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Gabrielle Union and Luvvie Ajayi Jones | The 2021 MAKERS Conference

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Gabrielle Union, Actress, Producer, Author and Activist, is interviewed by Luvvie Ajayi Jones on embracing vulnerability and transparency as a superpower, learning to refuel to keep going, and taking representation to the next level.

Video Transcript

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Hi, MAKERS community. Today, I am in talks with the amazing Gabrielle Union-Wade. So Gabby, welcome to the MAKERS Conference.

GABRIELLE UNION: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to talk to you.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Oh my god-- in addition to being a New York Times best-selling author, an actor, a CEO, you've been doing so much, like is there a moment that you are most proud of?

GABRIELLE UNION: Oh, gosh, it's always the last moment I'm most proud of. Yeah, I think this morning, you know-- you know those days you wake up and you're like, ooh, I don't have it. And you kind of know it from the moment you wake up? They're like, ooh, today's not the day. Today is not the day.

Don't-- nothing bad or crazy should happen. Don't dart out in front of me in traffic, like I just need everything to be smooth. And I woke up with that feeling. And Kaav woke up, what sounded like a nightmare. And I'm-- immediately that jolt of like, oh my god, what's happening when your nerves are already a little [CLICKING SOUND].

And right outside her door, I just was like, it's fine. She's alive, you're alive, you will live to see another day. It's OK. It's OK. And it's that moment I had to, like, take a beat and just be like, give yourself grace. Give your child grace. Clearly neither of us have it today.

And it's OK. We don't have to. You know what I mean? You don't have to be perfect every day. You don't even have to be anywhere near perfect every day. You just have to be able to remind yourself, it's OK to not have it.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Yes, so how do you think--

GABRIELLE UNION: And that's about it.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: I mean, that's real, though, because I think we really do beat ourselves up on the days that are rough. So how do you think motherhood has really shifted your perspective in how you are approaching every single day?

GABRIELLE UNION: You know, well, when my husband got full custody of the kids, geez, over a decade ago, I went from fun girlfriend that popped in and out to, no, you have to be a consistent adult who mothers without being a mother because you always have to-- you never encroach on the parents' space.

But how do I-- how can I be a consistent adult that that provides nurturing, loving mothering? And I had to be present, and I had to show up. Even when him and I aren't always-- weren't always in sync, those kids deserved consistency. And that was a challenge.

So by the time Kaav was born, I was already in a groove. And I knew that each child comes with their own set of things. We all have something or a number of some things that we deal with. And you can't parent, like, one size fits all. So you have to be the mother that they need where they're at.

And you can't fret because one child is responding differently than the other child. Kaav came out clear, very clear with who she is. And we all had to shift and meet her where she is. I don't parent her the same way I parent [INAUDIBLE]. They need different things.

So it's always-- it's more work, yes. And when you're already stressed, and time is of the essence, you kind of want to do the one size fits all, and y'all good. But no, I mean, that, for me, in this household would be a terrible mistake. So just learning that you got to be different things to different people, like in life.

You can't be the same boss to all employees. You got to know each person's strengths and weaknesses, and you want to be able to figure out, how can I set everyone up to win? I don't get off on failure. I don't get off on watching people suffer or struggle. So how can I be the best manager of this household, offering grace and compassion and love and joy and adventure, while meeting each one where they're at? Whoo, it's a lot.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: It's a lot, you know? No big deal, just life throwing you random things. But here you are kind of taking it with grace. So you have two books coming out this year. And it's interesting you're talking about Kaav. You have created a book called "Shady Baby," named after Kaav, because she is a side-eye queen. You hear me? Sorceress, queen, royalty, all of that. Tell me about "Shady Baby" and why you thought now was the right time to let this book out into this world

GABRIELLE UNION: Well, so it kind of came about at the same time that we realized her looks that she gives, where she's like forever in a side eye-- I mean, you met her on the beach at Cannes. And she's been the same. She was only a few months old. And she's just been consistent.

And we wanted to try to figure out how we can create a space for Black women to exist however they come into the world. And Kaav has always been very clear about boundaries, piss poor behavior. And she's just been very clear about who she is. And we wanted to create a fun way for young Black girls to be comfortable with accountability and showing accountability and enforcing boundaries and encouraging good, non-problematic behavior to be a good thing and not as some weird punishment.

