Issa Rae Proves You Can Be Whatever You Want While Staying Who You Are

While addressing a funeral on May 22, 1962 in Los Angeles, Malcolm X made a thought-provoking speech where he prosed the question, “Who taught you to hate yourself?”

The speech, addressed to a predominantly African-American crowd, questioned where the reluctance to celebrate their own features came from, as forced introspection as to why the deferment to foreign (white) features instead. He asks the crowd:

“Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other?”

Malcolm’s comments on black women stood out the most:

“The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.”

The speech has since been subject to pop culture – being recreated in movies and even brought to life again on Beyone’s Lemonade album.

I’ve overheard too many conversations about dreams, success or a particular career, and the societal hurdles that stand in the way of achieving them. Don’t get me wrong, there are difficulties that evidence themselves in ways that are unique to each and every one of us; each with equal importance, no doubt.

But no one should ever sacrifice who they are as an individual, how you look, and what you believe as a person to advance one’s career. And 31-year-old Senegalese-American, writer and co-creator of HBO’s newest series, Insecure is proof of that.

The show premiered with an 84 on Metacritic and 100% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes in October and has already being green-lit for a second season. Insecure’s Issa Rae has garnered rave reviews for tackling the thorny issues of race and gender relations at a time when both topics are dominating national discussion.

She’s not only found success by remaining who she is, a 31-year-old black woman in hollywood, but through who she is. Issa stars in the series herself, thus putting her face, a face representing, as Malcolm X argued, the most marginalized group in America, on a premier cable network.

When you’re as underrepresented, as black women are – only making up 8 per cent of private sector jobs and 1.5 per cent in leadership roles despite being the most educated group in America – trying to change to look and be like someone who has achieved the success that you so desperately want is natural.

In an interview with NPR, Issa talks about not having one single character on television that had a lead character she could relate to since the show Moesha, starring singer/actress Brandy back in the 90’s. This is discouraging for any young woman of color, especially someone like Issa who always felt like she was your typical girl next door.

But Issa has used that same misrepresentation as a platform to reach out to others like her, rather than try to conform to the identities that are represented on television. It’s something that started in college.

As a student at Stanford University she created a video series called Dorm Diaries, a mockumentary about being black at Stanford. She could have made the project centered around characters that are more commonly featured on mainstream channels, or even cast a model-type, slim, more industry-favored character, but she cast herself instead.

Following college she created the Awkward Black Girl series on YouTube in 2011. The show features Issa Rae as J, a twenty-something girl in a dead end job, again showing Issa’s unfaltering mandate of staying true to her story, and the story of girls that look like her, rather than cater to the standards the industry has made room for, not only keeping the main character a minority, but making her relatable.

On Insecure she works at a non-profit group that helps at risk kids. She faces petty conflicts at work, she’s single and she raps in the mirror at home – she’s as basic as it gets. But that’s what’s incredibly encouraging about the show.

Unlike the high-powered problem-solving politician, Olivia Pope in Scandal and the super successful professor Annalise Keating who teaches her students how to Get Away With Murder, the characters she highlights on Insecure, and the one’s she’s been making shows for since college, all have been representations of the black women who face everyday problems – problems that are just not evidenced on television enough.

Rae is the first black woman to create and star in a scripted series for a premium cable channel – and the second black women to do it on primetime TV, behind Wanda Sykes, who created Wanda At Large for Fox in 2003. But Issa’s accomplishments with Insecure are not only a victory for black women in media, but for anyone that believes they have to change who they are to be who they want to be.

Toccara Jones participated as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model but was considered overweight and not the “typical look” for modeling agencies and runway. Today she is the first black plus-sized model to ever be in Vogue Italia. Model Chantelle Brown-Young has the rare skin disease, vitiligo, spotting her skin with abnormal patches throughout.

Not only was Brown-Young on Tyra Banks’ Next Top Model, she’s since traveled to Barcelona to be the face of Spanish brand Desigual’s fall campaign. When Taraji P. Henson was pregnant in college with her first son she was facing insurmountable odds. Yet she drove to Hollywood from D.C with $700 dollars in her pocket, and is now the lead on the highest-rated entertainment program in the country.

What if Taccara decided that she was too “big” and put her dreams on halt because of her weight? What if Chantelle was discouraged by her skin condition and she let that keep her from modeling?

What if after becoming pregnant, Taraji looked at the statistics and said it’s impossible for a single black mother to become a Hollywood star while supporting herself?

Changing the outside situation rarely makes a difference in how far you go, because the truth of the matter, no matter what history has said, and regardless of how the current landscape looks, who you are and where who you want to be is within. Once you abide in who that individual is, there is nothing that can take your purpose away from you. Taccara, Chantelle, Taraji, and Issa have all shown us so.

Dreams are powered by belief, which makes the protection of that belief, or faith if you will, priority number one.

You don’t have to quit a sport if you’ve lost a limb, change your nose if you want to model, or hire someone to play a more aesthetically pleasing actress so your pilot can make it past the executives.

You can say whatever you want, be exactly who you are, and Issa is proof.

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Joshua Eferighe

Highly opinionated, contentious and one to always speak his mind, Joshua Eferighe has been on the path of expression through writing before he even chose the profession. Love him or hate him, you'll always want to know what he has to say.