Interview by Saba Mir
A young activist using her voice to help dismantle existing systems of oppression
Brianna Chandler is a 19-year-old Black liberation, climate justice, queer justice, and gender justice activist whose activism through social media and community organizing has already set her on the map. Originally from the South, Brianna is currently based in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is a college student at the Washington University of St. Louis. Brianna is studying American Culture Studies with a specific track in Social Issues and Social Thought, as well as Drama. Drama has always been something Brianna has been interested in and enjoys, and her education in American Culture Studies connects strongly to her passion for activism.
I had the privilege of speaking with Brianna over a Zoom call in August 2020. It was truly a joy speaking with Brianna about her life experiences, activism, and interests. Her perspectives were incredibly insightful, and I learned so much in just one conversation. Below are some of the stories and ideas Brianna shared with me. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
// How would you describe yourself in a couple of sentences? What are you passionate about?
I’m really passionate about what’s happening around the world today, how it connects to events of the past, and just really seeing the patterns and kind of like revolutions throughout history –– learning from those and seeing how they can be applied to our current context. I am really passionate about racial justice, equal rights for queer people, gender justice, and climate justice as well.
// My understanding is that when it comes to activism, there is sort of a progression that happens that leads people down that path. Was there some sort of journey that you took to reach this point of activism, of using your voice?
My parents kind of raised me to be very aware of the fact that, you know, I was Black, and it meant something in this country. And since I was very young, they always had me reading books about Black liberation, and had me reading books with main characters where they were Black, and kind of tried to educate me about Black history. And then from there, it kind of just grew. I started, you know, becoming more interested in gender justice and as I got into high school –– climate justice and queer justice. It does stem from my identity as a Black person.
// You said that your parents had you read books about Black liberation and other texts when you were younger. Are there any that you remember in particular, any that helped shape your worldview?
There is this series called the American Girl Doll [book] series to go along with the American Girl Dolls, and there used to be a Black one who was an enslaved person. Her name was Addy. I remember being like in kindergarten reading the first book in Addy’s series, and I was just sitting on my bed reading it. A couple [of] pages in, there was a scene where the overseer makes Addy eat a bug because she forgot to pluck it off the leaves that she was picking. I remember running into my mom’s room like, “This is awful! How could this ever happen?” And she said, ‘Well this did happen. It's a part of our country’s history.’ From there, really understanding what our country is founded upon, in terms of like stolen labor and stolen land, and just really understanding and appreciating how far we’ve come –– but also realizing that there’s a lot farther to go.
// You mentioned that there is a long way to go in terms of racial justice, and one thing I’m wondering is, what does Black liberation mean to you? What will it mean to see Black liberation become reality?
Black liberation would mean existing in a power structure in which no one is profiting off of the labor of Black bodies in an exploitative manner, and no one is exploiting Black labor, and no one is exploiting Black lives. And that Black people as a whole can exist without our existence constantly being threatened by the police or by other power structures. I would take it a step further and even say that Black liberation would mean that Black people wouldn’t have to consistently and constantly be aware of the fact that they were Black –– obviously honoring that history and appreciating it –– but getting to the point where being Black doesn’t necessitate a life of being oppressed.
// What were some of your experiences growing up?
I did go to an all-girls school in high school, and it was a predominantly white, Catholic institution. It's not necessarily something that we could afford, but there was a lot of financial aid given, so not only was there a race divide, there was more of a class divide. Just being there and kind of seeing how I had to change my tone and kind of conform myself to make my white peers more comfortable with me, and just seeing how sometimes white women can understand gender and justice but not necessarily understand racial justice. And just kind of how white women have not always been the best allies to Black women.
// You brought up some of your experiences with racial and class divides when it came to your high school experience. What do you see as some of the intersections of being a woman of color, perhaps highlighting the experiences of Black women in particular?
The system of patriarchy doesn’t just exist in white society; it also exists within the Black community. What this immediately brings to mind is what happened to Oluwatoyin Salau –– how she was someone who was organizing within her community. She was on the frontlines, and she was raped and murdered by a Black man, and how the police offered her no assistance and how in a sense, the Black community failed her in that it was a Black man who perpetrated that awful violence against her. So I think that it's kind of not being able to be safe with anyone but your own, and even then, there are still levels to that in terms of colorism, classism, etc.
// What you said about colorism made me think of something you had posted on Instagram. I was looking through your highly informative page, and noticed that you mentioned some of your experiences with Eurocentric beauty standards. I personally have noticed some connections between Eurocentric beauty standards and colorism, and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that. What is your understanding of colorism and Eurocentrism, or what has your relationship been like with the two?
