Lexi Underwood On Microaggressions, Gen Z & Her Fight for Social Justice

Erika Janes
·8 mins read

As an actress, Lexi Underwood excels at finding a character’s voice and inhabiting her power. More recently, she’s been finding her own. The 17-year-old recently starred on the small screen as Pearl Warren in Little Fires Everywhere, more than holding her own against Kerry Washington, who played her mom. But it’s an altogether different type of project that’s taking up her time and attention right now — and allowing her to put her voice and power to use for good.

Underwood officially launched We The Voices Of Gen Z — a video series of documented roundtable discussions — earlier this summer, although its roots began two years ago, when she conceived the idea after the White Supremacy March on UVA. It was uncomfortably close to her hometown of Washington, D.C., and Underwood felt the need to create a safe space for her and her friends to process that hatred, talk about their feelings, and find solutions. Now, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, providing a platform for Gen Z to discuss social and political issues is even more relevant — and essential.

It’s that project that made Underwood a natural fit to get involved in the latest iteration of SheKnows’ own Gen Z video series, Hatch. We spoke to her last month — before the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision — about microaggressions, giving voice to Gen Z, and finding her role in the fight for social justice.

SheKnows: First of all, thank you for talking to us and being part of this. I’d love to know, just in general, how you’re feeling right now?

Lexi Underwood: It’s such a loaded question. I never know what to say because there’s just so much happening in the world. And in all honesty right now, especially as a Black artist, it’s very hard to find a sense of joy and happiness or motivation when there’s so much tragedy and chaos happening. But I’m just so thankful that I have a strong support system. That’s honestly what’s been getting me through this quarantine. And I’ve been blessed to be able to work, especially on my production company, from the comfort of my own home. I’m just blessed and happy to be alive and to be here — because that is something to be grateful for.

SK: Let’s talk about microaggressions, and the video that you co-produced with SheKnows. Why were you interested in being part of this?

LU: Microaggressions [are] something that a lot of Black and brown kids and just minorities in general have to go through. It’s sad because it’s kind of a way of life for us. You can’t go through your life without experiencing some form of microaggression. And in a way, I felt as though growing up I almost had to get accustomed to it. The first time that I ever experienced a microaggression was probably in kindergarten. It’s something that starts off from such a young age. And by the time we get to this age now — I’m 17 — and seeing everything happening in the world right now, especially revolving around the Black Lives Matter movement, something that a lot of my friends have said is we’ve almost become numb to the feeling… It doesn’t surprise us. It doesn’t shock us. All it does is really just, it hurts your heart and it motivates us to get out there.

I just really wanted to let kids know that this is something that all of us experience — [but] just because it’s something that we experience doesn’t mean that it defines you, and it doesn’t mean that it’s right.

I also really want to spark the conversation about how toxic the education system can be for Black and brown kids, and the underlying racism that is built within the education system. Microaggressions don’t [just] come from kids; [they] come from teachers and principals. I’ve had teachers tell me that I would never make it, that my dreams were way beyond anything that I could achieve, just racist things. So I want to bring attention and bring awareness to the issues that we have to face.

SK: I’m sorry that you experienced that. When it starts at such a young age, how do you even process that? Do you know that there’s something wrong with that comment?

LU: Growing up, I think because I heard it so much, I never really processed it as, hey, this isn’t OK. This isn’t normal. I think by third or fourth grade I started to pick up on the little things because that’s around the time that I really started to learn more about my culture, my history. And the more my parents really taught me about the truth of my people and where we come from, that’s when I started to pick up on the fact that the things that kids were saying to me weren’t necessarily OK.

SK: Has your approach to dealing with microaggressions changed over the years?

LU: I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned in 2020 is that my response is the reason that I exist. And how I react — I can control that. I can’t control how other people are going to react. I can’t control what other people are going to say to me. What we’ve seen with these Karen situations is that you have to be very careful with how you respond and how you act, because how you react — It could honestly be a life or death situation.

My response is the reason that I exist.

I’m just being more careful about how I choose to respond to ignorance. To quote Michelle Obama: ‘When they go low, we go high.’ And so now, I find myself in those situations… I just choose to take the high road because in the end, I wholeheartedly believe in karma. Karma is going to come back and bite you in the butt. You can’t do people wrong. You can’t do people dirty or put people’s life in jeopardy and expect to walk away freely and just continue to live this happy and prosperous life. That’s not how the universe and the way of life works.

SK: When you spoke at our BlogHer conference, you mentioned being unsure of what your role was in this fight. How did you gain clarity on that?

LU: I mean, when everything happened, I was just kind of in a [state] of shock and panic. I did not know what to do. But the more I saw people going out there and protesting and using their voice, that just motivated me. You know, I was trying to figure out, ‘where do I fit and where do I belong?’ But I don’t think there’s really a proper place to fit in and belong within this movement. If you’re passionate about it, speak up about it. Just show up, do your part, and make your voice heard, because at the end of the day, all we have is our voice and our platforms and our character.

SK: Speaking of platforms, can you tell us more about ‘We The voices Of Gen Z’, and what you hope it will accomplish?

LU: So ‘We The Voices Of Gen Z’ is a documented roundtable discussion full of diverse Gen Z voices talking about social and political issues. We’ve been hosting conversations via Zoom for the past couple of months. It was a concept that I originally came up with two years ago, around the same time that the White Supremacy March in UVA took place. Just having that realization that hatred was just two hours away from me, which is something that I really cannot process… in that moment I wanted to create a safe space [for] my godsiblings and just a couple of kids in the area to come down and just be open and talk about what they were feeling and also hopefully try and create a sustainable solution to the problem.

And about two years later, I was really bored in my house and I saw everything happening, and I told my mom that I wanted to start it back up. I just felt as though these conversations were incredibly important, and I wanted to put this out there for kids [who are] feeling unsure of what to do and unsure what actions to take. And that’s exactly what ‘We The Voices Of Gen Z’ does. When I say that it talks about social and political issues, it really goes into depth. It’s not just surface level. We’ve been fortunate to have activists that are at the frontlines of these movements, like Janaya Future Khan, Naomi Wadler, and Marley Dias, who are, you know, three incredible young Black girls who have been using their platforms and their voices since they were incredibly young to speak up.

So, we have conversations about everything happening. We’re about to put out one about the education system, while kids are going back to school, and also one about voter registration. My biggest thing with ‘We The Voices Of Gen Z’ is the hope that Generation Z feels empowered and feels inspired to get out there and use your voice for good.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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