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Can Yara Shahidi Heal the Generation Gap?

The teen star’s take on all-ages feminism.

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“A watch will not lead you astray!” declares Yara Shahidi.

The 17-year-old has a new gig as a Fossil smartwatch ambassador, even though most teens check the time via phone—a rookie move, says the Black-ish star.

“When you go on your phone to check what time it is, you get so distracted. It happens to me every day. ‘Oh, I just wanted to see what time it is, but now I’m magically on a panda video.’ This is the easier way,” she says, “but it’s also a part of your personal style. It ends up becoming a part of who you are, and representing what you love.”

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We love Yara, so we interviewed her about her TV future, her history obsession, and why we shouldn’t rag on Generation Z… yet.

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You launched your Fossil partnership with a discussion at The Wing. And you talked about how generations of women need to come together, instead of judging each other.

We do! Intergenerational support is crucial. I feel like generations give up on each other. If you’re Gen Z, you’re like, “Gen X is never gonna get it.” If you’re Gen X, you’re like, “Those Millennials are such idiots.”

What do you wish adult women knew about teen women right now?

One thing I hear a lot is that we’re self-centered and we can’t put down our phones. But we’ve been given these platforms to be self centered. And we’ve been put in these places where, for example, my [Instagram] post on James Baldwin got 10,000 likes. I posted a picture of my face on Instagram. It got 70,000 likes. When you’re aware, from a young age, of how something plays in public, it makes you a young entrepreneur, whether you like it or not. I call most teenagers ‘young entrepreneurs’ because from a young age we’re aware that our social media is building our brand. And if, when you’re 13, you’re concerned with building your brand, then “like” disparities matter. And you realize, “I can get all the likes I need and all the followers I need to have a big following, and then I get to do X Y Z.” That’s not by choice, that’s by life experience.

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Are you saying, don’t hate the player, hate the ‘gram?

Yeah, exactly! Don’t hate the player, hat the ‘gram! It’s this idea that we’re put into these systems in which, as a person, you need to figure out how to succeed in the system. And if succeeding means being “self centered” and taking selfies, to then be able to promote a t-shirt, or James Baldwin, or anything, then that’s what we’re gonna do because we’re living by the example set by others, and by what we’re seeing.

Is there an upside to being able to build your “brands” even younger?

Yeah, we’re in this great place where now, because young women are expressing how they feel and what they believe, platforms aren’t restricting themselves to what’s considered just “feminine” topics… And that’s becoming more a reflection of teenage girl nature, how broad the topics are… I mean, look at ELLE! Their political coverage is amazing. And if [teen women] can use [social media] to encourage those discussions, then we’re making a real difference.

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Watching young women engage in politics and social justice is amazing. But women’s media and fashion magazines have always been political. I guess one thing my friends and I wish some teens realized is that even though their engagement is amazing, it’s part of a longer tradition.

Yeah, I understand that and I totally appreciate that. I try to preface everything with “this isn’t new.” Because most social movements have happened before and I get that. Nothing I’m doing is new. People point to [Black-ish] and say “never before has diversity been showcased so prominently on TV” and I’m like, “Huh?” This is possible because of what’s come before us. And we know that.

You mentioned that history is your favorite school subject.

I talked on the phone to my history teacher for an hour and a half the other day. Seriously. And going back to what we were talking about, part of why history is so important in my life is because it brings you an awareness that everything isn’t new. The Cold War ended in the ’80s, which means not that long ago, we still had to talk about how you shouldn’t ostracize people or penalize people because of their “Communist ties.” So many times, that’s why I love history as much as I do. It gives context to what’s happening right now. History is cyclical but circumstances and technology change. So when social justice topics come up, they’re not new. They’re just being covered more. We have more ways to record it now.

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Do you feel like social media has made it easier to communicate with “adults” like your parents, or not?

I’m lucky because I have an amazing mother who is as politically active as I am. But she didn’t have Instagram followers when she was in high school and college, so it wasn’t recorded as instantly and frequently as it is for me. But she was in the Black Students Union in college, she has lived through different forms of activism. And I want to learn from those experiences. But I’m lucky; my parents have never said to me, “You’re a kid, so you just don’t know.” They say, “How can we discuss the world and learn from these events together?”

Do they ask you about social trends that might be more teen-focused?

There are times when they asked me, “What is gender identity? Can you explain this to me?” And I’m explaining terms like “cis” and “trans” to them, and it’s not because the gender spectrum hasn’t existed before now. It’s because we’re finally talking about it collectively, as a society, which means that we have collective terminology and definitions. And I can tell them that.

I’ve seen every episode of ‘Black-ish.’ Twice. Can you tell us anything about the possible spinoff where Zoe goes to college? Will it be more like ‘A Different World’ or ‘Felicity’ or…?

Oh my gosh. Well, I love A Different World and I think Liberal Arts, which is the potential name of the show, might reference that show very loosely, the way Black-ish references The Cosby Show a little bit…but it’s going to be our own thing. And [Black-ish character] Zoe is not me. She’s got her own journey. She has her own priorities. But I love her, and I think she’ll do really well in college because she works really hard.

And Denise Huxtable was cool, but she never went to class.

I think Zoe knows she has to go to class. I think she wants to go to class, too! [Laughing] So do I!

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