In terms of colorism, growing up, I remember specifically watching some documentary. It was really popular on Netflix. I think Oprah produced it about dark-skinned Black women. But it never occurred to me that while I am not extraordinarily light-skinned –– I am lighter-skinned. Being willing to claim that privilege and acknowledge it and do everything I can to rectify how I interact with colorism in my daily life. And Angela Davis was recently asked about colorism and how she feels it affected her career, and she said that she knows that she's benefitted a lot from colorism and that she can't do enough to fight colorism because it's an entire system. I’ll never be able to do enough when it comes to colorism but still not giving up because it is this large, gigantic system that is ultimately tied to Eurocentrism. Lighter is closer to white, and it's considered better and we’re taught to internalize that belief. In terms of my hair and Eurocentric beauty standards, there is something that people call texturism –– where looser curls are valued and tighter curls aren’t as valued. So definitely dealing with that growing up, I had my hair chemically straightened or what is colloquially called a relaxer on my hair until about eighth grade. And then, going into high school, I wanted to cut that off and go completely natural, and that was just a whole process of learning how to accept my hair as it was and realizing that I wasn’t going to have long, flowing, bouncy curls, and just really being able to accept my hair for what it is.
// You said that it took a lot of time to accept and love your hair - what was that process like for you?
I remember in high school, I think it was maybe sophomore year, I did a huge social media cleanse, in that, I consciously followed Black people with natural hair, and I unfollowed celebrities that I couldn’t really see myself in. And just doing that alone had a really big change in my self-esteem, and I saw that over time, it was helpful to make sure that I’m seeing myself reflected in the media that I consume.
// You mentioned how just changing who you followed on social media improved how you viewed yourself. What are your thoughts on representation and its importance?
When I was younger, I read a lot. I’ve always really enjoyed fantasy books and sci-fi books, and there’s way more characters of color represented in these books now. But they weren’t before, and that's always something that stuck with me. And also in terms of television, there’s a lot more representation now than there was, but we still need more representation –– and this circles back to colorism in a way. My friend Claire and I –– to pass the time during quarantine –– we’ve been working on this little show that focuses on queer characters and people of color within a rich, PWI environment. And we always joke about how Netflix, whenever they cast a Black person, they’re almost always a light-skinned or mixed Black person. It’s always a specific trope. So I think that while representation is important, it's the kind of representation, right? It's not enough just to have Black people. Those Black people need to be representative of Black people in real life. It needs to be representative of the entire diversity of the Black community.
// Can you tell us a little bit more about your show?
It's really just something fun that we’ve been working on, we’re calling it ‘School’s Out.’ It follows a group of five or so friends as they go through high school, and it's partially based upon a lot of events that happened in real life, one of those things being our school making the local news for not allowing us to have a GSA. So we decided to take all that material and put it into our show.
// You are incredibly accomplished, but if you had to narrow it down. What would your proudest accomplishment be whether personal or professional?
Last month, my friends and I organized a digital teach-in about racial justice and abolition. It was over Zoom, and there were about 100 attendees. And it was just really nice to see people talking about abolition in a serious manner and really considering it –– abolition in reference to police abolition. I think it's probably one of the best things I’ve helped organize.
// Was there something in particular that led you and your friends to organize and ultimately move forward with this incredible event?
I was working with another group of students, and they wanted to plan something, just to give people another way to connect. And we were initially going to invite a variety of community organizations to just talk about inequities within the St. Louis community, but then when everything happened with George Floyd and the uprisings, we wanted to tailor it to be a little more specific to the moment. I have a lot of other friends who are much more educated on all this stuff than I am, and so I got them together and said, ‘Would you want to be a part of this and change the message a little bit?’ and they agreed, and that’s what we did.
// What does empowerment mean to you, and who taught you the importance of it?
I would probably say my mom, because she’s been a very big role model for me, growing up. Just her constant determination, and willingness to invest in me and really affirm that I do have important things to say. One time she told me that - when I was younger, I talked a lot. She didn’t have to tell me, I knew that I talked a lot - but she said that oftentimes, my family members, being a more traditional Black family, would say, ‘Why would you let her talk like that? Children need to be seen not heard.’ One day, she said to me, ‘I never wanted you to feel like your voice was being silenced, the world does that to Black girls enough already.’ So I think it definitely was her raising me that really taught me that it's important to say something.
// Earlier, you mentioned the ways in which you were able to rid yourself of limiting societal expectations, like with your social media cleanse. Are there any other ways through which you continue to empower yourself?
