When I got word that I would be sitting down with Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross for an interview on September 18 while filling in for Larry King on his new eponymous talk show I had a major fan-girl moment. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with way too many feels:
Girlfriends: I am talking to the woman who played THE Joan Clayton!
But most importantly, I wanted to discuss her journey in Hollywood as a woman and actor of color. I wanted to know what it was like to headline one of the seminal all-black young women-centered shows (Girlfriends). I wanted to know the nature of competition between black actresses vying for limited roles. I wanted to know what she thought about the increased visibility of blackness on TV.
From the jump, Tracee was open, gracious, animated, daffy and just everything I thought she’d be and more. She had me from her very first line during our interview: “We have a lot of hair and a lot of smiles, and that sometimes takes up more space.” It was clear to me that Tracee was not there just to take up space, she was there to share that space with me. When I told her I was nervous right before the camera’s red light lit, she grabbed my hands and said, “Look. I am here with you. It’s you and me. That’s all.” When I thanked her for doing this interview despite Larry King’s absence, deprecatingly dubbing myself, “No Name Janet Mock,” she pushed back and affirmed me.
During our interview, which aired Wednesday on Ora.TV and Hulu, Tracee discussed how her new ABC series Black-ish broached race and culture on TV:
“What is black? Is there a way to define that? And isn’t that something that’s different for everybody? Because as a black person, we are not a monolithic group. We all have different experiences and that’s the same for everyone. To me, [Black-ish is] about the human ish told through the perspective of this black family…We’re gonna take the stereotype, the thing people always say, and pull it apart and go, ‘Why are we even asking that question? And what does it even mean?”
When I mentioned her style, her hair, her body and what it means to many frizzy-haired, big booty girls, she said:
“Growing up there were not images that I saw…I did not see women that had big butts, I did not see women that wore their hair curly…So, to me, if in anyway my journey toward self-love and self-acceptance can encourage, or support, anyone else in their journey towards their own self-acceptance and their own self-love, then it hasn’t been for nothing.”
When I brought up Beyonce’s feminist stance, she offered her perspective on feminism which she defines for herself:
“I feel that feminism has evolved in a different way and I think feminism started, which is what it needed to do, it was about taking on the roles of men and shifting into that patriarchal society. We are in a different situation now. I like to term it ‘neofeminism’. But I personally have no interest in being a man. I am owning my femininity as a woman and my power in that. That is my personal experience with [feminism].”
One of my favorite moments, though, was the one I was most afraid to approach as a journalist: Her mother, the icon Diana Ross. I was most curious about her coming of age in the light of her mother’s cultural significance. She discussed how her mother, through her work, granted her access to education and created space for her to discover herself as a woman:
“My mother made it very clear and made great space for all her children to really discover who they were. I am not here living out my mom’s dream I am out there living out my dreams…My mother sang me to the best schools…She did not go to the best schools. My mother did not go to college. She afforded me that opportunity. I went to Brown University….and traveled the world.”
And a final word of wisdom from Tracee herself: “In some of the darkest and hardest moments, there is always a part of me that is okay and I can always access that part of me.”
Bonus Clip: Rapid Fire Question & Cheers-ing Over Channing Tatum!