Young, Gifted, and Black

Young, Gifted, and Black  /yəNG, ˈɡiftəd, and blak/  phrase. – Coined by playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the phrase is used to empower young Black children to have self-confidence and help them understand that they have notable talent. See also. Young, Gifted, and Black by Nina Simone.

Interview with Sam

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

Currently, I’m a graphic designer in Kansas City, but I’m originally from Springfield, Missouri… so just a few hours South. I grew up in a pretty traditional Catholic family. My dad is from East St. Louis and my mom is actually an immigrant from the Philippines. So, a little background there.

How would you define beauty?

Beauty. I think it’s feeling so good about yourself, whether it exudes through your personal appearance or your attitude. But I think it goes deeper than just the physical look. It’s just being content and happy with yourself and in turn people really feeling that energy.

That is kind of something that I’ve come into recently. I feel like, especially being biracial, I didn’t really fit necessarily the Asian mold or the traditional African American role or anything like that. So, in the past few years I have been trying to define my own style and that’s more of things that make me feel good. For me, that’s bright colors and patterns…

How would you define Black beauty? Black culture?

This something I’ve noticed more and more of…. one of my fashion idols is Tracee Ellis Ross. And I tend to think of her when I think of Black beauty and Black style. She has such confidence in the way she dresses and how she presents herself. And I feel like that’s kind of what I envision when I think of like Black beauty.

Tracee Ellis Ross. Photo by Glamour.

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race and being bi-racial?

So, like I said, I grew up in Springfield, Missouri and that’s a pretty white town. I went to a Catholic private school and honestly when I went to college it was like, “oh wait, I’m also Black too.” It kinda hit me that I’m not a white girl from a private school. And so I feel like I kinda struggled with finding who I am as an African American woman.

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Also I don’t outwardly look Asian. We’re really in touch with my mom’s side of the family. On the Fillipino side, there are very high standards on beauty. So it’s like being thin, and not just the looks, but also like having a boyfriend, or having a successful career.

On my dad’s side, African American, I feel like there’s pressure for me to stand up for a lot of things. But sometimes I’m not even sure I completely understand the situation, especially the things that I haven’t even experienced. Or, I’ve noticed this a lot where people will look to me and say, “Hey, can you help us out with our D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives?” And I don’t feel like I’m always the expert on that. And I feel like that’s kind of a pressure that I get.

“And it kinda made me think that, does anyone else feel like this? Does anyone ever feel like an imposter to their own race?”

How can we make people feel less like an imposter and more like a member of the community?

I feel like a lot of this mentality comes from the environment of young children and not being in schools and environments that are diverse. There were three people of color in my graduating high school class out of a hundred-something kids. And all of my school photos, I’ve always been the only one. I think that made me uncomfortable in situations where it wasn’t the only one. I think if, as a child, I was in environments with people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, I’d be comfortable in those situations. For me I think I experienced the reverse effect. If I had grown up in an environment where I did see a lot of Black people, I would have been a little bit more comfortable and not feel like an imposter amongst people who look like me.

What was it like trying to find your bi-racial voice? Did you ever feel alone?

I think a big part of me feeling like I was the only one was going from a super suburban home to an art school where there’s literally so many different types of people, races, and genders. As a kid I never even thought outside the male or female or Black or white bubble… Being in that environment really made me think and internalize who I actually was. At that point, beginning college, it’s kinda what I felt the most alone. But in reverse it empowered me to do that research and to figure out what it meant to be African American and what that experience looked like, not through my own eyes. And so I think feeling alone in this was sort of brief in comparison to others, because I figured out that I needed to do something about my lack of knowledge of the African American experience.

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When I was in school I used my thesis project to figure. So I read a lot of James Baldwin and I did this fashion project with a White girl from Mississippi. She had some experiences that I would never be able to have… And so it’s kind of interesting to figure out who I was by the people around me. Working with her was a great experience. When I was working with her on this project, we worked with the local group, that is primarily African American, to help this family that had experienced a loss to police gun violence. And, I kinda felt odd in the sense that I wasn’t the only person of color on the team. On an initial phone meeting with a member of the group I was asked if I was Black. And that kind of made me feel a little off about being an African American… Like, could I even relate to other African Americans? And it made me think, does anyone else feel like this? Does anyone ever feel like an imposter to their own race? I just didn’t even know who to even talk to about that… Or if someone even understood what that felt like.

Have you ever experienced of racism or discrimination? If so, any stories you would be willing to share?

Yeah. So when I was in high school… I think I was just so ignorant to how deep racism goes in the southern part of Missouri. I remember having a couple of guy friends that would call me Sambo and I kinda just brushed it off and thought it was because my name was Sam. But then as I got older, I learned what that term meant. Later in life I realized that they were making fun of me and using that as a derogatory term.

She's Gotta Have It. Poster by Netflix.

Whether it’s TV, Movies, Books, People… What has shaped your life and your perspective about the world?

I think one of the first times I realized that my dad was normal is when we would watch the Bernie Mac show. So I will forever love that show because the way that Bernie Mac acted was exactly how my dad acted… every situation… the life lessons. When I re-watch the show, now it makes me think about the Black experiences and that I do have things in common with other African Americans. You know, if it’s enough to have a TV show about it, then, you know, some of these things do exist. That show has a special place in my heart. One of my favorite movies, which might be stereotypical, is She’s Gotta Have It (1986 movie, 2018 TV show). Just because… Nola was an artist living in Brooklyn and doing her thing. And when I was going through art school, like, “Oh my God, that’s me. I’m trying to find myself and I’m an artist.” And so those two, hold a special place in my heart.

