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In her thoroughly entertaining and moving new memoir Cack-Handed (a British term for being left-handed), comedian Gina Yashere — co-creator and a castmember of CBS’ Bob Hearts Abishola — writes about growing up in England as a kid transplanted from Nigeria. In addition to dealing with a fearsomely strict mom (who “beat it into us that you have to be the best,” she writes), Yashere encountered rabid racism along the way, from her time as the first female elevator engineer at Otis in the U.K. (“I’d often come in the morning to find pictures of a monkey stuck above my station”) to constantly being subjected to drug searches in Asia and car stops by police in England after her stand-up career took off. It was only years later, in 2012, that she began talking about being a lesbian in her act.
Yashere spoke with THR by phone from her home in Altadena near L.A., where she recently moved with her domestic partner of seven years.
You write about one co-worker at Otis saying he didn’t want to work with “a fucking diversity experiment.” How did you deal with that?
These were guys who had no problem expressing their racist views to me. It only stopped when I threatened the guy with physical violence.
You also write about being tokenized on television in Britain. What was that like?
At first I kind of embraced it, “Look, I’m the first.” But I just found myself continually being used to stop other people getting through the door. Whenever they were accused of racism, they would say, “We’ve got Gina.”
Why does the movie Notting Hill come in for criticism in your memoir?
Notting Hill was a Black area like Harlem, and then you watch this movie and there’s not a single fucking Black person in it and it was ridiculous.
You’ve always been known for a compelling authenticity onstage, but you didn’t talk about being a lesbian for many years. Why?
I always thought that coming out would just add one more thing to be beaten down with — among friends and family, and also in this industry. As a woman, as a Black woman, not looking a certain way, I didn’t want to give them something else to use to hold me back. My whole childhood I’d been teased — about my name, about my African-ness, about the size of my lips. I’d finally gotten to the point where I had left school behind and started a new life, and I didn’t want to do anything that would upset the apple cart.
In what other ways does being both Black and a lesbian intersect — or not?
You can’t hide your Blackness. And there’s also racism within the gay community. A lot. The gayness was the only thing I had some sort of control over. It was easier to hide, even though my energy is quite masculine so they were always suspicious. But as a Black woman, you can’t hide your color. As soon as you turn up, immediately judgments are made about you. That was what I’ve had my entire life.
One of the funniest parts of the book is where you talk about coming across a news story in your teenage years about lesbians and going, “Mummy wants us to be lesbians!” because your mother was so adamant that you stay away from men.
I really thought I had it worked out. And then I carried on with my life and never really thought about it again until I started to have crushes on female teachers and stuff.
What finally prompted you to come out?
When I came to America. Fuck it. I’m in the land of the free.
There’s such a palpable sting that comes through in your memoir when you recount the racism you encountered. Is there any difference between how racist and homophobic behavior affects you?
It’s definitely different. There’s various levels of racism. Racism is racism, but it’s not always skinheads chasing you down the street with a bat, and I’ve had that. But I also had the middle-class, very subtle racism where they say things like, “You’re really pretty for a Black girl.” Homophobia from white people didn’t bother me as much. I’ve suffered racism all my life. This was adding another string to that rotten bow. But [homophobia] coming from my own friends and family, it was a lot harder to take. It was always harder coming from your own people. It was based a lot on ignorance and on religious belief. We were told it was wrong.
You talk in the book about wanting to fit in when you were younger. Do you still have that urge today?
Nope. Now I make a point to stand out. I truly relish being different than anybody else now. I think it took me a lot longer to succeed, but I’ve succeeded on my own terms. When I met my agent, I said, “Here’s the thing. 99 percent of the auditions you are going to send me, I’m not even going to respond to the emails. I’m not going to turn up. You know I’ve got something special. I’m not going to play the security guard on How I Met Your Mother. I’m waiting for the right thing to come. You’ve got to bear with me. As long as you know this, so you don’t get frustrated later on, then we’re good.”
Are you excited to be doing a third season of Bob Hearts Abishola?
That’s very exciting. It’s great ending a season knowing you’ve got another year of work ahead and more stories to tell. And the fact that it’s on CBS which is, let’s be honest, is the whitest, most middle-aged network — the fact that they have fallen in love with these characters and that it’s popular enough to come back for another season is a testament to humanity. And the good writing.
What was it like to revisit your childhood in writing?
It was pretty cathartic. I relived some of the emotions of the time. Some of the fury and the anger — it all came back. I could let it all come out and deal with those feelings. I didn’t realize they had been sitting there on my chest all those years.
Has your mom read it?
She hasn’t. I’m going to send her the audio. She’s getting older and the eyesight is a bit bad. She’s seen elements of it. I’ve told her what’s happening, and I was calling a lot to make sure my memories were correct. When I’m talking about my mom’s story, about the physical abuse my mom suffered at the hands of my step-dad — my mom is a very private woman and I had to sort of say to her, “I’m going to be telling stories of what happened, but on the other hand I’m also going to be showing how you came out the other side and how you won in the end.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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