Remember growing up and getting in trouble for something your siblings or cousins did? Or maybe your teacher called home to tell your parents about something your classmate did? And with a whiny voice, you’d say to your mother, “But it’s not fair!” And if your mother is Black, what was her one and only response most likely? “Life ain’t fair.”
We grew up and quickly discovered that there was infinite wisdom behind our mother’s words. And those words gave us the courage to move through an unfair life, while finding ways to stand up for ourselves despite the costs.
Anjelika Washington, who currently stars as a young Black superhero on the CW’s Stargirl, is also a real life superhero who credits her mom’s early lessons for the courage to stand in her truth and fight against Hollywood’s racist practices. “Literally, everything that I am is because of her,” Washington reveals. The actress recently took to social media to share that in 2017, at the start of her career, she was assigned a white stunt double in blackface.
No, she didn’t let it slide. She used her Black girl magic superpowers and spoke up for herself—just like her mother taught her—but was told that she should simply be thankful for being there. But as Black mothers also say, “He may not come when you want Him, but He’ll be right on time.”
On time for Washington is today because now her 2017 experience is making headlines. ESSENCE caught up with the actress to talk about that incident, why she decided to share it and her desire to continue to be an advocate for change in Hollywood.
What’s one thing that your mom used to say that you wrote off when you were a child, but now as an adult it makes perfect sense?
“The only thing consistent in life is change.” She used to say that to me all the time when I was a kid. Now, I’m like, wow, that’s everything. It’s always taught me to adapt even when I didn’t realize it. We’re human so we do that anyway, but sometimes it takes us longer. I was afraid of change, but now I embrace it.
What inspired you to begin acting?
My mother because she’s incredible. She actually put me in acting for the first time when I was 8 because I was a talkative child. Teachers would say, “Anjelika is a great student, she just talks so much.” So my mom tried to find activities outside of school to put me in that could embrace those things in me rather than cover them up. She put me in community theater and I just became obsessed with it.
What was it about acting that you fell in love with?
I loved that my voice was never silenced. My voice was being embraced, valued and celebrated.
The business of acting is not always beautiful. You recently called out Hollywood for having a white girl in blackface as your stunt double. Would you say that that’s been your only experience of discrimination or racism while acting?
Unfortunately, no. It’s been the only experience that I feel comfortable enough to share. I know that I’ll share other experiences as I heal from them and become comfortable and confident enough to share them.
What made this one different? Why was right now the perfect time to share your story with the world?
I woke up that day not knowing that I was going to share it. Something in me, the God in me, the intuition in me, told me to share that story. I was just thinking about that picture, pondering on that moment. That caption; I actually started writing out in the notes of my phone. Just to get it out. I didn’t think I was going to post it. But then I called one of my good friends and I read it to her.
Did she already know about what happened?
I’m a talkative person. I’m outgoing. I share a lot of my life with pretty much everyone. But none of my best friends knew, which is crazy. I had not shared it with anyone, but my mom and my therapist at the time.
I was just so ashamed and embarrassed that that had happened to me because somehow I felt like I let it happen to me. So, my friend was like, “You have to share this. You have to post this.” I was like, “Let me send you the picture because I actually have a picture of it.”
When I took that picture, the thoughts in my head were, I cannot believe this is happening. Has every Black actress had to do this?
What made you keep the picture?
I don’t know. I just never wanted to delete that moment. Honestly, the fact that I have a picture is crazy and it happened so fast. I’m happy I have it because the unfortunate truth is it’s so much easier to back up your own story when you have a picture.
Can you walk us through the moment that the picture was taken?
I was in the bathroom after we wrapped that scene and the stunt double was also in there. I was like, “Can we get a picture together real quick? I’m going to send this to my mom because this is like crazy.” The stunt double is like, “OK, yeah.” I took the picture with this really awkward hee, hee, hee, I don’t know what’s going on face. Then I sent that to my mom and my mom lost it.
Do you remember what you were thinking?
When I took that picture, the thoughts in my head were, I cannot believe this is happening. Has every Black actress had to do this? Literally, that’s what I’m thinking. Is this what we have to do to be an actor? Is this what we have to go through? The answer is no. I know that now, but at the time I just was so confused and I hear stories of all the awful things —from Halle Berry to Taraji to Viola — they’ve had to endure. So, I’m thinking, Oh, is this just what I also have to endure? I just didn’t fully understand it.
Aside from the picture, the caption is powerful.
I felt that I really needed to share what the producers said to me because it really impacted me, how I worked, and positioned producers to be “superior of me.” I know that’s not true, but she made me feel inferior to her in that moment. I wanted people to know that we do speak up for ourselves. Often. We don’t just sit here and take crap from people. But when we do speak up for ourselves, we are also often shut down.
Since your post, have you heard from anyone else involved?
The production company’s HR department reached out for a meeting that my team and I took. One thing that I told them in this meeting is that when I showed up to set, this had already gone through so many people. When I arrived, she was already in blackface. That means the producer signed off on this. Hair and makeup, who wigged her and painted her, signed off on this. Wardrobe, who fitted her, signed off on this. The stunt coordinator who hired her, signed off on this. And she herself signed off on this. That’s at least five levels of people who said yes to this.
Do you think this is a much bigger problem than just your incident?
Definitely. I’ve seen comments from Hayley [Law], from Riverdale, that this just happened to her recently. That means that these practices are still happening and producers are not doing their due diligence to find the right person. Literally, it took me 30 seconds to Google on my cell phone stunt performers of color. That means that they refuse to do a Google search to find someone for us. It’s not a lack of resource. It’s a lack of effort. That, to me, has to come with some type of accountability.
You play a superhero on Stargirl, are you willing to play one in real life and fight for change?
We have to demand change, but by demanding change, we have to demand reform and we have to demand policy change. I am willing to advocate for this. I am willing to go to bat for this. A paint down is what they like to call it. But a paint down is black face and we are not doing that anymore. Change won’t come unless we make it completely unacceptable for them to do these things. If I have to use my platform and my voice to fight, I am happily willing to do that.