KIDADA: After I graduated from high school, I found my passion: trend forecasting. I enrolled at L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and my academic problems went out the window. All it took was finding something I loved for me to get A’s! While I was there, designer Tommy Hilfiger noticed a cover of Vibe magazine I had styled. He offered me a job in New York, being his muse, and he left me work in every part of his company–designing, marketing, advertising, modeling. Tommy got urban music. I was working with the hottest hip-hop acts: TLC, Snoop Dogg, Usher.
RASHIDA: And finally I was leaving for college, for Harvard. Daddy would have died if I turned Harvard down. Harvard was supposed to be the most enlightened place in America, but that’s where I encountered something I’d never found in L.A.: segregation. The way the clubs and the social life were set up, I had to choose one thing to be: black or white. I chose black. I went to black frat parties and joined the Black Student Association, a political and social group. I protested the heinous book The Bell Curve [which claims that a key determinant of intelligence is ethnicity], holding a sign and chanting. But at other protests–on issues I didn’t agree with– wondered: Am I doing this because I’m afraid the black students are going to hate me if I don’t? As a black person at Harvard, the lighter you were, the blacker you had to act. I tried hard to be accepted by the girls who were the gatekeepers to Harvard’s black community. One day I joined them as usual at their cafeteria table. I said, “Hey!”–real friendly. Silence. I remember chewing my food in that dead, ominous silence. Finally, one girl spoke. She accused me of hitting on one of their boyfriends over the weekend. It was untrue, but I think what was really eating her was that she thought I was trying to take away a smart, good-looking black man–and being light-skinned, I wasn’t “allowed” to do that. I was hurt, angry. I called Kidada in New York crying. She said, “Tell her what you feel!” So I called the girl and…I really ripped her a new one. But after that, I felt insidious intimidation from that group. The next year there was a black guy I really liked, but I didn’t have the courage to pursue him. Sometimes I think of him and how different my life might be if I hadn’t been so chicken. The experience was shattering. Confused and identity-less, I spent sophomore year crying at night and sleeping all day. Mom said, “Do you want to come home?” I said, “No.” Toughing it out when you don’t fit in: That was the strength my sister gave me.
RASHIDA: Fortunately, I’d gotten interested in acting, and my theater classes roused me from my depression. I also made new friends: I had a Jewish boyfriend, with whom I got into my own Jewishness, I had black friends who weren’t in that clique. I had theater friends, gay friends, rave friends. I realized: I’m a floater. I float among groups. If Kidada defined herself as black at 11, I defined myself as multiracial at Harvard.
RASHIDA: After graduating from Harvard, my college boyfriend and I broke up, and I moved to New York to be an actress. Getting into the business was so much harder than I expected–almost soul-destroying. Then I met a young [white] actor who seemed to know what he was doing, and I moved to L.A. to be with him, not realizing that I was glomming on to him for my sense of identity. But I was happy about relocating, because Kidada was back in L.A. too. During my four years at Harvard, K and I had kept up by calling each other and spending some weekends together, trying to translate our love for each other into a relationship that didn’t have tugs and thorns in it.
KIDADA: Rashida said to me: Come hang with my friends. Try something different! I thought: This will be fun…
RASHIDA: But instead of bonding with Kidada, I rejected her–not because I wanted to, but because my boyfriend was telling me not to be dominated by my older sister. My boyfriend didn’t want me to be at Kidada’s 25th birthday party, so I skipped it. When I called her to apologize, she was so beyond anger, she murmured, “Whatever.”
KIDADA: That hurt. A lot. But I had Aaliyah.
RASHIDA: In 2000, I joined the cast of Boston Public. I also broke off that negative, unhappy relationship. I started a long-distance romance with a deejay who was white and Jewish but is knowledgeable about urban music–like me, a floater. After I moved back to NY, we got engaged.
It sounds like Rashida has allowed herself to be dominated a lot in life period — by her sister, her boyfriend and the kids at school. Do you think that her “less black” appearance has actually hindered her in a sense because she’s become less confident about her own identity?
It’s interesting that she notes how different her life would have been if she would have pursued the black guy she liked in college. Do you think she’s decided it’s too late at this point?