It's impossible to not be inspired by a woman like Gabrielle Union. The undeniable success of her career is one thing. Her poreless skin, ever-changing (yet always screenshot-worthy) hair, and stunningly snatched physique is another. And let's not even get started on her and Dwyane Wade—the two of them personify #RelationshipGoals. So of course, this actress, author, wife, mother, and businesswoman was at one of the biggest celebrations of Black Girl Magic in the world: Essence Fest. When I sat down with Union at the AT&T Dream in Black luncheon, not only did my heart skip a beat when she acknowledged that we'd met before (and had a real conversation about diversity in the industry), but she also reminded me that she was about to be 46 years old and has been coming to Essence Fest for a very long time.
"It's a family reunion," she said. "You see people you haven't seen in years—everyone and their mother is here. It feels like a celebration of us [and] a safe space to exist in joy and in celebration." Union went on to say how fortunate she feels to be surrounded by women who have shared many of the same life experiences as her. "I'm lucky to be around women who've been in therapy just as long as I have been," Union said. "Who are living out loud and proud and so [at Essence Fest], this is just more of us. You know what I mean—this is like Wakanda."
Wakanda, indeed. This year, Essence Fest was the largest its ever been, with over 500,000 attendees in New Orleans to celebrate the beauty of being black. The festival has been around for 24 years and holds the top spot as the largest festival in the world. It's a full-out convention with thousands of sponsors and three enchanting nights of concerts headlined by some of the biggest entertainers in the world. This year, Janet Jackson took the main stage—enough said. The entertainment is unmatched, but the celebratory energy is what's truly incomparable.
Union's interpretation of the festival is one that feels like an amplified version of her personal tribe of women who support her. "Being here just feels normal. In my personal Wakanda, we've been doing the work for so many years," she said. "So many of us have battled all sorts of shit, and we've gotten to a space in our lives, collectively as a group of friends, where we're on some—pardon my language—fuck it, love me exactly as I am or not, but I'm a keep moving. I'm so happy in my own skin. I'm so happy in my own body. I'm so happy with my identity. I'm so fucking happy, so anything outside of that, fuck you. And that's where we're all at as a crew. So [Essence Fest] is just more of that, which is refreshing."
Speaking of self-love, Union has been open about her journey as a black woman in Hollywood. She hasn't been quiet about the injustices she and women of color face every single day because of our skin tone and the way we choose to wear our hair. In fact, during our first-ever interview, she shared a scenario when she was being considered for a "professional woman" role and was wearing twists in her hair. The producers didn't deem her hairstyle "sophisticated" enough and Union was not backing down.
"There's a larger conversation with people of color when it comes to our hair and our skin color," Union said in that interview. "People will try to lighten our skin tones and alter our hair, which says a lot of about how we feel about ourselves versus how other people feel about our blackness and textured hair. We need to showcase the fullness of our beauty."
And colorism extends beyond the surface of society—it's actually born in the confinement of your own home, including Union's. She recently had a conversation with her teenage boys who are in high school about the types of girls they were attracted to at school. After asking to see their Instagrams, Union called them out on liking girls who all looked the same.
"It was literally probably 10 girls that I looked at, [and] they all looked like the same light skin, curly hair, tiny waist, butt, boobs," Union said. "It's the same girl over and over and over again that they deem beautiful. I said, ‘Okay, so who's the most beautiful chocolate sister you guys have seen?’ And they're like, ‘There are none in our school.’ I said, ‘I’ve been to your school. You’re lying. Why did they get exed out so fast? What is happening in your brain that is causing you to look at these women through a prism that is distorting their actual selves to fit what’s happening in your mind?’”
So Union pulled up popular actress Ryan Destiny's Instagram.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, she bad!’ And I was like, ‘Do you know how many Ryan Destinies there are?’ I pull up every black model. I told them, ‘These women are from all over the world, and they’re beautiful. But you guys don’t see the beauty unless it comes with actress, supermodel, or video vixen after it. You have to have somebody else tell you that a chocolate woman is attractive for you to believe that a chocolate woman is attractive or natural hair is beautiful. You can see your classmates exactly as they are without looking at them through a patriarchal, white-supremacist lense.’”
For this very reason, Union chooses to define diversity for herself. “Diversity is super limited, so I hate using the word,” she said. “I prefer inclusion. So let’s talk numbers because they might think they’re including ‘diversity’ that actually doesn’t equate to any sort of real inclusion.” To Union, “diversity” is like the seat is inside at a table that is super tiny. And her version of inclusion is sitting at a table that is super inclusive, in a home that is inclusive, where the welcome mat has been rolled out and it’s wide enough for everybody. “There are enough tables and chairs for everybody, where every community is widely celebrated and you’re actually fucking listening to people when they’re speaking and you’re enabling those people to tell their own fucking stories. And even within our community, as black folks recognizing the diaspora, it’s not just the African American perspective; there is a wealth of stories. We need to work on inclusion within ourselves. I think as women, so much of how a lot of us experience colorism is when we’re looking for romantic partners. We feel limited, invisible, forgotten, and overlooked by our men because we’re not fitting into whatever it is that they think is great.”
And just because Union has a long, respected list of accomplishments doesn't mean she’s been immune to feeling forgotten in the industry. With her black-owned haircare line, Flawless, she’s run into challenges that have made her feel overlooked in the beauty industry. “If you don’t have proper distribution and financial support behind your dream, it’s a real challenge,” said Union. “I thought I had it all. It’s a real challenge for corporations to sustain their interest in our communities and celebrate all of our beauty in a sustained way.”
Thankfully, Union is continuing to champion women who look like her. And thankfully, large corporations have continued to sustain their support for critical events in our community like Essence Fest, which fosters such an important space. Thank you, Miles Ahead Entertainment, Ford, McDonald’s, My Black Is Beautiful, and the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network for sponsoring my three days at Essence Fest, which felt like the purest form of celebrating the skin I'm in.
This press trip was paid for by Miles Ahead Entertainment, Ford, McDonald’s, My Black Is Beautiful, and the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network. Editors' opinions are her own.