Anieakanabasi Essien is brilliant. She goes by Aniea and is based in Oakland, California. We had the incredible opportunity to partner with this Stanford grad on a project to benefit The Okra Project. Her staggering intelligence is undeniable but what really makes her remarkable is her uncanny ability to acknowledge and champion the duality within herself and society at large. We had the opportunity to chat with Aniea about her work, her relationship with beauty, the Black Lives Matter movement and her vision for the future.
Designer and Activist, Aniea Essien, on Balancing Black Rage with Black Joy
All net proceeds from the sale of Aniea’s Black Lives Matter tote will be donated to The Okra Project. The Okra Project is a collective that seeks to address the global crisis faced by Black Trans people by bringing home cooked, healthy, and culturally specific meals and resources to Black Trans People wherever they can be reached.
You can purchase the tote here, but we recommend reading our full chat with Aniea first.
CHELSIE: Hi Aniea! You went to Stanford, right? What’d you go to school for?
ANIEA: I studied engineering and product design. Product design is this unique major that they have at Stanford, which is a combination of mechanical engineering and design thinking, which is about human-centered designs and building for people’s needs and lifestyles, and really focusing on not just your ideas or innovation. Ideas that aren’t grounded in yourself.
CHELSIE: If I’m understanding it correctly, maybe a more human-centered product design would be a more sophisticated public transportation infrastructure for our cities versus a tech bro scooter company no one hypothetically asked for?
ANIEA: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do because for so long it’s been “I have some cool ideas, I’m going to put it out into the world” and it’s really based on ego. Whereas as a student, for the past four years, I have spoken to a lot of interesting people and people that you don’t usually hear their voices in design or innovation spaces. And the solutions that we begin to think about are so different from what you usually see and aren’t things that you would think you would need from a tech perspective.
CHELSIE: How do you feel about diversity and inclusion and all of these initiatives we’re seeing in the wake of George Floyd’s death as a Black womxn?
ANIEA: It’s a little bit tricky because of performatism. On one end, it’s really reassuring to have these companies reaffirming that Black Lives Matter and allocating resources towards these causes, which hasn’t really happened on this scale before. It’s less so telling of the magnanimity of the owners of these companies and more so telling of the mindset and the attitudes and the desires of the people. There’s also the Karenization of the BLM movement which is kind of like people coming at BLM with an “I need to talk to your manager now” type of attitude.” Basically, expecting instant gratification when at the end of the day, racism is systematic and built into everything and entrenched into everything. We’re not going to see an answer to racial inequity by the end of the year and what really needs to be happening right now is preparing people for the long haul. You guys are seeing us now, but how are we going to fix all of these structures that are fundamentally broken, as opposed to just give some money to BLM and then move on with our lives.
CHELSIE: What would your dream be five years down the line for some of these companies who are likely Karenizing the movement?
ANIEA: Right now people are talking the talk and now we need to walk the walk. In five years. I would hope that beyond saying and beyond putting some money into it, that they start to really build people of color into the systems because it’s important to have people of color in these positions so that they can begin to start changing things and hiring with people of color in mind and bringing in more diverse voices. People in C-suites that aren’t just the Head of Diversity and Inclusion. Why can’t a Black person just be the CFO? Our seat at the table shouldn’t just be, “Oh, she’s Black. So, the Black one is here.” It should be, “She’s doing something that we specifically and explicitly need as a company. She is integral to our functioning as a company.” The higher you go, the more drop off there is. I want to understand where we’re going and I’d like to see more people of color actually ascending the ranks as opposed to just having really awesome representation on the bottom.
CHELSIE: These systems are inherently classist too and that pairs with it. I was just listening to NPR yesterday and apparently white families in Texas have I think it was 41 times more intergenerational wealth than Black families in Texas. And so there’s also the economic access for people of color that also plays into access and upward mobility in the corporate world.
ANIEA: It keeps compounding no matter what. Even at Stanford, it’s a problem I see happening where we all have “equal access” to opportunities on campus, cause you all have the same facilities, but what we do with them and how we apply them and how we incorporate them into our lifestyle is very different for a lot of people of color. And I think that that’s something that is a factor because of intergenerational wealth, but then it results in the people who run companies to still be white, even though there’s nothing that’s stopping Black people from doing it. For me, that’s even a challenge that I’m facing right now. I’m actually working on trying to get my own company going. It’s called Iko. It’s a crowdsourcing platform for teaching uncommon languages. I’m actually from Nigeria from a small village called Uyo in Akwa Ibom state. Our language is Ibibio, and it’s dying. I wanted to put a stem to that and start teaching people in my generation our language again so we can have this part of our culture, have our stories, and preserve it into the future, which is not going to happen right now. I’ve been working on this during my school year as part of my capstone. But as I go into life, I’m faced with the hard decision of how am I supposed to make this work? I’m already struggling with overhead fees with the website and all of that, that I need to support out of my own pocket. I have to take a job because I don’t have the ability to support myself nor fund my business unless I find ways to get funding.
