I’m Rebecca Carroll and this is Come Through: 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America.
The Spring of 2020 has been grim. Just as we’re starting to see a light at the end of the pandemic, waves of protests have erupted nationwide. Yet another case of police killing an unarmed Black man. This time, in Minnesota. 46-year-old George Floyd.
Before that, in Kentucky, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed in her home by police during a drug search that found nothing. And before that, in Georgia, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was chased and fatally shot by two white men, one of them a former police officer. They’d decided Arbery fit the description of someone who’d committed robberies in the area. He hadn’t.
And all of this in the wake of new stats showing that Black people are dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people.
If you’re Black, it feels like there’s an unrelenting cycle of dehumanization and violence against us — And it completely undermines the whole Black Lives Matter movement — because in order for us to matter, we have to be considered human first.
It’s a lot. Especially for those of us who are both Black and work every day to create a space for difficult conversations about race and racism.
Add being a parent raising Black children to the mix, and it can feel especially overwhelming.
But whenever I feel like I need my humanity replenished — or a reminder of just how beautiful and miraculous it is to be Black — I turn to the Black folks in my life who are showing up for each other, and who continue to navigate systemic racism in America with grace and humor.
So I invited Gabrielle Union to come through for a conversation about her work as a Black actress, businesswoman, and activist in Hollywood.
In addition to being one of my favorite people, Gab is a brilliant creative: she’s probably best known for her roles in the movie Bring it On, and the TV shows Being Mary Jane and L.A.’s Finest. But most of all, she’s fearless and funny and she loves us.
I wanted to talk about how she’s parenting two daughters: Kaavia, who’s just one year old; and Zaya, who’s 13. And I wanted to hear how Gab managed to free herself after years of difficult relationships, and trying to fit the standards other people had set for her.
Gab was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but her dad moved them to a suburb of San Francisco called Pleasanton, far from their extended family. And from a young age, she could tell that their lives were very different.
Gabrielle: In Nebraska it's, it's, it's such a different thing because it's, uh… It's, my whole entire family is there. So, um, my Blackness is sort of wrapped up into family dynamics. Um, and, and, and my immediate family being, uh, two people in, in their families who got out, if that makes any sense. And in the sense of getting out of, uh, you know, my, my dad was from the projects in the North side of Omaha and my mom is from around the corner. So for them, part of the way they were seen as getting out is almost like an escape of Blackness, um, which I didn't really think about until much, much, much later. Um, so how they were regarded in, in my larger family, um, you know, I think there were some complicated feelings, um, you know, looking back and I don't think I've really thought about this. Um, because they moved out west and out west was where all the white folks moved. You know, it's white flight. Right? Um, uh, the North side had been, or parts of the North side had been more, uh, integrated. And then when it became more Black, you know, the white folks fled out West. And so for my parents, this idea of upward mobility was, uh, to move further away from, you know, their family and the Black community. Um, so when I think about being Black, it, you know, the first part of my life in, in Nebraska and, um, my families… My two sides of my families, it, it, they did not take kindly to A, my light skinned mother and, uh, this idea that she thought they thought she thought she was better than everyone, um, because of her lightness and, uh, how my dad thought of her skin color as a sign of upward, upward mobility.
Rebecca: Did he?
Gabrielle: Uh, yeah. We had to cover that in the first book. Yeah, yeah. Um, it was, it was a sign of, of making it, you know. You, you, uh, you go away. Like for my dad, it was, I, he left home and he traveled the world in the army, um, got to have sex with white women in, in, uh, Austria and Italy, and came home and found a light-skinned version. And, uh, together, they moved out west and with the white folks and put their girls in Catholic school and, you know, he was on his way. How and how that was received.
Rebecca: How many siblings did you have?
Gabrielle: It was just different. I have two sisters.
Rebecca: Right. Okay.
Gabrielle: With my, with my mom and my dad.
Rebecca: And so they were, or your dad, was very cognizant of what he was doing when he moved you all out of Nebraska?
Gabrielle: Well, moving out in Nebraska was, was, you know, he got transferred. But in terms of moving out of the north side, moving from the north side of Omaha to the west side of Omaha… Oh yeah. That was all very, you know, purposeful. Um, you know, you want to feel like you made it. And for a lot of people, making it is, is moving away from the Black community. That you associate with, you know, whatever.
