Stephanie Nguyễn Lake was feeling frustrated.
People have been asking the Midvale 24-year-old for her thoughts about race, and why she sees things the way she does, since the May death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The questions have continued as Utahns of all ethnicities have protested and rallied to demand justice and police reform.
But every time Lake, who is Asian and African American, had those conversations, she felt uncomfortable — because she was told that her views are not accurate.
“Everything that I have experienced as a black woman living in Utah just came rushing back into my mind,” she said. “As if all of the trauma, all of the hurt just came back.”
After one emotional night, Lake felt inspired to do a photoshoot. “I’m really bad at expressing myself with words,” she said. “So I was like, that’s what I’m going to play on. I’m going to play on words.”
Ana Brown, who photographed Lake and six other friends, wanted to capture both the frustrations black women are feeling and the way they would like to be portrayed. She took photos of Lake covered in the negative stereotypes used to describe black women, and she also took pictures with the women covered in positive words.
The women posted the images on social media, and they’ve been increasingly shared by others on Instagram and Facebook. Lake hopes the photos raise awareness of systemic injustices that need work: “I want people to look at those pictures and realize that there is a societal problem that we have here in the U.S.,” she said.
For Orem 23-year-old Bri Ray, the photoshoot was an opportunity for black women to say, “These are actually the words and the adjectives that describe us and explain us and empower us and that you should be using when speaking about us and to us.”
While some Utahns are focusing on issues of race and systemic inequality for the first time due to recent events, Ray said, this is nothing new for black women.
“I feel like we have been having this conversation for years, but people have only recently been willing and wanting to listen, which is a blessing and something to be grateful for,” she said.
“However, it also has come with an immense wave of emotions,” Ray added, “... because this has been our reality for so long and only now are people tuning in.”
Lake and Ray plan to work together on other projects that will empower young black girls in Utah. They are hoping to put videos online with information about hair and skin care; they also hope this will educate white families who adopt black children.
Ray first realized how misunderstood she is as a black woman in a mostly white state, she said, when she was 12 years old and decided to start wearing her hair curly.
“I had straightened my hair my whole entire life purely because I was trying to look like everyone around me,” she said. “All of my best friends had this long, flowing blond hair and it would ... swish when they would walk and all the boys loved them … and I couldn’t turn my skin white, but I could straighten my hair.”
Ray, who is biracial, decided to wear her hair in its natural texture after her grandmother said she would do it with her. But she did not get the response she expected.
The first Sunday Ray wore her hair curly to a church meeting, her bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called her into his office afterward. He told her that “immodesty is anything that distracts from the Spirit, which includes distracting and crazy hairstyles,” she said.
Ray cried and went back to straightening her hair. “That was I think the first moment when I realized that I was incredibly different and incredibly misunderstood,” she said. “And I also did not know how to understand or accept myself, so I started having a ton of identity issues.”
In middle school her nickname was “Black Bri.” In choir, other students would try to see how many pencils they could get in her hair before she would notice, she said.
“In Utah, because there are … few African Americans and people of color, there’s no knowledge, there’s no experience,” she said. “The only experience, the only information that people have here is what is seen in the media.”
Ray and Lake both said they remembered being told they were the “whitest black girls” that Utah white men had ever met, when they were likely some of the only black women the men had met.
“We’re also struggling with our own identity issues and our own issues of trying to figure out what it means to be black, and what it means to be black women,” Ray said. “And what our life is supposed to look like and what we’re supposed to do and who we’re supposed to be.”
Lake realized how men in Utah viewed her when she started dating in college.
“I was viewed [as] sexualized,” she said. “I was viewed as the African American girl in the music videos who’s gonna come out of the ... pool all dripping wet, brown skin, twerking, and that’s what they viewed me as and that’s what they wanted.”
Brown, the photographer, said she thinks people sometimes don’t realize “that the words that they use to describe black women are hurtful, and that these guys are human beings too,” she said. “They feel pain and they cry when people describe them as that.”
She wants people to see the women for who they are, she said, and not just as their skin color or their curly hair: “I want people to see these girls are beautiful.”