Gabrielle Union-Wade spoke at American University’s 2017 All-American Weekend. She is the first black woman that Kennedy Political Union has brought to speak at the weekend festivities. I had the opportunity to interview her personally and the opportunity to listen to her speak to the student body. She spoke about her new book, We’re Going to Need More Wine, black women’s hair, growing up in white-dominated spaces, activism, and a bounty of other topics. These are the five lessons that I learned from listening to her share her wisdom.
1. Everyone’s hair journey is different.
Union-Wade was asked about why she believes the stigma around “good hair” in the black community still persists and how we can get rid of it. Her answer was killer.
Gabrielle Union-Wade: The answer would be – white supremacy, white supremacy, white supremacy. We also need to raise the stigma around what constitutes “good hair” and what constitutes a good person on their hair journey because your character has nothing to do with your hair journey. If you have embraced natural, hair that journey is amazing and your choice. If you are rocking a wig or weave down to the floor, that journey is amazing and your choice. My journey came out of trying to assimilate to a degree that I literally looked nuts. My hair and relaxer did not get along, and I kept thinking that the longer I left the relaxer on the closer I would be to the idea of good hair. But the longer I left it on it actually caused lesions, and you know what’s not sexy? Lesions.
2. Being a woman in Hollywood can be isolating but finding your support community is empowering.
Student-lead publication, “The Blackprint,” asked Union-Wade about what it is like being a black woman in white-dominated spaces, and we all learned a few things from her response.
GUW: It’s isolating and at times it’s terrifying knowing that you know there are people that I started in Hollywood with who spoke up about sexism and sexual assault, and you never heard from them again. So retaliation is real, and isolation is real. This last week [in the wake of the #metoo movement] has been very surprising but needed, and it’s a better way than ever. Hopefully this isn’t a moment-it’s a movement. Hopefully, we are seeing a true cultural and global community shift in how we deal with rape culture and toxic masculinity. It’s really scary finding communities of people who are bold enough to speak out. My friends and I have a very brutally honest group chat where we say all the things we’d like to say at work without being deemed the “angry black executive” or the “angry black actor,” but it’s exhausting to always be put in the position of being the Rosa Parks of X set.
3. You need to have a world perspective and not a town perspective.
This statement is something that Union’s mom taught her from a young age because her mother never wanted her children to be held back by her religious beliefs.
GUW: She [her mom] said, “I didn’t want my faith to limit who you guys could be, and who you could know, and where you could go.” My mom recognizes that families are going to come in all shapes and sizes and forms and no matter how your family comes together that it’s real and valid. I mean she took us to our first gay pride parade at eight years old because she didn’t want her daughters to be “ignoramases.” She loved that word. My mom is so glass half-full, I mean that glass could have cobwebs and be bone dry but my mom’s like “It’s spilling over!.” The upbringing allows me to have a lot more compassion and empathy than I would have, had I had a different mom.
4. Raising two black sons is terrifying.
This lesson came from student publication, “The Eagle,” which asked Union-Wade what it was about the Trayvon Martin case that influenced her to speak out about racial injustices.
GUW: Anytime there is state-sanctioned violence is alarming. When you’re raising teenage boys in the state of Florida that is an open carry state and a Stand-Your-Ground state, and you watch the news and you know that if our children were not literally standing by us with a sign that says “I am the child of Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union,” they’re just black boys. And when you’ve seen blackness be weaponized and deemed inherently threatening from birth, it is terrifying. I have to somehow raised children with confidence in themselves and pride in themselves while at the same time preaching not just respect for our men and women in law enforcement but also subservience and even that might not save you-that is terrifying.
5. Always speak out against injustices that are harming others despite the consequences.
During her speech to the American University student body and guests, Union-Wade spoke about growing up feeling the need to assimilate to her California Bay area neighborhood and how it negatively impacted her.
GUW: Assimilation is a quick ticket to being invisible and complacent, in the b*****t. My goal is no longer to disappear into the crowd because disappearing in the crowd is me at working watching my fellow actor or producer or director say “ah we wish we could’ve had a hairstylist that could’ve done your hair, thank god you came with it done.” Because they didn’t think enough about their talent of color to provide the same services that they provided for the other actors. Or when I watched my co-workers grope PA’s (production assistants), or in the Hollywood hierarchy, “the bottom of the barrel.” You make a problem as a PA and you will literally never work again, so they’re some of the most vulnerable people in Hollywood. And I would watch people abuse them, violate them, harass them, and I would say nothing. Because I was so afraid of being “othered” and eliminated.
Meeting and learning from Union-Wade was a magical experience, and I hope that her words of wisdom and advice enhance your life as much as they did for me. No matter what life throws at you, Union teaches us that we always need to-