Aside from people? I have this shelf that has all my clippings over the years since I started my career as a journalist, I kept pretty much every single clipping I’ve ever had so I’d probably just grab a big pile and run out with it.
Elizabeth: You know what, I don’t think I’d take anything. I couldn’t think of anything that’s worth saving. Everything’s replaceable. I’m not one to save anything.
If you could think of a piece of art, music or play you’ve seen that has most changed your world view, what would it be?
Elizabeth: It’s always hard because I never subscribe to the view that one thing can have such a big impact. Destiny’s Child made an impact on me. To see black women really come into their own when I was growing up was really impactful. And the Jacqueline Wilson books – they made me feel less alone.
But the only thing that has impact in that type of way is people. I can identify all my relationships with people that fundamentally changed things. And overall, the biggest person that has made an impact on me is Yomi – meeting her at university in 2010.
You can find Slay in Your Lane at all good bookshops.