'Blackish' Star Yara Shahidi on Michelle Obama's #BlackGirlMagic: "She Slays It All"
The Generation Z actress chats with millennial filmmaker Xavier Burgin about race, gender and politics. Says Burgin: "We never talk about how many did not survive the Jim Crow era. There is a huge precedent that when Trump becomes the president, we will be going into another one of those situations."
When The Hollywood Reporter reached out to Xavier Burgin to discuss his interactions with Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and other Hollywood celebrities, the young filmmaker agreed to talk to THR on the condition that a black woman also would be included in the conversation. “There is a problem of people not listening to black women and instead being willing to listen to regurgitated points from other people,” said Burgin, a recent Sundance Lab fellow and mentee of Ryan Murphy’s Half Foundation. “The best thing I can do in these situations is not to erase the black women who are speaking.”
Blackish star Yara Shahidi has been earning recognition for her outspoken, intelligent takes on feminism and race, having recently guest-edited Teen Vogue's youth activism-focused December issue with Girl Meets World star Rowan Blanchard in between acting on the hit ABC comedy and taking online AP classes through New York City's Dwight School. Burgin, 26, and Shahidi, 16, who follow one another on Twitter, spoke with THR in a cross-generational dialogue about the responsibilities of being young and woke in Hollywood. Their ensuing conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Burgin: I was not expecting Lena and Amy to offer to talk privately with me when I initially tweeted them about their Lenny Letter about Odell Beckham Jr. [in which Dunham hypothesized that the NFL player ignored her at the Met Gala because he wasn't sexually interested in her]. But what's more important than my conversation with the two of them was the feedback I received about it. Black women had been criticizing both of them about a lot of issues, so why were [Lena and Amy] willing to listen to me over them? This instance with Odell may have been about black masculinity, but so much of what I've learned has been from black women. As a black woman yourself, Yara, what do you think about them being willing to talk to me?
Shahidi: I am in a unique position to receive the support that I do. While it's slowly not becoming the anomaly, it's still not expected of society to uplift women, especially women of color. So many times I've seen work of my peers or my relatives be devalued because of some part of their identity. But just being open to a conversation is a huge part of growth.
Burgin: I talked to [Lena] about these ideas. I hope she listens. These were perceived notions about the oversexualization of black men that are already present, but when you have such a huge following, they can be engrained in the new generation.
Shahidi: My generation has had social media since we were 7 or 8. It's how we gather our information to maneuver through the world — not so much the obvious story, but what is being insinuated. So the fact that you reached out is important because no one comes into this world absolutely perfect, but it's important that we do our best to not harm one another, to not perpetuate stereotypes, and to not misuse your following.
Burgin: No one comes into the world understanding intersectionality [Ed. note: overlapping categories of disadvantage, i.e. race plus gender or sexuality] or being "woke." We all have to learn it. And we need more people who have platforms to say, "You have an important voice and you need to be heard as well." I think about that every day. If it is possible for me to uplift other individuals, especially women of color, to get their thoughts out on a subject, and I have to back up and be quiet, that's okay. We need to make sure that the women and the girls coming up right now know that the community around them, especially the men, are willing to hear what they have to say and pitch them up.
Shahidi: In June, I gave the closing plenary at the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service [Ed. note: on using art as activism, watch it here], and I'm so grateful for that experience because it takes a lot for a large organization to say, "We want this 16-year-old black Iranian girl to close out our event." The speech went viral, and a fan later told me that in her English class, they used it to analyze the classical rhetorical devices: pathos, logos and ethos. It's insane and cool to see the impact of that speech, and to feel heard. And that's because of a committee saying, "We value this person's opinion."
Burgin: That's beautiful, because when you look at the history of America, when it comes to people of color, especially women of color, so much of what they've done for our society has been erased.
Shahidi: That's what so important about the #BlackGirlMagic hashtag [originated by CaShawn Thompson]. It celebrates black women, whose accomplishments often get overlooked. But it's more than that, it also celebrates our existence and the fact that we still thrive and grow and move forward despite the odds. To me it's about saying, "Hey, little black girl, I see you. Hey, older woman, I see you what you're doing and I appreciate you, because your work or your just living in this world has made it easier for me to live."
Burgin: Michelle Obama to me is exemplary of that hashtag. She's everything that I see as powerful in black women. It's been a blessing that for eight years, a good portion of my life, Barack and Michelle were the people in the highest positions of power in the world, and that's something that I, as a black man, had never seen before.
Shahidi: Our FLOTUS has made a large impact in the initiatives that she's taken up, but her social and cultural impact has also been enormous. She's not just a gorgeous human inside and out, but also somebody that is effecting change and is as integral to the Obama administration as anybody making policy changes. That's why I love her. From the Let Girls Learn initiative to her Vogue covers, she slays it all.
Burgin: I'll be frank, the ascension of Trump frightens me because a huge section of America wants to push against the progress that we have made under a black president. People always say, "I'm a black person, I survived slavery, I survived Jim Crow, I survived the civil rights era," but we never talk about how many did not survive those times. There is a huge precedent that when Trump becomes the president, we will be going into another one of those situations. At the same time, people of color are not going anywhere. You cannot erase all the progress that we have pushed on this nation. We're going to keep fighting to make this nation better. That gives me hope.
Shahidi: It's scary that people feel that their hatred or discrimination is justified, that chanting "Build a Wall" in a high school is OK, just because of who the president-elect is. But it's also created unity among people who weren't united. When people say, "Let's talk about the environment, about the Dakota Pipeline, about LGBTQ lives, about people of color, women of color, immigrants," you realize we're all fighting for the same thing. It sounds broad, but we're all fighting for equality and this idea of calling your country a safe space for you to exist. Part of that comes by sharing the cultural importance of each person and his or her identity. People are banding together and saying, "How can I help, people? How can I stop hate in schools?" A lot of my peers, including myself, are motivated to create change and to make it as soon as possible. If there ever was a time, it's now. We're no longer making plans for later. Instead, we're saying, "What can we do in the next 24 hours? What can we do in the next minute?"
Dec. 13, 1:55 p.m. Clarified Shahidi's comments on #BlackGirlMagic and added attribution to the hashtag's creator, CaShawn Thompson.