If you're one of Gabrielle Union's 10.2 million Instagram followers, then you've likely been following her on the #WadeWorldTour2018 — her lavish, postcard-pretty vacation with her husband Dwayne Wade. She's beached in Ibiza, splashed around on the island of Sainte-Marguerite, and sipped wine in Monaco. But she's finally coming home — and for her, that's Essence Festival in New Orleans.
"It’s a family reunion," she said to a small group of reporters at the AT&T Dream in Black Luncheon over the weekend. "You see people you haven’t seen in years. Everyone and their mother is here. It feels like a celebration of us... and a safe space to exist and enjoy in celebration."
Even though Union is a vet, she still marvels at the number of Black women who show up and show out every year. (This summer was its biggest yet, with half a million attendees.) "Being here just feels normal. I’m lucky to be around women who’ve been in therapy just as long as I have been, who are living out loud and proud," she says. "This is like Wakanda. And in my personal Wakanda, we’ve been doing the work for so many years."
But when the lights come down and the stages are packed away for next year, Union is determined to bring that Essence Fest feeling everywhere she goes — including in her own home. This summer, Union is dedicated to having discussions with her three boys (stepsons Zaire and Zion, and Wade's nephew, Dahveon, who lives with them) about colorism. In a recent conversation with them, she asked the teens about the hottest girls at their high school, and requested to see their Instagram pages. "Literally, probably about 10 girls I looked at had the same light skin, curly hair, tiny waist, butt, boobs — it was the same girl over and over again," she says. "So I asked them to show me the most beautiful chocolate sister they've seen. They say there are none. I was like, 'Why do they get exed out so fast? What is happening in your brain that is causing you to look at these women through a prism that is distorting their actual selves?'"
To prove a point, Union showed them Ryan Destiny's Instagram. "They're like, 'Oh, she bad!' But do you know how many Ryan Destinies there are? I pull up every Black model, women from all over the world, and they're beautiful. But they don't see the beauty unless it comes from an actress or a supermodel or a video vixen. They have to have somebody else tell them that a chocolate woman is attractive for them to believe it."
That struggle to be seen is something Union's been open about dealing with for years. And it's not just in Hollywood — she's experienced it as a beauty entrepreneur, too. She says brands can keep their watered-down attempts at diversity; she prefers to see real inclusion. "To me, diversity is the seat at a table that is super tiny," she says. "Inclusion is letting you on the block and at the house — much less at the table." Union's dream for the future of the beauty industry? "Looking around where the welcome mat has been rolled out, and it’s a wide-ass welcome mat big enough for tables and chairs for everybody. Where every community is widely celebrated, and you’re actually fucking listening to people when they’re speaking and [letting them] tell their own stories."
Union admits that before starting Flawless, her popular hair-care line sold at Ulta, she thought she had it all in the bag. But for any brand, especially one that's Black-owned, a lack of proper distribution and outside financial support can make for an uphill battle. "It’s always a challenge to make sure we're not forgotten... and for people and corporations to keep their interest in our communities, and celebrate our beauty in a sustained way," she says. "When your marketing dollars and your presence decreases, you magically become grassroots."
Which is why attending Essence Fest every year is so important to Union; it's a special time to rally support, connect, and to amplify your message, she says. And it's also a good reminder for Black women to remember their value, too. "So many of us have battled all sorts of shit," Union says, reflecting on her own real-life Flossy Posse. "Now, we're on the vibe of 'Love me exactly as I am, or not.' I'm so happy in my own skin, I'm so happy in my own body, and I'm so happy in my own identity. It's refreshing."
Thanks to Ford, McDonald's, My Black Is Beautiful, and the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network for providing travel and accommodations for the purpose of writing this story.