The year 2015 was submerged under relentless waves of death, brutality, and injustice. The pain, outrage, and empty spaces simultaneously ignited a blaring call to action for black people to dig deeper into their communities, express themselves unapologetically, and command places at tables where there hadn’t been seats before. This Black History Month, The FADER is celebrating the groundbreaking strides that some brilliant Young Black Heroes are taking to mobilize change through mediums like art, film/television, education and music.
Actor and activist Yara Shahidi is a leading force in the world of film and television. On ABC’s sitcom, black-ish, Shahidi plays Zoey Johnson, a privileged and popular teen who, like the starlet in real life, has loads of charm and charisma. In addition to mastering the dynamic of wit and comedy on the show, Shahidi also plays an integral part in educating viewers on the diversity of black families and identity. The 16-year-old star, who’s also played a young Olivia Pope on Scandal, consistently upholds her virtues by taking on roles that portray girls and people of color in a positive light.
When she’s not in character, Shahidi is committed to broadening our understanding of the impact education can have in our lives, emphasizing the importance of black representation and empowering young girls. In between advocating for girls in STEM research and giving back through the Youth Women’s Leadership Network's bi-monthy digital support group for young girls to discuss relevant issues, Shahidi prioritizes her academics and maintains a perfect GPA.
Shahidi spoke over the phone to The FADER about her heart of service, why being intentional about her roles makes having integrity easier, and what pushes her to stay true to telling multi-faceted black narratives.
How has your upbringing impacted your self-awareness and heart of service?
I was born into a family of humanitarians. Being mixed race really opened up my eyes to different cultures and how cultures play such a pivotal role in who you become. Even though we are all individuals, it is the cornerstone to a lot of people’s lives. Growing up in this household, it led me to be more accepting of other people. Just because I am such a unique person and because every one in my family is so unique, it also made me realize that there’s more to everything than what meets the eye. It’s something common that everybody says, but if you live it first hand—maybe you think that a person is a certain way until you get to talk to them and see that they’re so much more—and just understanding how complex human beings are [you begin to have] an appreciation for everyone.
You’re making a statement with black-ish by publicly and unapologetically saying, “I’m black and I’m proud.” Do you think about whether or not it will be difficult to maintain that self-awareness and pride in this industry?
I’ve been very intentional with every project that I’ve been a part of. That’s truly something that I’m proud to present to the world. It’s more than just, 'I need my face out there.' I feel every part is a representation of who I am even though I’m a different character. It's hard in this industry to maintain it if you’re not intentional. I think that often times there are roles that are readily available and it may be the only role that’s been offered in months, but that role is the one that upholds every stereotype that you could possibly think of. It’s really about weighing who I want to be as a human. Because it’s more than just what the public or the community will think [and more so about who] I want to represent as a person. I want to do something that I can be proud of when I look back on it in a few years.
My goal in life is to contribute in some way. I have been given the support of so many people and followers and fans—it's so amazing. It's a part of my duty as an actress to choose roles that I am proud of or evoke a certain response or mean something.
While it may not seem like a big deal to somebody it’s hard to aspire to be something that you can’t see. It’s hard to aspire to be a successful business man if ever black person you see on tv is playing a drug dealer or somebody in jail.
You’ve expressed your love and admiration for James Baldwin and you respecting him for fighting for diversity and racial equality. What pushes you to fight for representation and inclusion as a young woman of color in film/television?
I've always grown up in very diverse areas... I guess Minnesota was not the most diverse of places [laughs], but I was surrounded by family and my parents were taking me to different communities. If you're looking for it it’s there. Mostly growing up in California and being in Los Angeles, I was always surrounded with diversity. What made me want to fight for representation in the media was more so seeing girls of a different heritage and other ethnic backgrounds have a feeling as though they belong. That's a hard thing.
I went to an all-girls school. Even though I went to an amazing school that supported each individual, often people felt that they didn't belong or they weren't supposed to live a lifestyle of success—as if this was not meant for them because they didn't see it. It's not something intentional that certain actors do—it's not like actors have malice in their heart and say, 'Oh you will not be represented'—but at times people do overlook things. There are people and different groups that are being overlooked. While it may not seem like a big deal to somebody, it's hard to aspire to be something that you can't see. It's hard to aspire to be a successful business man if every black person you see on TV is playing a drug dealer or somebody in jail.
What's hard is that we're supposed to tell stories as actors. So it's not so much about, 'I will only take great stories and I'll only be the role model character,' but it's making sure that there is a balance. You do see the role model and you do see the struggle because everybody's story deserves to be told—and not everybody's story is being told.
Who are some of the people, and what are some of the things, that’ve helped you tap into your inner magic?
I have to credit it really to my mother because of how intentional she was in raising me. I feel like I have been so fortunate, even when it comes to education and school she's always made sure; I mean I've gone to quite a few schools but every single school was for a reason. It wasn't like, 'Oh theoretically they have better credentials,' but rather because it fit who I am. It was truly like what fits Yara. I think that made a big difference. It inspired me to study more or even find out who James Baldwin was—that wouldn't have happened if I wasn't at the right school. I went to Immaculate Heart when I was still talking about James Baldwin and Jamaica Kincaid and Sandra Cisneros.
A pivotal part of me growing up was having my mother being so open with that, and also being unabashedly herself. She let us witness her struggle and her success. So there was never an idealization of, 'Boom we've made it! Oh you're gonna wake up and be happy over night.' We got to see the struggle of them coordinating three children. And we got to see it from her and from my father. They worked together to make it happen.
Just recently, you turned 16 and that’s a pretty pivotal moment in a young woman’s life. What have you discovered about your own identity through your character and also on your journey as a young woman?
My identity will continue to change. I think there are certain aspects of it that will always stay the same. I am going to be half Iranian and half black. I'm always going to be proud of that fact, but for such a long time it wasn't even a pressure that my family put on me. They were so open about telling me, 'You're going to change ten times in the next few years and that's ok.' But I feel like I put this pressure on myself; I had to figure out who I was and needed to know everything about myself. For such a long time I felt as though I had to figure out who I was at that very moment. It became this story of uncertainty, of I don't know who I am.
I'm not this or that and there are so any decisions that have to be made, but I realized that it’s really a continuous process of growth. So who I am will change from day to day. It's a beautiful thing to even have that opportunity and to have the ability to change and have the support from my family that allows me to change and still feel comfortable with who I am. I think it's a rare thing. Even growing up on a set like black-ish. I mean, to grow up on a set in which they inspire me to speak up and inspire me to have a voice and in which this idea of being wrong is nonexistent. It's a beautiful thing as a teenager to have experienced that and to allow myself to find my voice in an environment that wants me too.
What are some of the things that you want young girls your age to know about growth?
We do feel pressure from our society and most of all from ourselves to make decisions and become a person, even pick a career. It's always, What do you want to do when you grow up or Who are you going to be when you grow up? Why aren't you perfect right now? Often times that pressure is from what we see around us. We see these amazing people doing big things and what we don't see is their own struggles. It's important to understand that. Even if you don't see it, it's there. Because everybody is human.
It's a natural process of human growth to fall. I'm not saying that feeling of falling will ever feel any better, but I think what makes it better is knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you if you change your mind. We often feel as though, 'Oh we're faking something'—I'm saying we from my personal experience as a female and as a women of color—but there’s this pressure of, 'I need to be perfect right now. I need to do what I want to do right now.' Even though we should aspire to achieve what we want to do, it’s ok to not be perfect right now and to not be perfect ever.