Rebecca: And you said that you hadn't really thought about it, but looking back, do, do you have any sense at all that you and your sisters were, were thinking about how that impacted who you were as Black girls?
Gabrielle: You know, it's, it's interesting ‘cause it's like I thought about it in terms of pointing my finger at my dad in writing the first book. Like, you did this, you know, you had adopted this mentality. And I never really thought about it until right this very second how we also, um, adopted it, or, or if we did and how we did. And definitely feeling like, um, you know, as the kids say, “We felt a way…” Um, about my, about visiting certain relatives and feeling very separate and, um, and, and from a very young age, being very, um, just very clear about the, the difference.
Rebecca: And did you ever sort of feel like, you know, resentful that your parents took you away from Black folks?
Gabrielle: Not until, uh, probably when I was like 15 when I had my first real kiss in Omaha and I started wanting to go back for Christmas as well cause I just couldn't get enough. Um. And was, like, around the same time of the first time I got to go to basketball camp in California and having access in California to Black boys that liked me back. Um, and then it wasn't so much so about Omaha per se. Uh, it was, “You're denying me Black boys. Um, and I want to go wherever they are.” I didn't realize I didn't need to get on a plane to travel halfway across the country. I just needed to, you know, go about 15 minutes away. And then there was more. There were so many.
Rebecca: Yeah. I think a lot about this whole Black girl magic thing and the double-edged sword of it. Do you think that Black girl magic or sort of that mantra or that theme may have helped or hindered you as a girl?
Gabrielle: Ultimately, it made me who I am. It made me, um, so fearful of failure. Of being seen as, like, less than. It, I mean, it drives me to this day. What that did to my mental health, uh, what that did to my, you know, development as a Black woman, it stunted it because it forced me into this never-ending dual consciousness that I had to service both sides at all times. Because once you know what it takes to be thought of as successful and as an exception, you know, to white folks and also understanding, you know, what it takes to actually be Black girl magic in my own community, it's a very, very challenging dance that never ends. It's a, to be tasked with trying to be all things to all people is impossible. You know, but Black girl magic makes that look easy. And we are, you know, innately equipped to do it. And that's a, that's a whole thing that…
Rebecca: I mean, for sure. But I do think also that Black girl magic and the perception of Black women and girls, you know, as you are pointing out, is so different depending upon whose lens is looking. Right? And so I think that for us and for girls, and you and I have talked about this before, and I had a very sort of similar experience in terms of, you know, not ever feeling desirable or pretty until a Black boy looked my way, um, when I was 14 or 15 years old. But how often did you think about your appearance and did you think you were pretty? And what, what impact did your, your mother's light-skinnedness have on how you felt about your own beauty?
Gabrielle: It's interesting because I, I never, I looked at my mother's light-skinnedness goodness through my father's eyes and through, um, how other people saw her. It wasn't until so much later that I had the conversation with my mom about how she felt her light skin. My mom has never hung her hat on. It's never been something that she wielded like a sword. She's, she's just never felt entitled to anything or to take up space because of it. She's very keenly aware of her privilege and, and she doesn't like it. And I think made a very specific choice about her taste in men being very similar. You know, the, the few that she was able to date before she got married to my dad and lost her virginity, there was a through line there. They were all chocolate. Um, because she specifically said, I want my kids to be, I don't want them to look like me. I want them to look Brown. But my dad was like, “Yes, yes. And, and light-skinned women are the most beautiful. They're the classiest. They're the cleanest. They are the most cultured, the most sophisticated.” Like all, all of the, anything positive a woman could be, could only surface through a body that had light skin. So growing up and being so aware that I had a different color skin than my mom, and I didn't feel like I looked like her, I just took that as if she's beautiful and I don't hear nan compliment about what I look like. And my light-skin cousins, you know, um, one of my cousins had a very thick mustache and it was like she was the hottest thing ever. And her mustache looked like one of the whispers, you know? It just seemed like as long as you had light skin, you were automatically considered beautiful. So not having light skin felt like automatically the opposite and I never heard compliments about what I look like. It was always compliments on my, my grades or sports or being funny, which is great. It all worked out for me later, made me a better human being. But when all you want is compliments or to have somebody look at you, you know, with like, like, can I get an ounce of desire? Something? And that just wasn't happening. And I wanted that. I wanted that desperately.