For me, lately, after my New York Times article, I did get a lot of asks, and I ended up taking on a lot of projects, and I started to get overly busy. I kind of had to realize what to say no to, and there were some organizations that I didn’t necessarily align with their views, so I had to be willing to say no to those organizations. There were a few times where I had to say no’ and it was uncomfortable, but it was necessary. So saying “no.”
// How do you empower other people, people around you? I know your activism on social media is a huge way of doing that. Are there any more of your efforts that you want to highlight?
I’m also a part of a group called Sunrise. We have a local chapter in St. Louis, Sunrise St. Louis, and organizing with them has been really nice. They’re a climate justice group. It is really nice to meet with them on a regular basis and talk about how we can do our part to dismantle all these systems that are harming the environment.
// So you work on a variety of issues, and I personally am very passionate about intersectionality. What are some of the intersections between racial justice, climate justice, justice for the LGBTQ+ community, and gender justice?
Overall, capitalism plays a role in oppressing all marginalized groups. It has built a system where people actively gain from exploiting others, and I think that’s kind of like the common thread among all of them. Capitalism influences racism. Capitalism has played a major role in climate change. Capitalism is used to tokenize the LGBTQ+ community; we see that with rainbow capitalism. 10 years ago, you wouldn't think that you'd be seeing rainbow ads all over Target and Apple and all these big corporations, but since it's popular, they’re doing that. They’re co-opting a symbol that was originally used for liberation, and now using it just to sell things. And the connection between capitalism and gender [is] just one small part of that is the wage gap.
// You mentioned that there are these existing systems that are built on the marginalization of many different groups. Thinking back to one of your Instagram posts on accountability, the following question comes to mind for me: How do you think accountability should play out or manifest itself?
I think that people can hold themselves accountable to just learn more and to be open to radical ideas and to take radical ideas seriously. I guess the most current of those would be police abolition and just acknowledging that it's going to feel uncomfortable. It should feel a little bit uncomfortable because you should be actively unlearning everything that society has programmed you to learn. So I would say that people should hold themselves accountable by taking radical ideas seriously and being willing to do the work to understand them and to teach others about them as well.
// You spoke a little bit on actively unlearning. Was there a process of unlearning that you had to go through?
Definitely. Being a Black person in a predominantly white environment growing up, I did not necessarily have class privilege in relation to my peers, but I do have it in relation to other people. I was just someone who was lucky to have parents who could get the right financial aid to put me in that environment. So I think I have had to unlearn a lot of things, in terms of like recognizing my own class privilege and being a Black person in a majority white environment, there are ways that internalized racism can slip in through the cracks. So just acknowledging that and rejecting it when I find it within myself and when I’ve found it within myself in the past. I’d say that’s a good summary on unlearning internalized bias.
// If you’re comfortable sharing this, what were some of the ways in which you found yourself internalizing some of this bias?
The one that has the most concrete example is hair because I definitely did internalize that straight hair was better, but then I went through a process of actively unlearning that. And I would also say, in terms of class privilege, recognizing that it's not by my own merit that I’m at a nicer school. It's not by my own merit that I have the academic abilities that I do. I have these things as a result of privilege, and just really acknowledging the privilege that the access to private education I’ve had gives me. And it’s interesting, because we’re having another online conference tomorrow, and it's all about the inequalities within the St. Louis school system. St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and there’s just so many different lines of oppression that can be seen by examining our education system. And so it's interesting to be going into an event knowing that I specifically hold a place of privilege within the conversation, in terms of where I went to high school. So I’m looking forward to having those conversations and seeing what everyone can learn from each other.
// How does your approach to conversations change based on your positionality relative to others in the discussion?
The education system in St. Louis is weird. You have your private schools, you have your Catholic private schools, there are charter schools, there are magnet schools, and then there are public county schools and public city schools. Public city schools get the least funding and have the least resources. And so, we are a group of about five people trying to navigate all those different groups, and we wanted to center the most marginalized voices by having our whole panel be students from St. Louis city public schools. We tried our hardest getting contact with everyone we could, but at the end of the day, we could not find speakers from STL city schools. So that made us kind of sit and see that we are so privileged and removed from that circle of people, and just realizing that true separation that exists in our city. We’re going to have to acknowledge that during the program and really talk about it. Circling back to actually answering your question, I try to approach that by centering and listening to the most marginalized voices, while not expecting them to do all the work for me.
// You have shared such incredible insight into the ways that people in your life have empowered you and how you empower others. Do you have any advice for people reading this interview who are working to empower themselves?
We’re often told that education is the great equalizer, but what does that mean when a system is inherently unequal? The education system is inherently unequal, but if you have access to the Internet, try to arm yourself with as much personal knowledge as you can. Read up on the issues and learn about them. Listen to the most marginalized voices that you can, and do the reading and the learning for yourself, so that someone else can’t come in and tell you, “Think X, Y, and Z.” Do the reading and the research for yourself, because you’re not going to learn any type of liberating knowledge from sitting in a classroom.
// What do you enjoy or appreciate the most about being a woman?
I would say just the camaraderie that comes from being friends with other women. Having like a true sisterhood or family among other women.
// What are some of the positive experiences you have had because of this sisterhood you’ve formed with other women?
The generosity. In terms of like, willingness to give time, labor to support one another, and I’d also say the willingness to just like teach each other and have meaningful conversations.
// Is there anything else that you want to share with the Global Girlhood community? Anything we can do to help with gender justice, racial justice, climate justice, or justice for the LGBTQ+ community?
One thing that I would say is really important is just uplifting the voices of trans women. It seems almost every year we’re hitting record numbers of trans deaths, specifically among Black trans women. So really uplifting those voices, and supporting them, and listening to them. Also, doing whatever research we need to do ourselves, and also whatever de-internalization of transphobia that we need to do ourselves because I think they are a part of the community that often gets left behind. So just really valuing them while they’re here. Because it's one thing to say someone’s name after they’re dead, you know, put them on a hashtag, but it's another to prevent deaths like theirs from happening.
CONNECTIVITY CONTRIBUTORS REACTIONS
After reading Saba Mir’s interview with student activist Brianna Chandler, I was immediately inspired to focus more not just on making the most of my education, but on finding ways to open up that access to everyone, as well as understand the deeper problems with the education system in the United States. When Brianna spoke about unlearning, she said something that really resonated with me: “It’s not by my own merit that I’m at a nicer school. It’s not by my own merit that I have the academic abilities that I do. I have these things as a result of privilege.” I have said to myself many times in the past that I recognize my privilege as a white-passing, upper-middle class woman from Manhattan who is a student at an Ivy League institution. I do recognize those things, but I also have always tried to convince myself that I still deserve to be at my university because I am smart and because I worked really hard. I believe these things are true, but I have never fully understood the reality that just because I deserve something, doesn’t mean that is the reason I have it. There are millions of people in this country and across the globe who have incredible potential, and so much intelligence, but they are not in my position because they lack certain privileges that society prefers. I hope to continue learning about the systems that benefit me, how to uplift those that are oppressed by those systems, and how I can do something more than just research.
Another note I would like to make, is that I think Brianna’s comments on intersectionality were so important. Like Saba, I am very passionate about this topic, and I think it is absolutely crucial to understand and to identify intersections within all realms of activism. I have never thought about capitalism as it relates to various social justice issues, but it is definitely something I would like to learn more about. Additionally, Brianna’s experiences as a Black woman and her insights into that intersection between gender and race really hit home for me. As a half white, half Taiwanese American woman, I strongly feel that intersectional feminism is the only true form of feminism. I obviously will never understand what it is like to be a Black woman, but I do understand that my role as a white-passing feminist, is to be a better ally to communities of women of which I am not a part, so that we may all achieve equity and justice.
- Abigail Kraus
Brianna Chandler is such an amazing and incredibly inspiring young woman. Reading her interview, I felt so empowered and personally ready to work towards radical societal change. As a woman of color myself, I resonated with Brianna’s powerful words regarding colorism and Eurocentrism, as both are heavily prevalent in the South Asian community as well. I also really liked what she said about acknowledging privilege, and centering the voices of those who may be less privileged.
I was inspired by what she said regarding social media and representation. For a lot of people of color, it takes a toll on you when you don’t see people that look like you, or have a name like yours represented very often. I personally spend way too much time every day scrolling through Instagram, so I thought Brianna had a really good point about making sure to follow people who you can see yourself in, and making sure to limit your consumption of media that may lower your self-esteem. Instagram, unlike mainstream media, is something that is relatively under your control.
I found Brianna’s description of Black liberation in particular very interesting, especially the part where she mentions that Black people should not have to constantly be aware of being Black. She acknowledges that the history of Black people in America should still be remembered and honored, but that we must get to a point where being a Black person does not necessitate a life of oppression in the United States. I love the way Brianna articulates this. I wholeheartedly agree, and feel ready to dismantle the systems that prevent us from reaching this point.
Besides the ideas she talks about in the interview, Brianna seems like a phenomenal organizer. It really inspired me to hear about the digital teach-in she organized, as well as the show she co-created with her friend. Her commitment to intersectional feminism is so inspiring and empowering, and her concluding comment about uplifting the voices of trans women made me feel like we have our work cut out for us, and are aware of that now, thanks to people like Brianna.