What racial and gender norms are baked into our concepts of professionalism? How can we push ourselves to expand our definition of what “counts” as knowledge production? What does it mean to honor blackness in all its possible forms?

In Episode 54 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with cultural producer Yaba Blay about how beauty culture and colorism shape her publicly engaged approach to scholarship, how being an insider/outsider in the academy allows one to enact broad social change, the importance of meeting students where they’re at, and how her celebration of everyday #BlackGirlMagic is how she imagines otherwise.

Guest: Yaba Blay

Yaba Blay is the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University. Named to The Root 100, an annual list of top Black influencers, Yaba is one of today’s leading voices on colorism and global skin color politics. Her commentary has been featured on CNN, BET, MSNBC, NPR, the New York Times, Ebony Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Root, Huffington Post Live, and Colorlines, among others. Applauded in 2016 by O: The Oprah Magazine for her social media activism, Yaba is the creator and producer of numerous online campaigns including #PrettyPeriod, a visual celebration of dark-skinned Black beauty, and #ProfessionalBlackGirl, a webseries and online community celebrating everyday, around-the-way Black Girl Magic. Yaba’s book, (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, explores the interconnected nuances of skin color politics and Black racial identity, and challenges narrow perceptions of Blackness as both an identity and lived reality. In 2012, Yaba served as a Consulting Producer for CNN’s  television documentary Who is Black in America?, which was inspired by the scope of her (1)ne Drop project. Yaba’s current book project, Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Global Politics of Skin Color, investigates skin bleaching from the perspectives of people who bleach or have bleached their skin.

We chatted about

  • Yaba’s transmedia project Professional Black Girl (02:31)
  • The personal and situated nature of Yaba’s research on colorism and racialized beauty norms (06:42)
  • Yaba’s thoughts on self-care and being intentional about one’s work (08:32)
  • The intersections of scholarship, creative pursuits, and activism in Yaba’s work (13:04)
  • On developing her students’ critical imaginations through creative means (14:48)
  • Imagining Otherwise (17:04)Red and orange sparks from a fire. Text is a quote from Yaba Blay that reads "I do my work for Black people, particularly for Black women and Black girls. And by Black, I mean all of us, all over the diaspora. A world where we recognize our value and our beauty and our magic would be a beautiful world for me. Yaba Blay, Imagine Otherwise podcast episode 54"


Professional Black Girl

“Professional Black Girl is a series about celebrating everyday Black Girl Magic. As someone who spends a lot of time in social media, I noticed that when we use the hashtag of #BlackGirlMagic or when we talk about this concept of Black Girl Magic, oftentimes, it has felt elitist in some ways—meaning that you have to be Michelle Obama or you have to be Serena Williams or you have to be the young girl that’s been accepted into every Ivy League school there ever was to be seen as Black Girl Magic. For me, thinking of Black Girl Magic, I’m thinking of the every day ways that we’re magical. I think of the things that Black Girls and women do, things that connect us….Professional Black Girl is about those of us who make a choice to show up in the world Black and girl in ways that are unapologetic, in ways that connect us to one another, in ways that connect us to the women and girls who came before us.”

The personal nature of Yaba’s scholarship on beauty and race

“All of my work is personal. I am absolutely not the kind of researcher who attempts to ‘objective’ or separates myself somehow from the work. I tend to center myself in it. As most people know if they follow my work or have heard me speak, it’s an opportunity to remind people that I am a very dark-skinned woman….My complexion is reflective of my Ghanian ancestry and I am a first generation Ghanian born in America. My parents moved here; my father is also a professor and he got his doctorate at Madison. From Madison, they moved to New Orleans, where he taught at Xavier. And I was born and raised in New Orleans. If you know anything about the history and the culture of New Orleans, skin color politics, colorism, and light skin versus dark skin are at the forefront of many of our experiences and our identities….I center beauty because it is a part of my healing, and a part of my journey to make sense of it, not only for other people, other girls who look like me, women who like me, but for all of us.”

On self-care and being intentional about one’s work

“I have been telling people that 2018 is my year of the NO, primarily because I overwork myself. I think many of us hear the language of self-care being thrown around in particular ways. And I’m trying to be very deliberate and intentional about that…I published my book (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race independently. That project took about three years in total to come to fruition. And by the time it was published and in my hand, I remember at the release party in November of 2013, I was a zombie. I didn’t have any more to give. I literally worked myself into the bed. And I told myself that I didn’t want to do that anymore….I think it is a spillover from grad school in terms of that kind of hustle and work every day, all day mentality. It has allowed me to bring some great things to life, but I haven’t been doing a good job of taking care of myself. Because I quickly fire these bright ideas and I want to get them all done, I also recognize that I’m not taking good care of the work that I’ve already created….I’m not speaking in terms of regret, but just trying to be more intentional moving forward.”

Yaba’s efforts at blending her scholarship, creative work, and activism

“In the last 10 years, I’ve never been on a tenure track or had a tenure track position. In many ways, that’s been anxiety-producing as I’ve kind of gone from contractual position to contractual position. The blessing from that is that it has allowed me the freedom to do this creative work, because I have not been looking for work that I would get points for or credit for tenure potentially. I feel like I am an insider-outsider in a lot of ways. I am definitely connected to the academy because I continue to teach and work in the academy. But I also feel like a very free spirit, and that’s how I am able to do this creative work.”

On fighting anti-intellectualism and connecting with her students

“[I like] meeting my students where they are, for better or for worse….We’re in a moment right now that is quite anti-intellectual. I’m speaking as someone who’s trained in the liberal arts and teaching in the liberal arts and social sciences, and in this moment it feels like we don’t value knowledge for the sake of having knowledge. It seems that we are trying to foster a consumer-business relationship, where our students are coming and buying their degrees because they want a return on their investment and to get a job….So I could be somebody who could be a hardass and push my students to read all these words and things that they ultimately don’t understand or can’t apply. Or I can meet them where they are and try to find inroads to get them to still think critically and still get the history and information that I want them to have.”

Imagining otherwise

“I want to live in a world where people understand what it means to be free….My freedom comes from my ability to think critically about the world that I live in….I also want a world where people understand the beauty of blackness and that blackness is not a bad thing. I’m speaking not just to folks who aren’t Black but I’m also speaking specifically people who are: that we’re able to look in the mirror and completely be in love with who we are.”

More from Yaba

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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