Rebecca: This reminds me too of when I interviewed you for Harper's and I asked you, ‘cause you were, you had come in and you were sitting in the chair and I was just like, “Oh my God, this is going to take forever.” And I said to you, “Do you ever get tired of sitting in a chair and being made up for hours?” And you were like, “I love it.” And I wondered if that, if that is part of…
Gabrielle: Yeah, I mean, the process of, you know, beautification, you know what I mean? Like, what it represented, you know, earlier in my life, it still represents that to me. Um, I love the process. I love it.
Rebecca: Yeah. And then you had, you got after college or during college, you had an internship at a modeling agency?
Rebecca: Were any of the models there Black?
Gabrielle: Yes. But, so do you remember Traci Bingham? She was the Black Baywatch girl.
Gabrielle: That was the look, which is also not me.
Rebecca: Right, right. And so sort of throughout your life until you're in your twenties, right? You're seeing this particular standard of beauty reinforced, right?
Rebecca: And then you get this role that a lot of folks know you best for, uh, in Bring It On. And you're this very sort of bold, straight-at-you, confident Black teenage girl. But is that how you felt as a teenager?
Gabrielle: No. There were no other Black people to be friends with, much less Black people to lead, much less Black girls to lead in any kind of way. So the whole thing was, like, foreign. It was a foreign concept to me. This idea of this dynamic Black leader of women and, you know, at the end of Bring It On, we shot, the original ending has me and Kirsten on the cheer team at Berkeley. So having gone through the UC system when I was, you know, developing the character, I had to think of who she would have had to be post, you know, Prop 209, uh, to get into, uh, into the UC system. And what kind of leader she would have had to be, what kind of students she would have had to be, in order to get into Cal. And I made her into the, the woman I wished I was, um, leading the Black female friends I wished I had.
Rebecca: And now you are raising two Black girls, Queen Kaavia and Queen Zaya. Um, and so how does it feel now to take all of that and mother two Black daughters, two Black girls in America? Like, what does that feel like? I often sort of imagine, I mean my son Kofi is obsessed with his hair, which is like the one thing that sort of puts me a little bit in touch with what it might've been to have a daughter… But what does that, what does that feel like?
Gabrielle: We were just having this conversation today about Zaya’s cornrows and, you know, quarantine cornrows. And, uh, the questions that she had about her hair and then the hair that we had, you know, braided into her cornrows. Her dismay, uh, that her hair was sort of sticking out and that there was this texture difference. Right? And when my sister did her cornrows, I was like, you know, “Zaya you got to, you have to also sit and listen and be educated on how to take care of these cornrows to keep them looking fresh and how to lay down your baby hairs.” And she was like, “I'm so cool. I'm going to go read.” And so went swimming and, and would take showers without a shower cap and I'll, you know, and you know. The inevitable happens. It's not going to say as fresh as the first, you know, 20 minutes of you getting your cornrows. And her wanting to take them out because they weren't laying, everything wasn't laying down perfectly. And having these conversations about your hair not defining you and skin color and body type. You know, like, our whole house has been on this, this week because it changes every week, workout kick, and you know, not having gluten or not having dairy and really having to monitor what we're saying about our own body and how she's internalizing that. You know what I mean? And just being super conscious of really questioning every single thing that we've been taught and what we've, what we've taken on for ourselves that, you know, if you're, if you're going to be super conscious, you don't want to pass on to your girls. But at the same time, if we haven't worked that out with ourselves, it's like it's hard to do the work for yourself so you can then be conscientious of what flies out of your mouth in the presence of young Black girls during quarantine when we're just trapped with each other.
Rebecca: Right. But I don't think, also, that we stop resolving with ourselves. You know? I mean, I think that this was a real kind of awakening for myself as a parent in quarantine with a Black boy who just wants to go outside and play basketball with his boys. That I keep thinking that I should tell him how to experience this quarantine. But I need to just let him experience it the way he's going to experience it. And so I think that I think a lot about how we monitor ourselves and what we say, but especially with Black girls in this national landscape… What would you say are your primary concerns for them? Granted, provided we ever get out of quarantine.
