Gabrielle Union-Wade attends the Prada Resort 2019 fashion show on May 4, 2018 in New York City.
Photo: Sean Zanni (Getty Images)

Essence Fest is the gift that keeps on giving; the annual celebration of black womanhood, which this year took place from July 5-8 in New Orleans with half a million in attendance, drops gem after gem—many we’re still processing long after the festivities have ended.

For Essence Fest veteran Gabrielle Union, “[it’s] a family reunion ... It feels like a celebration of us... and a safe space to exist and enjoy in celebration.” Union met with a small group of reporters at the AT&T Dream in Black Luncheon during Essence Fest weekend, including Refinery29’s Khalea Underwood, to talk about how she’s personally fighting against colorism and for inclusion—starting at home.

Gabrielle Union recently (and bravely) got candid with Dr. Oz about both the stigma of suffering fertility issues and finding balance as a working wife and stepmother to two of husband Dwyane Wade’s sons and a nephew (of whom the couple has full custody). As she explained to Refinery29, foremost right now is attempting to de-program their boys, ages 11 to 16, from subscribing to colorist beauty standards.

In a recent conversation and perusal of the boys’ Instagram pages, Union said she discovered something disturbing:

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. 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?”

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Union, a brown-skinned actress who, despite her obvious beauty, has long discussed being subjected to colorist beauty standards, tells Refinery29 she pushed back against the boys’ narrow-mindedness by showing them actress and singer Ryan Destiny’s Instagram.

They’re like, “Oh, she bad!” But do you know how many Ryan Destinys 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.

Union’s experiences as both an actress and entrepreneur have also made her very clear about the difference between diversity and inclusion, as she told Refinery29:

To me, diversity is the seat at a table that is super tiny ... Inclusion is letting you on the block and at the house — much less at the table ... 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.

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Despite being a longtime member of black Hollywood, Union found that her status didn’t immediately translate to financial support for her popular haircare brand, Flawless.

“It’s always a challenge to make sure we’re not forgotten,” she said. “And for people and corporations to keep their interest in our communities, and celebrate our beauty in a sustained way. When your marketing dollars and your presence decreases, you magically become grassroots.”

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But despite it all, it appears Union wouldn’t have it any other way. “So many of us have battled all sorts of shit,” she said. “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.”