Yara Shahidi opens up about using her voice as a young Black woman in Hollywood: 'It's something that I'm personally even conflicted about'

Kerry Justich
·4 min read

Yara Shahidi is opening up about growing up as a young Black woman, finding her voice within Hollywood and navigating her role in the Black Lives Matter movement, all while trying to reclaim her joy during distressing times.

“This idea of consistently being of service to the world around you is a dialogue that we were raised with, starting with grandparents on both sides of my family and then into the conversations in our household,” Shahidi told Elle for the August digital issue. “I’m beyond grateful that our house has been consistently a place of conversation and a place of action since I was young.”

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The 20-year-old actress grew up with her family in Minneapolis, Minn., where she says she often took part in conversations relevant to the movement taking place today. When she got her big break on the television show Black-ish, those conversations on Blackness and racial injustice were brought from her personal life into her onscreen persona, and ultimately bled into the way that she was expected to use her platform.

“At the age of 14, I was asked how I felt about these topics… If it weren’t for my [role in] media, I don’t know if that is something they would have even asked a 14-year-old,” she said of these conversations about race. “I stepped into the space of being a series regular on a show, I was already involved in a cast, but also in a larger Black entertainment community that was consistently reckoning with questions like, ‘What is our role on television? What are the obligations we need our networks to make? And what are the environments that we need to live in to consistently make sure that we are responsible with our media?’”

As she gained more recognition, Shahidi felt more inclined to be “as socially engaged as I possibly can” in both the #MeToo movement and now Black Lives Matter, as they’ve been spotlighted throughout the duration of her career. Still, she’s careful not to call herself an activist, but instead someone who tries to shed light on others doing the work for these causes. As many people, celebrity or not, are experiencing at this time, Shahidi admits that striking that balance is hard.

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“When I’m looking at this moment at large there is this kind of double-edged sword of wanting people to speak up and then [thinking that they’re] not speaking up the right way. It’s something that I’m personally even conflicted about,” she explained. “In this moment, for example, I think a lot of the work that I’m hoping to do is about pointing people toward the organizers and the people on the front lines of this movement, because they have the most prescient, most real, most necessary voices. The greatest skill about having a platform, I think, is handing over the mic.”

What remains most important to Shahidi through this struggle, however, is maintaining joy. “There has to be a celebration of Black life. We have to be viewing this moment as a preservation of Black life,” she said. “A fight for our willingness to thrive, or a fight for our willingness to be happy and unencumbered. A fight for our ability to just be allowed to exist. And so often that’s been taken away. We should be allowed to heal, be allowed to revel in our happiness.”

For her, this comes in the form of mentorship, as Shahidi reflects on how important it is to have role models who show you the way in supporting Black people and uplifting Black culture. “When I think of fashion, for example, I’m grateful to be in a community. My stylist, Jason Bolden, has always prioritized what it means to support Black people in the fashion industry. We’ve consistently been in conversations about how to use this space for something that’s powerful,” she shared. “Who can we open doors for? Who can we be in community with? Joy comes from being able to consistently embrace our sense of community and revel in our culture year-round. We must believe that there is something that we’re fighting for in order to keep fighting.”

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