Danielle Rowe’s life has always been a little different.
Born to a white mother and a Black father, she was adopted by a white family as an infant, then raised along with another adopted African American sister and four biological children in Utah County.
“Other than (my sister), I didn’t know any other Black people. Growing up I was always the only one,” Rowe explained. “I danced in the dance club in Orem and I was the only one who looked like me, which made for its own challenges in that world. But it (happened) everywhere, I was teased, I was made fun of, I was bullied, I was left out.”
Now the local photographer is chronicling the stories of Black people who were either raised in Utah or have lived in the state for at least 20 years as part of a Black History Month project. The goal of the project is to highlight the faces of people who make the Beehive State their home and to learn about their experiences being a small but strong minority in a place of increasing diversity.
While Rowe is grateful for the loving home her adopted parents provided her, it was experiences outside the home that created a sense of feeling like an outsider in a world of people who treated her differently because of how she looked.
Confused by how others treated her
Rowe was teased about her hair, her lips, her body, which caused her to have unhealthy body-image issues because she didn’t fit in with “the typical white girl body that everyone seemed to have but me.”
“I didn’t understand that it was a cultural thing,” she said. “I just thought there was something wrong with me.”
“It made me very self-conscious and it also made me very confused about who I am and who I’m supposed to be,” Rowe said. “I thought of myself as just Danielle, but they saw me as the Black girl. A lot of people didn’t really even know my name, they just knew me as a Black girl with braids or the Black girl on the dance team.”
Despite spending all of her childhood and formative years in Orem, going to the same schools, being a member of the same faith and attending church with the same young people, she never felt truly accepted for who she was. She attributed much of the problem to being a minority in a largely Caucasian environment. U.S. Census Bureau statistics indicate that 1.5% of people identify as African American statewide and less than 1% in Utah County.
Her mother did her best to be supportive but lacked the resources to help her deal with the challenges she was facing, Rowe said.
After graduating high school, she initially enrolled at Utah Valley University before transferring to Hawaii Pacific University where she was exposed to more diversity than she’d ever seen and experienced positive interactions for the first time in her life.
Over time, she would eventually meet a man, who also happened to be Black and born and raised in Utah, get married and have three children.
Those experiences prompted Rowe to become more aware of herself, particularly as it related to her African American heritage. In doing so, she began to question what other Blacks in Utah might be going through in their everyday lives.
After some searching and consultation with a photography mentor, she decided to embark on a creative journey that could delve into the lives of people like herself who were navigating being in Utah and how they managed to build their own community circles.
The beginning of a creative journey
Simply called “Black Utah,” the goal for the project is to celebrate the Black people in Utah who have seen it grow over the past 20-plus years and help tell their stories in a way more people will receive them and really hear them, she said.
Most of the subjects have jobs or community positions in which they use their voices and positions to give back to the community they love so much, she said.
“I have interviewed a doctor, marketing director and even the only Black head chef in Utah,” Rowe said.
She has photographed 22 people and asked them each six questions about what it’s like to be African American in Utah. She’s posted interviews and images for the Black Utah series on social media via Instagram.
Among the participants was Dr. Erica Baiden, a physician board-certified in family medicine, who said she has faced adversity on many fronts during her time in the Beehive State.
“As a non-LDS, Christian-fluid, cisgendered Black woman immigrant from Ghana, where do I fit in Utah? Am I Black enough, African enough, progressive enough, conservative enough, etc.” she said. “I think I speak for most of us when I say that living in Utah brings both overt and covert misjudgment and discrimination, not just from white people but from within the Black community as well.
“We are so few here in Utah, less than 2% of Utah residents are Black, as a result, everything you do is on display, you can’t blend in, you can’t just be, and more importantly, you can’t mess up,” she added. “There is a constant battle to hold on to the parts of my identity which make me whole and unique. Refusing to assimilate and become a watered-down version of me has taken years and quite a bit of courage.
“The greatest adversity of being Black in Utah is fighting not only external oppression, but an internalized self-oppression created by isolation, separation and near forced assimilation,” Baiden said. “The need to conform speech, dress, work and presence so that white people accept me in the workplace, relationships and positions of leadership has been tiring and sometimes confidence breaking.”
Ronell Hugh, a global business and marketing executive for tech giant Adobe, has lived in three countries during his life and said being Black in Utah has been among the most challenging.
“Living in Utah has provided me with many memorable experiences. I’ve felt the sadness and loneliness that comes with being sometimes the only Black person in predominantly white spaces,” he said. “The ‘onlyness’ factor is exacerbated when I experience microaggressions and covert racism at work, in church and in my community. You feel the weight of having to represent your Black culture and community at every turn.”
Despite those difficulties, he has noticed an improvement within the state’s growing African American community that gives him hope for the future.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life through my career to come and go from the state. Over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen a dynamic shift in the growth of the Black community and culture,” Hugh said. “I would say that in the early 2000s it was somewhat more subdued, but over the years it has taken flight. The community is not afraid to be Black and we are unapologetic about it. Collectively and individually, we are magnifying our voices for change.”
Stories like Baiden’s and Hugh’s are why Rowe has been so passionate about creating a vehicle for highlighting the real-life experiences of others like herself who have felt marginalized, yet continue to persevere to affect positive change.
“I wanted to do this project because I wanted to give Black Utahns a voice. I wanted them to have a place to express the things that they’ve been through and also put it in a way that everyone is willing to listen,” Rowe said. “I feel like right now with what’s going on in our country there is a lot of yelling going on, a lot of finger pointing and a lot of belittling.”
“I really wanted to create something that had a very positive piece to it which was me asking them, ‘Why you love living in Utah.’” she continued.
Participants could also express the specific adversities they face being in Utah.
“To help open people’s eyes that we do have racism here, we do have issues, and a lot of issues that Black people are facing are the same ones that Black people face in other states. It’s not different,” Rowe said. “Hopefully, by reading those (stories) and understanding them, we can bring people together to a place where they can have common ground and understand each other so that we can move on and we can build a better community all-around for Utah, for Black people in Utah and for Utah’s (overall) community.”