Gabrielle: Oh my, I mean, my, the biggest concern would be loving themselves and loving people that look like them and not centering the white gays, not centering the cishet white gays. Um, feeling okay to exist exactly as you are, and knowing that you are good enough and amazing and worthwhile, and your life has value. Um, while at the same time, you know, Zaya, she is very much like loves to be in the adult conversation. And, um, if we're watching the news and you can't make sense of shit that just doesn't make any sense. So, you know, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Sean Reed… Trying to explain, “No, I need you to see your own worth and to see your own value.” And she's like, “Well, what's the point if other people don't and they can kill me and get away with it?” And I'm like, “Great question. Um, let me huddle with your dad. And the rest of these adults and uh…” You can't explain the unexplainable. You know, how do you, how do you try to, you know, give your kids everything that allows them to feel free and allows them to have, you know, amazing self-worth and recognize the humanity in all people? And then the second they are outside of us as a celebrity family, right, they're just existing as Black children in the world. You know, Zaya, a chocolate tall girl that likes to wear hoodies. At all times, no matter if it's 110 degrees. That's just her jam. When you're not physically easily identifiable as D Wade's kids, who are supposed to be somehow deserving of special consideration for their life, you're just Black kids and what that means to people who don't think twice about your right to, to exist exactly as you are. You know?
Rebecca: That was my next question. Which is, you know, how do you balance them growing up in a world that simultaneously deifies Beyonce, but demonizes Black women like Breonna Taylor? You know, because there, there does have to be, even though they do live in this, in a celebrity world with you and D Wade, there has to be some aspiration or sense of being on their own. That's what we do as parents. We provide them with the tools. Right? To be on their own, to, to leave the nest, so to speak. Um, but I guess I, I'm, I'm just grappling with where we can find that language, where we can figure it out for a new generation.
Gabrielle: Yeah. And I, you know, our kids want to be independent. And for the first time, you know, Zaya has Black female friends and Black, Black classmates, Black male friends. They all want independence. They’re junior high kids, they know everything, you know nothing. And they want to do it all the way they want to do it and move through the world the way they want they see fit. And as parents, we're like, “Oh, who's going to trail them through the mall? You know, I'll drop them off. But then you meet them by the Sephora, you know, like hide behind the kiosk.” You know? Because we know too much. You know what I mean? We know too much and I wish I had better answers ‘cause every time I feel like maybe. You know? Nah, Nope. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
Rebecca: But, so you were saying, you know, how to instill this sense of self and self-worth. I mean, how did you do it for yourself?
Gabrielle: I should, I'm still doing it. Um, I'm still learning. I'm still having these, “Ohh,” moments. Um, it's been, it's, I've really felt like I had to experience trauma at the, at the hands of people who love me, um, to show my worth. You know what I mean? I had to experience pain to feel like, “See, am I now worthy? I stuck around for it. I didn't complain too much. I'm still here. Can I be treated right now? Am I, am I worth it to be, you know, do I, do I deserve kindness and consideration and compassion?” Yeah. Now, you know, it's like, yeah. I don't want anybody to have to wait until, you know, their mid-forties to be like, “I am a real boy.” Like I don't want to have these Pinocchio moments, you know, in my mid-forties. So how can we save people from a lifetime of feeling like they gotta be put through the ringer to show their ride-or-die-ness or their worth or their value? Like, I wish I knew that much earlier, but when I, when your only example, again, are, you know, your parents, you know the, the people that are in your close orbit or the people you see on TV. And what gets reaffirmed over and over and over again is, especially as a Black woman, that your ability to endure pain and disrespect somehow puts you on a fast track to queendom. You know what I mean?
That's Gabrielle Union. Coming up - what her two daughters have taught her about Black motherhood. More with her, in just a minute.
Rebecca: So both Zaya and Kaavia have social media presences and honestly, they both seem like they were born to be in the public eye. But I mean, how do you decide how much sharing is too much sharing?