And it's going to start-- we're going to need to start them as babies and toddlers. So we wanted to create a book that celebrated that. And it coincided with-- I read an article-- I think it popped up on Twitter-- where it was like movie villains that weren't really villains. And my character of Isis from "Bring It On," which--


GABRIELLE UNION: People-- I didn't realize that people called her a villain. They called her a villain because she demanded accountability. She demanded that the other team show their work and either sink or swim based on their own actual talent. And for that, my character was a villain. And that struck me. And we wanted-- you know, Kaav's shady faces and her side eye, we wanted to show that as a positive because all she's doing is encouraging us to be our best selves, you know? And that should be a positive thing.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: It is a positive thing. But when Black girls do it, it's considered negative. When we draw our lines, people go, oh, she got attitude. No, she's a young girl who knows what she wants, knows what she does not like, and she will let you know.

GABRIELLE UNION: She's a professional troublemaker.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Absolutely. She is, absolutely. I was like, I have been following her account since probably the day you created it, OK? Because I was like, I get her. I was that kid. So to see that reflected in a book, there's going to be so many kids who are going to be like, that's me or that's my sister or that's my brother. So what are you wishing for this book?

GABRIELLE UNION: I hope that everyone is able to love it for exactly what it is, which is a beautiful celebration of young Black girls in positions of leadership, of compassionate leadership, all encouraging us to be our best, most productive, loving, sharing, caring selves. But it's funny, it's sweet, there's fashion, there's joy. There's real joy in accountability without being preachy. And that's what we want to create. And hopefully that will be the takeaway.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: It comes out on May 18, so everyone can go preorder "Shady Baby." Buy a few copies. Get it for your kids. Get it for their friends. Everybody needs "Shady Baby" in their lives.

GABRIELLE UNION: I mean, I think most of the people that I know that are preordering it don't have kids. They just want it for themselves. And that's good too because sometimes adults need to be reminded that accountability is a good thing. It's OK to be corrected because it just means everyone else around you benefits.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Mm, that's a word. I'm getting it for myself. I'm getting it for myself. I'm like no, no, no, this copy's going to be mine. Thank you, guys, because this "Shady Baby" is me, so absolutely, like I'm here for it. For you, you are-- you've been public for, at this point, what, 30 years?

GABRIELLE UNION: Yeah. About-- yeah, yeah. Yeah, uh, like 25.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: 25, 25 years, a few-- just a little. How do you maintain yourself in this world that has you out here constantly?

GABRIELLE UNION: I wasn't. I mean, I have to be completely transparent and honest. I wasn't. You know, with each job or each potential opportunity, I was trying to shape-shift into whoever I thought they wanted. And it was never me because I didn't believe I was worthy enough to be what they wanted. You know what I'm saying?

So I was constantly trying to change my look, constantly trying to change my voice. I was listening to early, you know, performances. I was like, what happened? But in my mind, my deep, natural voice wasn't good enough. It wasn't worthy enough. So I was constantly changing literally every part of me to be accepted and to be chosen.

You know what happens when we all want to be chosen. And I wanted to be chosen so bad, so bad. So it really wasn't until my early 40s, like relatively recently, where I-- you know, I think we all have our basket of Fs, and usually they're full. Like, we care, we care about being judged and being chosen and always putting what we think is whatever the world says is the best or the most worthy or the most desirable face-forward.

And I realized I don't want to move through the world as someone else's idea of who I should be. I want you to love Gabrielle Monique Union-Wade for exactly who I am. And I can't even allow you to do that because I've never given you the space to love me exactly as I am, like I made decisions for you based on my own insecurity and fear.

So what's the worst that can happen? I've been unemployed as a shape-shifter. I don't mind being-- I don't mind being unemployed as me. And I haven't been. From the second I became completely-- I don't want to say completely transformed, but the second I embraced transparency and vulnerability as my superpower, everything changed.

And the world opened up to me in ways I never thought I deserved or would ever be seen as worthy to be a part of, much less enjoy. And now my basket is empty, as you can see. I don't care. And I'm going to be honest. I'm just going to be honest about whatever it is.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: People got to deal. How do you find-- like what was-- was there a catalyst moment that finally made you go, you know what? Why have I been doing all this stuff? Or was it just, you just being tired of showing up different?