What do you feel you have accomplished in your life? What are you proud of?

I’m a part of this group called AIGA, it’s a professional association for design. The Kansas City chapter is 30 years old. This past year, I became the President. And I’m pretty proud of that because I’m the youngest and the first president of this chapter who is a person of color. It’s a small niche community but for me it feels like a pretty big accomplishment.

“I’m the youngest president and the first president of this chapter who is a person of color. It’s a small niche community but for me it feels like a pretty big accomplishment.”

Can you tell me about your experiences leading a group as a woman? Have you faced any struggles or backlash?

I feel pretty lucky to be in the group I’m with right now and to have the past leaders of AIGA who kind of helped me get to this point. They’ve been super supportive. But sometimes I do get down when I think Kansas City has never seen a woman of color in this position of leadership. I think about that and get a little sad and then I think about what can I do to move this issue forward. I think that’s something I’m still trying to navigate and figure out… like what is my role in that and how can I go just beyond like a design board? My boss, she’s the Centurions group with the KC Chamber. She was telling me how she thinks it’d be a great experience for me when I get older. That made me start thinking about moving past just being on a design board… But what if I could be part of the diversity inclusion portion of the Chamber or volunteering for things and being involved in things that are more civic minded rather than design oriented.

What are your personal dreams?

I don’t know if this is every designer, but it would be amazing to have my own studio that’s functioning and lucrative. I could make a living off of doing something that makes me happy and be my own boss. That’d be big dream to accomplish.

“A lot of great graphic design work, pioneering design, has come from African Americans and they’re not attributed at all and come from minority groups that aren’t even attributed.”

As a designer of color, what should art schools, universities, design agencies do better to encourage minorities to be a part of their group?

For universities and schools… this is kind of a hot term, but decolonizing design. A lot of great graphic design work, pioneering design, has come from African Americans and they’re not attributed at all. You just hear about the same five White guys. One of my favorite discoveries in the past year was that W. E. B. Du Bois was actually a prolific infographic creator and he created these amazing infographics that look exactly like Constructivism. He predated that (Constructivism). But you only hear about Kandinsky and the other dudes, that made designs that look exactly like his infographics. And it’s kind of crazy to see. So, I think Universities can do better work with design history courses. You can teach the hard skills, soft skills, whatever… But I think they brush over the history of graphic design. I was lucky to have an actual graphic design history course. I learned about Emory Douglas through a graphic design history course, and he was the graphic designer for the Black Panther party. I would never even known he existed without taking that class.

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As far as in the professional realm, I had a completely jaded, confused outlook on what it was like to work in the real world. A lot of agencies are still very corporate and politically minded. I think a lot of agencies focus so much on their appearances of having a diverse workforce, but they don’t really focus on retention of Black employees and making that environment comfortable for minorities. A lot of minorities just ended up quitting because of a poor environment. My hope is that agencies look into their processes and see how they can be more inclusive so that they can retain people of color as employees.

What is one major problem minorities face that you would like to bring awareness to?

I feel like something that’s not talked about a lot is the mental health of struggling minority communities. There’s still a stigma against seeking mental health services. And there’s a huge population of African American men who are actually depressed. It goes untreated and it leads to other things. Or, African American women who have postpartum depression, especially single mothers. Like I just feel like it’s not talked about so it doesn’t get treated as a real problem even though statistics show how devastating this is.

What are you dreams for society?

We can live in a society where everyone could live an equitable life. You could work a blue collar job or you could work a white collar job and still make a living. I think it’s a little unfair that people believe they have to get a college education to be successful. Sometimes trade skills can be the way for you and that’s how you can make your living. I wish that any and all jobs could be on the same playing field, in terms of success, so that we could all be equitable.

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

Cultivate, maintain, and sustain a diverse environment. Work for minority owned businesses and use minority owned businesses.

“Just go for the dream and try their hardest because you don’t have to do the traditional route. You don’t have to work in healthcare to be successful. You can go after your passion and still be a successful person.”

What advice would you give to other Black people?

I think we’re in a unique situation as designers where a lot of kids, kids in impoverished areas, they don’t get to see that being a graphic designer is a viable option as a career. I always try to tell young kids who have any inkling about being a designer or being an artist, to just go for the dream and try their hardest because you don’t have to do the traditional route. You don’t have to work in healthcare to be successful. You can go after your passion and still be a successful person.

What advice would you give to non-Black to help them understand the Black experiences?

There’s this book called, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and it talks about the African American migration experience. It has these stories from these families that are just so painfully real. I think every person who’s not African American should read this book just to understand how hard it was. You know, the daily struggle. There’s so many readings of Black experiences that are available and out there. Educating yourself on other culture’s experiences is so easy and readily available to learn.

What are you hoping to learn more about yourself, more about your culture in the near future?

That’s a tough question. I feel like I’m just living life… Just trying to make it. For me, I try to take it one step at a time. So with AIGA being front and center in my life right now, I have really tried to make an effort with that. For example, if there is a career day at a school and they need someone to come out or need visibility from a designer… I am the first one to volunteer because I want kids to see someone that looks like me in a spot that they never thought they’d be in.

Additional Information

Interview Date: December 29, 2019

Day 9 — Story posted on February 8, 2020

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