Back in December, weeks before her now hit spinoff series Grownish premiered on Freeform, Yara Shahidi found herself dealing with a few critics, via Twitter, who felt that she has benefited in some ways from being an actress of a lighter complexion with curly hair. For the record, Shahidi is African American and Iranian.
A commenter in particular said that she wasn’t going to watch the comedy because she was tired of shows only allowing spinoffs to be led by “racially ambiguous” characters. When the 18-year-old actress saw such a comment, she couldn’t hold her tongue.
“It is a-okay to not watch the show… but on the basis of my ‘racial ambiguity’? that neglects the fact that I am perceived as a young black girl in most any space I occupy” she wrote on Twitter at the time. “Now, we can have a separate conversation on the ever present colorism and the monolithic black aesthetic on TV of 3c hair and lighter skin…”
And despite the success of Grownish, there have been people who’ve called out the fact that very few of the characters featured are of a darker complexion. (There has been a love interest of Zoey’s who was…) So the colorism conversation has been following Shahidi for some time, as it has done a few other actresses as of late (Amandla Stenberg, Alexandra Shipp). But she decided to speak on it in her recent ESSENCE cover story.
“I get that within the Black community there are a couple of us who are chosen, not by any fault of our own, to represent [everyone],” she said. “But I’ve been the same character for five years…I am not out here in a ton of movies and a ton of TV shows.”
Still, she’s aware of her privilege, in a sense, when it comes to being a part of the Black community. And certain comments or points made about her look and the advantages that come with it have helped her put things in perspective.
“[I began to see that] people have constantly had to deal with things that slowly chip away at their identity. These microaggressions make you feel like you’re never enough,” she said. “I realized that if I still experience it on a level of being socioeconomically privileged, then I’m not even experiencing half of it.”
But when it comes to the way she sees herself, Shahidi, who has always spoken about being proudly Black and Iranian, still is trying to figure things out, and it can be “overwhelming.” However, first things first, it’s clear that she’s Black — not racially ambiguous.
“I’m brown-skinned. I personally don’t view myself as light-skinned,” she said. “I also understand I’m not dark-skinned. I don’t know how to classify myself, but when you see me, unless you hear my name, no one’s like, ‘That’s a young Iranian girl.'”