GABRIELLE UNION: Over time, I have had so many, I call them mini deaths. It's like the death of the person you were. And each time, I got a little closer, like, that one-- who I was died. I have to mourn who that person was and the people that that person attracted and the opportunities that that person attracted due to fear and due to this-- and then just wild insecurity.

So with each death, I became-- it created more space for me to kind of Build a Bear my life and become the woman I actually wanted to be that I never gave myself a chance to be. So it's just been gradual with each-- and they usually coincided with a terrible, just something catastrophic.

I think the first death would have been when I was raped at 19 at work and then getting divorced and it being such a public thing. And then every public, major public humiliation I have suffered, a death has sort of come from that. And the phoenix that has risen in the wake of those deaths, I don't care.

I don't care. I can't care because if I care, now I'm taking up space that should be used for exploration and personal evolution with fear, because really, me caring or about being judged or me caring about what everyone thinks is really just me reacting to fear. And I don't ever want to react out of fear. I want to react out of love. I want to react out of grace. I want to react out of compassion and adventure, you know, all good things.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: So this year's conference theme is, keep going. What do you think you would have told 19-year-old Gabby, who was betrayed, how to keep going?

GABRIELLE UNION: Today I would tell her, you are not what happened to you. You are not going to feel this way forever. You're going to be OK. And who will come out of this is a woman that you've never even read about.

You can't even imagine the strength and the power of the woman that will come, not necessarily from this, but out of this. And therapy is your friend. Your therapist is not judging you. Don't lie to your therapist, counterproductive. Don't waste that money.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Don't keep secrets from your therapist because I tried that. Trash, but you know.

GABRIELLE UNION: Want to heal, or you want to be light? Listen, you know, but yeah, but that you're going to be OK, and OK in a way that you will experience so much joy and love and peace that you cannot fathom right now. But it's coming. And hold on.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: I think everybody needs to hear that. I think some adults who are listening to this need to hear that, that you're going to be OK, you can keep going.

GABRIELLE UNION: So many of us have experienced so much loss and pain and trauma. Oh, also don't sign up to be anyone's trauma mule. Being a real one or a down ass chick, overrated, actually sucks.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Yes, ride or die is overrated. Don't do it.

GABRIELLE UNION: Ride or die is overrated. I want off. Is there a transfer I can request? Yeah, like putting up with abuse or being someone's trauma mule doesn't make you more worthy. And it will never lead you to the life that you want.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: I mean, that's a sermon, a preach, a TED Talk, OK? Some finger snaps, got to come for it. Yo, Gabby, you stay. Like, your heart is just gifting people every single day. And the fact that you said you want 19-year-old Gabby to understand that she's going to become the woman people don't even read about yet is powerful because we become the example that we didn't have.

So you became the woman that 19-year-old Gabby needed to talk to after that horrific thing happened to her. And now you are somebody that other people can look to in their moments of crisis to say, you know what? I am going to keep going because Gabby did.

GABRIELLE UNION: Because the second you stop, that's when defeat happens. That's when you've sucked up all the air out of the room, and no one can breathe. You know what I'm saying? You're not the only one that's going to suffocate from that, from you stopping in your tracks. You know what I'm saying?

There's times where you've got to take a break because, you know, recovering from trauma, recovering from all the isms, recovering from just catastrophic crap that happens in everyday life. Take a break. A break is fine, but don't stop.

You know, when you're taking a break, refuel. Refuel your spirit. Refuel your soul because it's going to take all of it, everything in you to keep going. And it's also OK to say no, no thank you, hell no, not for me. I'm actually OK, or that is actually not my job. I can help, but let's all acknowledge that that's actually not-- that's not my job.

And like, real boundaries-- creating boundaries surrounding trauma, surrounding problematic people, workplaces, experiences, that is self-care. That is radical self-care. And don't-- the second someone says that makes you selfish, they've just told on themselves that they don't need to be in your life in the same capacity that they existed before.

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Well, draw your lines without guilt and surround yourself by people who will let you honor yourself.

GABRIELLE UNION: Absolutely. And you cover this thing so beautifully also in your book "Professional Troublemaker."

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: Ah, listen, you're a gem. You're a gift. I am ordering multiple copies of "Shady Baby" because I'm surrounded by nothing but shady people, the best kind. And I am really excited to see what else is next. I am on team Gabby always. So--

GABRIELLE UNION: And I'm on team Luvvie, till the wheels fall off.