Blavity Exclusive: Yara Shahidi talks about normalizing diversity, her aspirations, 'black-ish' & more
October 05, 2016 at 1:30 pm
Since its premiere in 2014, ABC’s hit comedy series black-ish has captivated the nation with its thought-provoking commentary about being a modern black family in America. In turn, it has produced a bonafide star in Yara Shahidi, who stars as the Johnsons’ eldest child, Zoey. Aside from starring on the show, Shahidi has become a popular role model for young black girls, and has often spoken out about Hollywood’s racism, sexism and diversity problems.
Shahidi had a chat with Blavity about topics ranging from her character on black-ish, diversity in Hollywood, what keeps her grounded and much more!
On comparisons between herself and the character of Zoey:
In previous interviews, Shahidi has talked about how she was different than the character she portrays on screen, but she says now that she and Zoey share much in common. “We were polar opposites in the beginning,” she said, noting how the rebellious Zoey would stay on her phone all the time, while in real life, Shahidi barely knows where hers is half the time. “I think as this season progresses, we become more and more alike in that we’re both going through the same developmental stage of just growing up and being an adolescent in this day and age.” Shahidi notes that social media plays a huge part in this.
“By 13, you have a Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, but what’s interesting about my character is that she comes from a place of wanting to succeed. When she takes a selfie it’s ‘if i post this selfie and get this many likes, I’ll get a sponsorship’ or ‘I’m gonna steal the car, but I’m gonna steal it to go to the library because ultimately, I still need to study.'”
Despite the similarities, Shahidi says there are differences between Zoey and her in that aspect.
“We have different ways of carrying out plans, and I think I am a bit of a better communicator when it comes to talking to my parents, where there isn’t any eye-rolling or door-slamming, but I also love her confidence. She carries herself and she knows she’s there for a reason. What’s almost intimidating about Zoey is that she’s so sure of herself, that she makes you doubt yourself. Her presence is like, ‘I’m supposed to be here, are you?’ While I hope my presence isn’t that extreme, it’s something that I admire.”
The actress also admires how her character deals with the situations she’s put in. “You really don’t see Zoey break down or freak out. You see her low points, but its from the place of, ‘I can fix it, it’s supposed to be here.'”
On being an advocate for diverse representation in Hollywood:
Many people believe “diversity” has become just a buzzword nowadays. Shahidi wants you to know it’s not just about a singular part. “I talk about this a lot,” she said. “I like to preface it with diversity is more than just race. Race is a large component of it, but its also making sure different sexual identities, different gender identities and different religions are represented.”
She’s also calling for multiple representations of black people in television and film. “Ultimately, as an actor, every story has to be told, but it’s more than saying ‘I want to make sure that every black person on TV is a good role model.’ What we are lacking now is the balance of good, bad and indifferent characters. We have a lot of characters that are entertaining to watch, and they are all played by talented people, but it’s not who you want to be your sister or your mother or brother to be.”
How do you turn diversity into action? She says this can be achieved through normalizing diversity through intentional writing, or being able to relate to a character no matter what.
“I think there are two ways, both ways normalize it. One is how you still relate to them no matter what, and the other is looking at how special that person is because of their heritage and how (it makes them) unique and fantastic,” she said.
She uses the Marvel universe and ABC’s Quantico as examples of both.
“Marvel has beautifully done it through intentional writing, making a character’s backstory what makes them powerful or quirky or cool. So you’ll have a character like Miss Marvel, who is the first Muslim superhero, and that’s an integral part (of her backstory). But (on Quantico), it’s not necessarily a big factor. The diversity and representation on that show is astounding, but it’s so normal. It’s like you get a bit of everything, but a part of it is like it’s really not a big deal. It’s kind of like ‘that person is this, yeah that person’s that……and?'”
She says black-ish has both aspects of this, saying “we’re obviously a black family, and we don’t shy away from that.” She continued, “Both (aspects) are unique and valid and can be done, and I feel like black-ish rides the cusp of both. It’s like these people are relatable and you love us, but we’re also very black and it gives us unique life experiences.”
As a dynamic force in Hollywood, what keeps her grounded the most:
“I feel like there is nowhere to go other than the ground, if that makes any sense,” she said while laughing. She went into detail about stereotypes that black actors face and how they can be misinterpreted. “So many times, actors will get bad reps for being full of themselves. Confidence, especially on women and people of color, is misconstrued as being conceited,” she said.
“What makes me just ‘Yara’ and not refer to myself as ‘an actress Yara Shahidi,’ is the fact that I’m a kid and I like being a kid. I like having a normal life. My normal is different from most people’s normal, but there still is a balance of I talk to friends and sometimes I text too much, and I’m also in school and balancing classes, and I have a family that supports that. So acting has not absorbed my entire world, which has allowed me to have a base reality. My base reality is our reality. It’s not a set. It’s not a character. It’s not a show. It’s planet Earth.”
The black women who positively influenced her the most while growing up:
After being specifically asked which women in Hollywood positively influenced her the most, Shahidi responded, “Honestly, I grew up not watching much TV and not many movies. I was a history and Greek mythology nerd. I’m half-Iranian so I asked for a Quran one year and a Bible the next, just to understand better.” She went on to name her mother and aunt as the two women she looked up to and influenced her the most.
“My mother was a business major and she studied Spanish education abroad. She’s always been an entrepreneur, but she kind of established how dynamic we can be, not as a human, but a woman of color. I learned from a young age there is no need to define yourself in what you plan to do. She taught me that I had this freedom to do what I wanted to do, as long as it came from a decent place in my heart,” she said.
Shahidi credits both her mother and father for introducing her to philanthropy, noting how her mother carries herself in a way that shows she’s here to help people.
“She’ll have hour-long conversations with random people if she knows anything about what they are trying to do, like ‘ok, here are all of my connections I have, here’s this, here’s that.’ And so many people are like ‘stop talking and monetize that,’ but it comes from this place in her heart where she can’t stop talking if she knows how to help you, and that is just very powerful to watch,” she said.
She then talked about her aunt, saying, “She is professor of social work, her name is Joan Blakey. I was born and raised as I watched her get her PhD, and that was an incredible process seeing how committed she was. As a professor of social work, she used her own life experiences to focus on how to help rehabilitate women who have gone through serious trauma. I’ve grown up reading her work, watching her speak, reading her articles and watching my mother edit her articles.”
The hard work of both of these women gave Shahidi a life mantra to go by. “I think just seeing no matter how hopeless it gets, when you see people who have dedicated their life to the betterment of other people, it’s inspiring. So no matter how many times you see that the system is set up for us to fail, when you see that one person who has dedicated every waking moment of their career to how can we fix the system and how can we do better, it gives you your own passion or sense of belonging.
Where she sees herself in 10 years:
The 16-year-old isn’t sure where she’ll be at 26, but has somewhat of an idea of where she wants to be. “I want to go to college and study sociology and big history. My end goal is to be a thought leader, but I want to do some things along the way. I want to continue to act,” she said.
Although she says she hopes black-ish will continue to go on many more seasons, she wants the opportunity to get her master’s (or be in the process of obtaining one).
“I hope by that time I have some applicable way to use the inspiration I’ve learned. I like sociology because, in my words, it’s applicable history. I think for the same reason, I enjoy acting because of this idea that if we learn more about humans, we can do more about our evolution and how to take more steps forward than more steps back. Hopefully I find a way to do that. Maybe I’ll have a theory or something. But I don’t know for sure, I’ve even changed my major a million times wanting to study criminology to social justice and other things.”