Gabrielle: Well, like with Zaya, she's very clear, um, about her comfort level. Um, you know, she's been offered the covers of like major, major, major magazines that any other kid would die for. Certainly a kid in entertainment. It's like the shit that you, you know, you have to hope to get a hit show, like a few hits shows before somebody offers you the kind of things that Zaya gets offered. And Zaya is like, “I’m okay. You know, I've got it. I really want to finish this chapter I'm writing on Norse mythology, and I'm like, “You don't… Oh, okay. Listen. All right.” So she's defined how and when she wants to, um, to be present in the world. Like with Kaav, we made that decision as parents, to, to give people a space to love a Black child that's not based on being cutesy or having perfect outfits, but also, you know, recognizing very quickly that Kaav represents so much goodness and hope to so many people. And, um, if it gets to a point where it's negative or she's, her life is being threatened or it's just something that's just feels wildly negative or she is like, “If you don't get the fuck away from me…” Um, then you make different decisions. But, like, we've had to kind of figure out what, what works for our family and what works for each individual kid.
Rebecca: Yeah. But see, I mean, and that makes me think, you know, for sure we know that Black girls are not a monolith, that there's no one way to be a Black girl, but that they also need each other in sort of to be in a community of sisterhood. And so I wonder if this is something, I mean, clearly Zaya has a very strong sense of individuality, but do you talk with her also about the importance and significance of sisterhood?
Gabrielle: Yes. And what that looks like to her versus what it looks like to me are different. And I have had to make peace with this. And, um, our journeys don't have to match for them to be equally as valid and real and amazing and beautiful. So while I'm like, “Zaya, you have so much to say and so many people are looking to you to lead and, and come on.” And Zaya is like, “Yeah, maybe after I finish watching, Never Have I Ever. Yeah, no, don't feel like it.” And it's like, uhh. But you know, it's her journey and she's going to dictate what it looks like. She's just very clear.
Rebecca: And where do you think she gets that from?
Gabrielle: I mean, shit, I'd like to think it comes from me.
Gabrielle: I’d like to think she got it all from me. Um, no, I think, I think as, as she was sort of coming into having the language to articulate her, her truth, me and her dad were coming into ourselves and our personal evolution sort of at a similar time. So she was coming into herself, watching us be very, very painfully clear about where we stand on all kinds of things and how we want to move through the world with a different kind of purpose and, um, I would like to think that it allowed her the space to be free, to speak on what she feels like speaking on, to, um. But it was interesting ‘cause you know, she was in a, a space of like, just being very into her writing and in school and her friends. And when the opportunity to give Jason Bolden and, uh, Adair Curtis, their award right before we went into the pandemic and we asked her if she wanted to, you know, to be a part of, you know, me and Dwayne presenting this award. And she was like, “Yes, I would love to.” ‘Cause Jason and, uh, Adair, of course, are her favorite people and they’re like her, her chosen godparents. And so we get on the red carpet and we're like prepared to speak for her, right? Even though she's like, you know, her and Rich Fresh designed, you know, the outfits. And they came up with the colors and everything and she's just super into the design of it all. And the getting ready and, and you know, we hit that carpet and she became, like, the best speaker ever. Like I was like, “Did you get a speaking agent?” But she was, she was so like nothing we could have ever, you can't prep somebody for that. Like she's 12, you know? So what she was talking about on the red carpet, and then, you know, when we got up to present, you know, her award, what she said to the crowd, we were like doing the slow clap like in a movie, like where you're like, “Oh, my gosh.” She's just, she's very clear about who she is, what she wants to say, how she wants to say it, when she wants to say it. And she's also really clear about boundaries and God bless. I wish I knew that shit at 12, you know what I mean?
Rebecca: I keep thinking of, of your story, of kind of leaving community, Black community, and then going back in the summertime and just being, so, just feeling like you're, you know, bathing in what feels right to you. Is there a sense of, um, of purpose and intentionality around what is on your walls? What is in Kaav’s room? Images of Black folks, books by Black folks? You know, just what does that look like for the girls?
