Issa Rae on Blackness, Dreadlocks, and Black People Getting Treated Like Pets

We sat down for some real talk with the creator and star of 'Insecure.'
October 13, 2016, 5:40pm
Photo courtesy of HBO

Even with today's increased diversity in film and television, many people still have a monolithic view of black life. Issa Rae, an actress, writer, and director, is aiming to correct this with her new HBO series Insecure, which premiered earlier this week and shows what black people do in our day-to-day: Living, loving, messing up, making up, and just generally trying "hard as fuck," as the show's tagline says.

Insecure follows 29-year-old Issa (Issa Rae) as she tries to do good in the hood by offering enrichment opportunities to inner-city children as part of her job with We Got Y'all, an LA nonprofit that doesn't actually employ people from the neighborhoods it serves. From "secret white people meetings" at Rae's work to being trolled by school children who ask her "Why you talk like a white girl?" Insecure gets points for verisimilitude. Rae brings the experience of being a young, college-educated black woman to center stage as Rae and her best friend Molly, an attorney, tackle life's big and small questions, such as what makes a good friend, broken pussies (yep!), and all the general drama that goes along with relationships. Throughout the first season, Insecure offers a comedic antidote to the perception of a singular black experience, telling both specific and universal stories to put blackness at the center.

Showrunner Issa Rae met up with VICE at the Chicago Cultural Center to talk about making Insecure, her favorite creators, and the black stories that still need to get on television.

VICE: You've clearly worked very hard, jumpstarting your career while still attending Stanford University and launching the successful YouTube series Awkward Black Girl, among other accomplishments. With so many opportunities coming your way, what do you have to feel insecure about now? Issa Rae: I talk a lot about my blackness and not feeling black enough and feeling like, What am I then? And what does that mean? Then getting over that and realizing how stupid that is. Current insecurities are still like: I have social anxiety, I'm very much an introvert, and still feel like I'm just a boring regular person. People are always like, "I want to be your best friend." And I'm like, "No, you don't. You really don't because it would be sitting on the couch watching stuff constantly."

Since college, you've been a self-starter, production-wise. Now that you've scaled up, what's your routine like?
Going to college you feel like you have to work through everything. You feel like you have to take on so many things at once. You don't really get breaks because you also have the social element where I'm partying but I have homework and I have extracurricular activities and when can I stop even? I think that carried over to me in my professional career, too. But I've had to learn how to be like, "Girl, calm down."

Do you ever call off black, you know, just take a break from the racialized bullshit of the moment?
Thank goodness I work for myself. It's devastating what's happening, but conversely, I feel like, well, I'm taking the day off because I'm like, "Fuck this," ya know? All of the shootings that have been happening... this Trump shit is crazy. The other night, just for the debate, I went out with a friend, and we drank while watching it. I take breaks when I need to because you feel overwhelmed. It's so tiring, and you just think about what can I do? Nobody understands. It enrages me.

From Atlanta and Luke Cage to Queen Sugar and even Empire, it seems like there's more room for varying depictions of black life right now. Black nerds, for example, can finally let their freak flag fly.
For sure. It's just the age of black people being just what they want to be. And that's what's really exciting: having different stories, having various storytellers as opposed to it falling on, like, one person. That to me is the most exciting: You get to see so many types of black people on television right now, in film.

Who are your favorite storytellers of the moment?
Donald Glover, Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Cheo [Hodari Coker] went to Stanford, too, so a shout-out, Chocolate Cardinal! There are so many people telling great stories right now that I'm just excited as a fan of television. I have to be—I wanted to get into this for film, but I haven't seen a film in a very long time. I've seen about all of Ava's movies, but I don't actively go to the movies right now because television is just so good and it's accessible and it's there.

Insecure is really the story of two women—your character Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji)—and their dating foibles, workplace tokenism, living a double consciousness, projecting different versions of their black female selves in any given moment. What are other stories from a black perspective that still need to be told?
More LGBT stories. And I think we need more international stories, too, 'cause blackness isn't just in America. There's stuff I won't think of, like the pockets of blackness that we don't know that I'm most excited about. I saw an Afro Caribbean series the other day, and I feel like that's a unique experience all on its own.

In other news of blackness, I'm sure you've heard about that recent court case where dreadlocks at work were basically outlawed, right? An Alabama employer was allowed to require a worker to cut hers off or be fired.
That's another Call Off Black Day. That's like blatant racism. It's prejudice in the worst way. It's just a huge insult because it implies that there is just one standard of professional look and that look is the European standard, which we've been fighting against this entire time. And watch when some white woman comes in with locs, then it's gonna be OK. That's what's crazy. And then the perception is just wrong, too, because there is still a perception that locs aren't clean and they're unkempt. Once that changes then things will change. It's ignorance.

Do you ever feel the pressure to explain blackness to people, such as the scene where a white co-worker asks Issa what "on fleek" means?
I get it. At the end of the day, you have questions, you're curious. But like, google it. Use the information that's at your fingertips, and find out about it yourself. Engage in the conversation in a different way... like, it's the way we're treated like pets. Or like it's our job to inform you. We've just had to get used to stuff and learn it by ourselves, and other people should do the same thing.

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