Black-ish Actress Yara Shahidi Talks Diversity On and Off Screen
On Feb. 25, Black-ish actress Yara Shahidi presented the keynote address at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business’ fourth annual Diversity Dialogue Conference on how her role both on and off screen exemplifies “innovation through inclusion,” the theme of this year’s conference. Shahidi spoke with Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history at Georgetown University, to close the conference sponsored by Georgetown Aspiring Minority Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs (GAMBLE) and the Georgetown McDonough Undergraduate Program.
Since Black-ish debuted in September 2014, Shahidi has been awarded the NAACP Image Award for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series and has been nominated for a Teen Choice Award for her role as Zoey Johnson, a young woman of color in high school. During her work on Black-ish, Shahidi said, she realized the importance of diversity on screen because people often absorb what the media presents and make decisions based off their observations.
“There’s so many people on the negative side of the spectrum when it comes to what you see reflected on TV,” Shahidi said. “What I try and do off screen is just encourage nuance in this building of characters and in media because it is easy to get caught up in these stereotypes.”
Chatelain and Shahidi discussed the importance of diversity across a variety of roles in the media industry, including writers, directors, and producers. Many writers on Black-ish, Shahidi said, are of color.
“We want to make sure that the stories are being told appropriately, and that takes place in the writers’ room,” Shahidi said. “The writers’ room is such an important place for diversity because it is where the stories are being created and where it really determines the direction that media will go. It’s important to be a producer, and a writer, and behind the camera because that’s what changes the narrative.”
The actress, who is of both Iranian and African American descent, also talked about the difficulty of finding roles that fully embrace multiethnic racial experiences. To combat this, Shahidi has begun creating her own content, and she advises others to do the same. She currently is in the process of pitching her own digital series that will serve as a platform for young people to discuss identity and intersectionality.
“In being multiethnic, it is interesting trying to find a space where that is fully embraced… It is very based on visuals,” Shahidi said. “So what I have done is decided to create content. I am someone who appreciates both sides of my heritage so much, and I am in an industry in which often times they like you to choose.”
Shahidi also creates spaces through her project Yara’s Club, a mentoring group for young girls that seeks to engage them about their personal lives and their political opinions. Although Shahidi is not yet old enough to vote, she talked about the importance of political activism in all of its forms. There are a variety of ways to be politically active, she said, and the most effective method for some may not be for others.
Shahidi enjoys public speaking, for example, and she also has constructive conversations to better understand others’ opinions and her own. On social media, she often engages her critics and others who think differently than her.
“Many times I will end up talking to whoever said whatever they said. I have gotten apologies [and] explanations. I’ve had great conversations about it,” Shahidi said. “It is important to understand why I am invested in [my] opinion or why I believe what I believe. It’s easy to get caught up in the tide.”
Black-ish, Shahidi said, also is about having constructive conversations.
“We have this opportunity on prime time TV to tell a story. And so we are trying to do it by using these diverse voices and nuances and complex voices,” Shahidi said. “People want to hear these stories.”