In some ways, Yara Shahidi is a lot like Zoey Johnson, the character she plays on ABC's comedy Black-ish. Yahidi, like Johnson, is a 17 year old high school student with several younger siblings, so the two have hit some of the same social and familial milestones at the same time.
In other ways, Shahidi and Johnson couldn't be more different. Shahidi is a self-described activist, who grew up reading Rumi and James Baldwin and wants to be a dual sociology/African-American studies major in college. She's fiercely devoted to social causes, having supported everything from advancing women in STEM fields to breast cancer research to combating Islamophobia.
Shahidi says that Johnson, by contrast, is largely apolitical, and sometimes reluctant to take a hard stand on issues.
Different as they may be, some of the issues that Zoey Johnson faces on Black-ish resonate deeply with Shahidi. In a recent, widely discussed episode, the Johnson family wrestled with a highly publicized incident of police brutality. Shahidi said that in the aftermath, she felt very connected to what her character was feeling.
"Zoey really does capture the melancholy nature of our generation," Shahidi told Code Switch's Shereen Marisol Meraji in a recent interview for the podcast. She said that she and other members of "Generation Z," (people born in the late nineties and early aughts) have grown up in the throes of what she calls the "24-minute news cycle," where constant, rotating tragedies are almost inescapable. "Feeling as though we don't even choose to intake all of this information, but it just happens. I remember seeing the Philando Castile live stream and not knowing what I was looking at. Somebody had tweeted it and I clicked on it. And just being like, 'Oh, that person is bleeding. Oh wow.'
"And I just remember that moment of freaking out and not knowing what to do and not knowing how to process what's happening...[Zoey] really did capture how a lot of my peers felt, where it's like we're intaking this information at such a fast rate that it's hard to process it."
Shahidi doesn't just have to navigate complicated racial dynamics within the fictional world of Black-ish. She also deals with them daily at school, at home and at work. Shahidi, who is black and Iranian, said she's never wavered when it comes to owning her own identity. But, "being an actor has put me in an interesting position," she said. "Because many jobs come with a racial description, and so as an actress, I don't really get roles for people of Iranian or Muslim or Middle Eastern descent. I get roles based on what people think of me visually."
Shahidi said that her multi-ethnic background has taught her to identify with people from many different cultures. But "while I might see myself in them, not everyone is going to see themselves in me," Shahidi said. "And I can't force them to. Nor is it my place to force them to. So I'm just trying to do the best for people who do feel I'm representing a part of them."
Shahidi plans to spend the next year working, before starting college in the fall of 2018 — another life event she and Johnson may actually be experiencing at the same time. ABC is in talks about a Black-ish spinoff tentatively called "Liberal Arts" that would follow Zoey to college.
For more with Shahidi and Kenya Barris — the creator of Black-ish — listen to this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast.