We Need To Normalize Black Experiences: Eman Idil Bare Talks Allyship, Designing Her Own Career, and Breaking Down White Norms

Article published at: Jun 16, 2020
We Need To Normalize Black Experiences: Eman Idil Bare Talks Allyship, Designing Her Own Career, and Breaking Down White Norms
All Know Her Stories

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Interview by Mica Lemiski

Eman Idil Bare is a Regina-born journalist, fashion designer, yoga teacher, and law student. She’s worked in national news rooms across Canada, shown collections at New York Fashion Week, and most recently, she’s launching a PR (Public Relations) Agency that will focus on protecting and growing small, ethically-run businesses.

It may seem like a lot (and it is) but each of Eman’s endeavors plays into her life-long desire to tell stories. She wants to spread knowledge and amplify new perspectives, all with the goal of protecting the lives—and promoting the livelihoods—of people who have been, and continue to be, negatively impacted by systemic norms. Recently, Hillberk & Berk chatted with Eman about why a multifaceted career is central to her happiness, what good allyship means to her, and how Black Lives Matter is tipping us toward a revolution. 

Pictured: Eman's designs debuting at New York Fashion Week, worn by all Black models.

Hillberg & Berk: Looking at how multifaceted your career is, I feel like you’re living proof that you can be an expert in more than one thing. You don’t have to choose a single path to be successful.

Eman Idil Bare: A lot of people think you can only do one thing! We’re all multifaceted but we don’t give ourselves permission or time to explore other things. When I worked as a journalist at Global National, people would say I was really lucky because, at the time, it was near-impossible to get a full-time job with benefits after finishing journalism school. I’ve worked really hard for everything—I don’t think luck has much to do with it—but yeah, I got this job that I was supposed to love. But it took up my entire life. I wasn’t happy. For me, happiness and wholeness come from connecting to myself. And I feel disconnected from myself when I’m only doing one job and exercising only one part of myself. 

It must have taken a lot of strength, though, to defy that very mainstream, very pervasive expectation that you can only be one thing.

It sucks because sometimes even my own parents don’t understand me or what I do. I constantly feel misunderstood. But I have a choice: to not like my life, or to feel misunderstood. When I put it that way, it’s an easy choice. Even with a lot of my really close friends, I have a hard time explaining why, for example, I’m suddenly applying to a Master’s in Fashion. But I don’t actually need to explain myself to anyone. No one knows you as well as you know yourself, and as long as you remind yourself of that, it makes feeling lonely or disconnected from other people a lot easier. I think women, especially Black women, are taught that we are selfish when we put our own needs first. But I think it’s selfish to ignore your needs. The people around you deserve you at your best, and your best comes from giving to yourself and then giving to others.

What drew you to this new career in PR?

I love journalism and storytelling but I’ve realized you don’t need to be in a newsroom to tell a story. I love small businesses, and I don’t want to work for big corporations that are run on unethical values. What I want to do is find brands that I emotionally connect with and help build their story in the same capacity as I would with journalism, where the whole point is to make people care. 

I read in a previous interview that your diverse skill is in part a product of necessity. Can you explain what you meant by that?

Growing up as one of the few Black girls in Regina, no one knew how to cut my hair—I actually had to teach my hairdresser how to cut it. No one knew how to do my makeup, either, and I could never find clothes that fit. I remember cutting things up from my mom’s closet—not even sewing, just literally cutting and tearing—and wearing them to school the next day. I also started making my own foundation, learning to mix the right amount of bronzer into foundation that was way too light or grey for me. It was never perfect, but it sort of worked, and I tried to make it seem intentional, like, “yeah, my whole face is supposed to be sparkly, that’s just the foundation I chose!” People shouldn’t have to do things like that. But when who you are is not the norm, you can advocate and talk about how unfair it is all you want but, unfortunately, people just won’t do anything about it unless it impacts them personally. I decided I didn’t want to spend my whole life advocating for myself—because I have other goals!—so it just became “shut up and get it done.”

Who have your biggest inspirations been along the way?

Nahla Ayad has been my constant inspiration. She’s a foreign correspondent for CBC and is probably one of the best journalists in the world. We have really similar stories—she’s from Winnipeg, I’m from Regina, we’re both the daughters of immigrants, and our dads both own small corner stores. When I started working at CBC, I got in touch with her and found out about a letter she wrote to the CBC maybe 10 years ago. It was about the lack of diversity in the newsroom. I was like, “wow, flipping Nahla Ayad has had to deal with the same stuff I’ve had to deal with.” 

By “the same stuff,” what do you mean specifically?

The conversation on diversity in newsrooms follows a repeated pattern. They say there isn’t enough Black talent, and so they actively recruit more Black journalists. But when they get these journalists, they say they’re not performing at a high enough level, which is insulting, but also they never look at the why. The why is that we’re not given equal support. If you look at how much money and resources news teams get within a company, and then look at who is on what team, I guarantee you’ll see a correlation between race and who’s being invested in. 

I’ve been reading Thick (by Tressie McMillan Cottom) and she says that, coming of age as a Black woman academic, one of the thoughts playing on loop in her head was always “work twice as hard, work twice as hard.” As in, she needed to work twice as hard to be given the same opportunities as her white peers. Have you felt that way, too?

Yes, but I refuse to work twice as hard now. Flat out, I’m saying no. The co-founder of my PR company—Ashley—is white, 41, and basically my mentor. But she keeps telling me to stop calling her my “mentor” because we are equal shareholders and there shouldn’t be a power imbalance. She’s the definition of what an ally should be. She uses her privilege in ways that benefit me. With her, I don’t have to work twice as hard. 

Are there other ways you might define good allyship?

I’ve often felt crazy when talking about racism. We’ve been socialized to normalize the white lived experience and to think racism doesn’t exist, and that police will only hurt you if you’re a bad person. And so if your experience doesn’t line up with that, you kind of gaslight yourself whenever you experience racism. There’s a lot of conversation—and I’m hoping this goes away soon—about people exaggerating racism or making “everything about race,” but the amount of stuff that I’ve gone through that is clearly racism versus the amount that I talk about it? There’s no comparison. I would spend my entire life discussing racism if I actually addressed it every single time it happened. But Ashley, my cofounder, carries some of that weight for me. She pushes people out of the way for me when I need her to, and she reminds me that I don’t have to pretend racist things don’t happen to fit in. That’s what a good ally does: they normalize your experience because it’s equally important.

And when did it first become apparent to you that your race might make you vulnerable to experiences your white peers just wouldn’t have to deal with?

I was always somewhat aware of racial issues, but my parents did a very good job of shielding me from it. My brothers and I weren’t allowed to drive late at night or go to the mall by ourselves until we were in grade 12. My parents knew it didn’t matter if we were good kids at the mall—people would still accuse us of shoplifting. But I really started to notice racial issues in journalism school. In my last year, I was writing a piece for Global National and working forty to sixty hours a week, all while going to school full-time. I was chronically exhausted. While I was working on the story for Global, CBC offered me a full-time job and my best friend in journalism school asked me, “do you think they only offered you a job because you’re a minority?” I was like, “you saw me acting delirious because I hadn’t slept in two days! Did you forget all that?” But she chose not to see that. I outworked her and I was a better journalist, but to her it was like, “there’s no way you’re better than me, it must be this one thing.” 

We touched on this earlier, but you made a point about wanting to abolish the idea of the white lived experience as the norm. This might be a huge question, but how can we unlearn whiteness as the norm?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and it’s not only abolishing whiteness as the norm, but abolishing anything as the norm. It’s giving people permission to be themselves entirely. For example, how outraged would we be if we didn’t have access to clean drinking water, basic resources, and had to spend $20 on milk and only $2 on pop. That’s the reality for a lot of Indigenous people, but the reason this issue is not at the forefront of every single election, as it should be, is because that’s not a normalized experience. Their experience seems so strange to us and so we reject it, thinking, “well there must be mismanagement on their end.” We need to be equally outraged at everyone’s injustices. And that’s what I mean about abolishing whiteness as the norm. Because it’s not just whiteness. It’s also able-bodiedness, straightness, having middle-upper class income—all of it. 


 I want to tackle this current moment and what’s going on with police violence, Black Lives Matter, and the public response to it all. How are you personally doing? How are you feeling?

I’m weirdly optimistic because I’ve never in my life seen this many people talking about Black Lives Matter in a non “All Lives Matter” kind of way. But I’m frustrated because a lot of people are still choosing not to care, and choosing to believe police brutality isn’t a real thing. Police brutality is the sixth leading cause of death for Black men in the United States, whereas the sixth leading cause of death for white men in the United States is Alzheimer's Disease. I’m also tired. My law school’s response to all this has been totally inadequate. All they did was send us a reading list. I don’t understand why a response from a law school would be to send a reading list when we’re the oldest law school in New York and the leading public interest school in the country. This is the biggest civil rights movement of our time and they’re doing nothing. I’m also frustrated that I’m not in a newsroom right now because journalists aren’t doing a good job. They’re focusing so much on things that aren’t relevant. You look at Canadian media and it’s like, “Does Systemic Racism in Toronto Exist? Let’s Talk to the Chief of Police.” That doesn’t make any sense! The Chief of Police is not going to say, “yes, we’re openly racist!” It’s just bad journalism. 

I know there’s also a lot of frustration surrounding the fact that the Black community has been speaking out against racism for such a long time, and yet they’re only being heard now. Why now, in 2020, is racial injustice finally getting the attention it needs?

I think because we have to pay attention now. I mean, first of all, people are bored. We’ve had nothing but pandemic coverage for two months. People are at home, and people are unemployed. I’m a huge history nerd, and this is how every revolution has started in the world—with a very high unemployment number, no hope of job prospects, and unhappy people. I’m hopeful in the sense that this situation is too big to ignore and it’s going to really be something. It feels like a reckoning. There are executive directors and editors-in-chief of massive magazines being called out and stepping down. That doesn’t happen very often. It didn’t even happen when #MeToo went viral in 2017.

It does feel really big. It’s also trendy, now, for people to proclaim support for Black Lives Matter. I know the word “trendy” sounds diminutive given what a huge cultural movement this is but... 

But that’s what it is. It’s socially unacceptable to not have something posted, but I don’t want empty words. This has been in the works for so long and Black people in particular have been reading about this for so long. We already know what we want. I have an obsession with music and copyright law, and Sony is doing this thing where they’re giving $100 million to up-and-coming Black artists. But in my mind, I’m like, you guys owe so much money to Black people you cheated in contracts and it’s way more than $100 million. Just give them back the rights to their music! My law thesis is about how the framework of copyright law has historically disadvantaged Black artists, so I know an abnormal amount about this.

How about more locally, in Saskatchewan? What specific ways can people help the Black community there?

We have specific Regina issues that we need to be talking about. Why in 2020 can I still not go and find a hairdresser who can cut my hair in the city? But you look at the beauty school and they’re still not teaching how to cut Black hair. And why can’t I go to London Drugs and find foundation that matches my skin? These are our issues, and this is where local people can put pressure on companies to do better. If you’re a teacher, think about what the curriculum is like. What are students learning about Black history? Because if it’s just in relation to slavery, that’s a problem. 

I grew up in B.C. and, for sure, the Black stories we focused on in school were almost exclusively slave narratives. I know that history is crucial to learn, but isn’t there space for Black joy and other aspects of Black culture?

Yeah, like why not read books by Du Bois? Even when we talk about slavery and the foundations of slavery in Western Aftica, we rarely talk about the Black experience outside of slavery. We didn’t steal slaves. We stole mothers and fathers and doctors and lawyers and community leaders and actual people with whole stories. In Hollywood, the most representation you get of Black people is in relation to slavery or the Jim Crow laws, and with that comes so much violence against Black people, to the point where that violence is normalized. To always equate the Black experience with oppression is not right.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what the most effective actions are to take in your own community, activism-wise. Do you have any tips for how people can practice activism in their communities in a way that surpasses what is “trendy?"

Yes. Write a list of every way your lived experience is normalized—as a white person, a straight person, or whatever it is. Then, look for the counter experience for marginalized people in your community. That will be a good starting point.


Wow I really like that. I haven’t heard that approach before.

I just made it up! I’m doing a webinar on what people can do that’s meaningful. It all comes back to feeling connected. For some people, posting on social media just isn’t for them and that’s totally fine. To my core, I’ll always be a journalist and so sharing information is really important to me. But for other people, having closed-door conversations with family or a boss can be really effective. There are so many ways to do this. I don’t like the pressure that’s put on people to do things the same way because that’s not going to make change.


I also hear that you’re writing a book! 

Yeah, it’s the book I wish I’d had when I was finishing high school. It’s for women 18 to 23-ish, who are just picking out what they’re going to do in college or who are starting their first job. I had so many experiences working for the CBC where I thought, am I just bad at this? Am I not good? And then I left and realized I actually am really good. But if I’d had someone in that moment telling me that my experience wasn’t individual, that it was collective, I would have handled things differently. 


Are you working with a publisher or an agent on the book?

I was offered a book deal with an agent, but if you look at the gap between how much Black authors are paid and how much everyone else is paid, I figure I’ll just do it alone. I run a PR company so I can do my own PR. I’ve written for every major magazine, so I’m just going to self publish on Amazon. I’ll make more money that way, which I can then reinvest in other opportunities.


Do you have any advice for young women of colour? Or for any girls who feel like the cards are stacked against them?

My advice is don’t ask for permission. We spend so long wanting other people to give us permission to be ourselves and tell us our experience is normal, but make your experience the norm. An example from my life is that, as a kid, I’d still go to school during my religious holidays, but I’ve since made an active decision to refuse to go to school on my holidays. I have this right and I’m exercising it. I’ve actually become a lot more demanding, but all I’m demanding is what other people get without asking. 


Asking for what the majority of people take for granted doesn't seem like a lot to ask for...

It’s not. But when you’re conditioned to feel like it is a lot, that’s part of making your experience not the norm. With my law school, for example, I sent my deans an email saying that the reading list they sent to students wasn’t an adequate response to what’s going on right now. My dean responded by asking for me to come up with an action plan for them. I thought, wait, am I getting refunded for my tuition? Because, essentially, I’m providing educational materials. It’s the same situation as teaching my hairdresser to cut my hair. I’m expected to do all this additional work to make my experience normal. But at this point in my life, I’m just asking for money for it. If I’m doing the work, I’m getting paid—or else I’m not doing it.