Gabrielle: Everything in our house, art literature, you know, the people who are around probably the most is all meant to reaffirm their Blackness and reaffirm Black beauty and Black love and Black excellence. And I think that's, you know, for me, I was just so thirsty for it and desperate for it. And, you know, becoming aware of Black artists and Black writers and, and authors and, and, you know, everything that, that makes up Black culture, um, and the arts just being so enamored. You know, there's, part of that is just, Dwayne and I are just fans. Um, and part of that is just us feeling so inspired by the art that we fill our homes with, the books that we read and display the, the conversations that our kids are having access to, are all very centered on our peace, our joy, our grace, and our compassion. And redefining success in a different way, really reemphasizing community and, um, that there's a different way. There's a different way. There's just a different way of, of looking at a different way of looking at success, uh, versus accumulating things, um, people, stuff, money without any regard to the journey. And, and who else are you putting on? Who else are you creating opportunity for? Are you? Privilege is awesome. And, and being in the room and blablabla at the table. I want to build my own house with a bunch of tables and chairs, and I'm actually kind of cool with fighting to get in a room that nobody wants me in. And then the seat is actually rickety as fuck. Like, I think I'm, like, pressed against the table when I'm really outside the door and it's closed and I can't hear shit. Like, yeah. I'm cool on fighting to get into that space. That's not the end all be all. And it had been, you know. Um, I recognize that there's other ways and, and one of the things that I learned just from watching this next generation and how nationalistic they are, I'm like, “Oh shit. Look at y'all really putting each other on like, look at you guys going the extra step in business affairs to make sure people's deals are fair and close.” Like, it's little steps that lead to big steps. It's the sharing of information. You know, I talk a lot about my fertility journey and how isolating it was because as Black women, we tend to not talk about what's really happening through any of it, like through any part of our, our, you know, from the time we started developing secondary sexual characteristics. Um, it's, “Don't be fast.” And that's all the real information that you get, but there's so much, obviously, that happens with our bodies. There's so much that happens with Black maternal healthcare. There's so much that happens with Black folks in healthcare, period. But if we're not sharing information and sharing resources and sharing, being very transparent about our journeys, we're, we're on little islands. There's no boats going between. So I don't feel like I went through all this shit in the shit and the success to just hoard it all. You know what I mean? Um, I want to, I want to share. I don't want to just be held up as some kind of example of success that happened in some weird kind of way. I want to be real clear about all of this. I want to be real clear about going from It girl to shit girl and everything else in between and my fertility journey and, and, and sexual violence and, like, raising Black boys and raising Black girls and, and, you know, moving through Hollywood. Like, I want to be very clear and transparent about it all and I don't want to just keep it in our, you know, in that Talented Tenth bullshit. I don't want to pass on shit that, that creates shackles. Like, I want, I want to be a part of all of our liberation. Um, and as I figured out how to liberate myself, I wanna be, I want to be of help. I want to be of service. Um, and when I figure out answers, I want to share those answers, you know what I mean?
Rebecca: Right, right. Yeah. And so just one quick bonus question. This podcast is, you know, we're referring to these conversations as essential in a pivotal year for America. What do you think is the essential conversation we should be having this year?
Gabrielle: So us as a country, when you look at, um, the, the 1619 Project and you know how some folks have received facts. Um, clearly we got to go back, uh, to the very fucking beginning and have a very honest conversation about race, white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, all the intersections, really dissect white feminism. We have to have very honest conversations and not us talking amongst ourselves or us, you know, beating our heads against the wall, trying to educate you guys enough as if it's just this happenstance ignorance is why, like, you can't recognize our humanity versus a willful ignorance and a bearing of, of the heads in the sand, um, and turning away from our pain on purpose. Um, we have to have real honest conversations and tough confrontations as a whole. Now for us as, as Black people, I really want to have essential conversations about the sharing of resources and information and wealth.
Rebecca: Alright Gab, you are the gemmest of gems. Thank you.
Gabrielle: Thank you for your time and, always, your consideration. I appreciate it.
That’s Gabrielle Union. You can follow her on Twitter @gabrielleu.
Christina Djossa and Joanna Solotaroff produce the show, with editing by Anna Holmes and Jenny Lawton. Our technical director is Joe Plourde, and the show was mixed by Isaac Jones, who also wrote the music. Special thanks to Jennifer Sanchez.
I’m Rebecca Carroll - you can follow me on Twitter @Rebel19 for all things Come Through - and - if you liked the show, please rate and review us. Thanks so much.