CHELSIE: What is your relationship with beauty?
ANIEA: I’m still trying to figure out for myself. It seems like femininity is two camps. You either need to be like, “I don’t care about beauty” and “I’m all about my ambition, or “I am really focused on the way that I look and I don’t care as much about my ambition” and that’s a total fallacy! It feels like at Stanford, and as an engineer, if you’re one of those that are like “I care about how I look and I wear makeup every day and wear a dress every day” then you’re not taken as seriously in those spaces. That was something that I kind of had to navigate when I first started at Stanford. I used to wear makeup every day. I used to be super girly, and I was really cute. And I was in these engineering spaces. One day, I realized that my voice was too high, the way that I looked was too extra. So for a while, I tried to dampen that and I felt like there was a little bit of a disconnect from who I am. The reality is, I have a duality to me. I am a feminist. I am a badass bitch. I can look cute, but I can also do really, really important work and really smart things.
CHELSIE: I recognize and feel that really intensely. I remember this friend of mine, who I respected as a younger womxn, made fun of me for wearing blush. It’s this weird double-edged sword that womxn are expected to look a certain way if they are ambitious but if they do value beauty and they do value skincare they’re in a different category altogether. I guess it’s implied that you can’t care about both? There’s this internalized misogyny, and I still battle with it. Sometimes it feels like, “Oh, I’m being frivolous”, but I really do love beauty and I want to accomplish big things in my career.
ANIEA: I feel like one of the solutions to the diversity and inclusion part of things is not necessarily having to convince most of those people to understand why your idea is awesome, but just having them believe you, at least until we get to the point where we can have good representation in these spaces. They have the money and they have the power, they have the decision making choices, and it is so much work as a womxn, as a Black womxn to have to teach people why your perspective matters or why your perspective is real then to have to, after doing all that groundwork, to lay a foundation for why you’re a valid person, that your existence is valid. So then after all that, be like, “And then this is my idea!” That’s a lot of work. I don’t know how we can get allies who don’t have to understand everything to believe us. I think this is a crucial part because everything is a learning journey. You can’t just instantaneously understand somebody’s perspective when we haven’t been doing that for so long.
CHELSIE: I think societally we have an empathy problem. It’s a trait of Western society to lack empathy, and learning how to listen and learning and acknowledging that maybe I don’t have the same perspective as you, because I can not. We’re all the centers of our own respective universes, but learning the skill of emotional intelligence and empathy individually while also valuing those qualities as a society is overdue.
ANIEA: What you said about we’re all the center of our own universes is something that I have been like trying to internalize and process so much in the past couple of years, because I just, I think that like, I’m beginning to see that as like, why is there so much conflict? Everybody thinks they’re right and nobody’s willing to be wrong and you can’t get anywhere with that. And I feel like part of how we move forward is beginning to shift the foundations of that and create space to be wrong and create spaces where ego can falter. And I think that that is the reason why we face this is because we’re in such an individualistic society where everything kind of brings back to you, all roads lead to you all understand what leads to you. We need to learn how to decenter.
CHELSIE: Tell me a little bit about your Black Lives Matter design and what your creative process was like for that.
ANIEA: I’ve been seeing a lot as this movement has been happening that have been throwbacks to the fact that this isn’t new, it’s just documented. A lot of the struggles that we’re facing nowadays are things that we’ve been seeing in society in the recent history, but we’ve also been seeing them 60 years ago. People getting lynched today, people were getting lynched in the sixties, this stuff is happening and it has been happening and it hasn’t stopped happening. And we’re acting like because we see Target commercials that have black people in it and there’s Bandaids in multiple skin colors that it’s all post-racial chill. But I think that the powerful thing that’s happening right now is that not only the people that are experiencing it are seeing it, but everybody is seeing it. But that being said, it’s not new. So that design that I created, I wanted to create a little bit of a retro vibe that kinda like throws back to like the stuff was happening back then and this stuff is happening now. Um, I also have been thinking a lot about ideas of Black joy and Black resistance and Black resilience in the midst of everything that’s been happening. A question I’ve been asking myself a lot is, “How can we balance our Black rage with our Black joy?”