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Gabrielle Union — actor, activist, and New York Times Bestselling author— sat down with speaker and writer Luvvie Ajayi Jones as part of the 2021 MAKERS conference for an empowering conversation about creating boundaries, persevering in the face of trauma and learning to stay true to yourself.
"I was trying to shapeshift 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," Union says, remembering the early days of her acting career and how she's comported herself through nearly 30 years in the spotlight. "I was constantly trying to change my look, constantly trying to change my voice. ... 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."
Union, 48, said it wasn't until her 40s that she really found self-acceptance. "I don't want to move through the world as someone else's idea of who I should be," she notes. "I want you to love Gabrielle Monique Union-Wade for exactly who I am."
Throughout the conversation, Union also spoke about the traumas in her life that have led to her walking in her truth. "I have had so many, I call them 'mini-deaths.' It's like the death of the person you were ... with each death, 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," she says.
Union noted that the mini-deaths were often the result of some kind of trauma. "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 major public humiliation I have suffered, a death has sort of come from that," she says, noting that this truer iteration of herself is one who cares a whole lot less about what other people think. "I can't care because if I care, I'm taking up space that should be used for exploration and personal evolution with fear, because really me caring 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, all good things."
Union also spoke about what she would tell her 19-year-old self if she had the chance. "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.'"
The Bring It On actress went on to preach the importance of perseverance. "There's times where you got to take a break because 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," she says. "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.'"
Another piece of perseverance advice? "Real boundaries," she says. "Creating boundaries surrounding trauma, surrounding problematic people, workplaces, experiences, that is self-care, that is radical self-care. And 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."
Later this year, Union has a book coming out, Shady Baby, inspired by her daughter Kaavia, who Luvvie (and the internet) have dubbed "a side-eye queen." Union, who wrote the book with her husband Dwyane Wade, explains, "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." The book, she notes, is a celebration of that. "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 and that should be a positive thing."
By the time Union became a mother to Kaavia in 2018, she'd already been parenting Wade's children from his previous relationship for over 10 years. "When my husband got full custody of the kids 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,'" she remembers. "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 somethings that we deal with. You can't parent like one size fits all.
Even though hearing Union speak it might seem like she's constantly operating on a higher cylinder, she admitted that some days, including the day of the interview, she needed to give herself a little grace. "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,'" she said. "Just be honest about it."