Taraji P. Henson Talks To Us About What It Means To Be ‘Woke’

Marriott International

Social media is full of people using, misusing, and overusing the phrases “mental health” and “wokeness.” And sure, that makes things a little muddled. But what we social media users often fail to realize is that there are real people who have to deal with both mental health issues and social/ societal issues that require them to be “woke.” It’s imperative for their very survival.

As a champion of mental health awareness, especially in the black community, Taraji P. Henson has been making rounds in the media and at speaking engagements to break the stigma on getting help. She’s using her platform to encourage people to take these matters seriously, as more than a hashtag or a popular trend. To do so effectively, she’s had to be very open about her own journey with maintaining her mental health and relates much of it to her profession — as a minority in film and TV.

As a part of Marriott International’s #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers initiative, Henson spoke to the National Black MBA Association gathering in Detroit about minority representation in the media. After her speech, we chatted about why she feels called to this particular mission, wokeness, and the importance of representation.

I think it’s cool, especially as a black woman who is a travel blogger, to hear about how your initiative with Marriott is saluting people who are opening people’s minds as far as diversity goes.

So along those lines: what is your definition of “woke?” People use it all the time, but when you hear that word, what is your definition?

I guess woke to me means culturally conscious like aware of what’s going on in the world and not just the pretty side — everything.

So why is it important to be woke? How do we come together to create a woke society?

A woke society is an inclusive society. An all-inclusive society. So you can’t say you’re woke but you only stay on one side of town, and you don’t know what the other side of town looks like or what they’re into.

I think if we all come together and just understand each other better…love is a search for understanding. So I think if we all as humans try to understand each other, no matter how we look, no matter where we live, no matter who we are…sleep with, our gender…It’s a search for understanding each other.

You mentioned that you can’t be woke if you stay on your side of town —

Well, you can’t be woke with blindfolds on. Like if you’re just in a tunnel, you gotta come out of that and see the world.

For sure. Literally, my first time out of the country was last year. And I realized that both “traveling while black” and “traveling while female” are real things.

So what have you learned or noticed, while traveling for work or for leisure, that’s fueled your drive to break barriers and promote diversity?

The way America sees us as black people, is pretty much how the world kind of sees us. It’s sickening, because America sort of sets the tone for that. Other countries tend to be a little more open-minded… But you go to different countries and I’ll still get nasty stares because I’m black. And it’s like well, wait a minute, especially because in many countries — you look like me almost! That’s why for me as an artist and as an actress, it’s important for me for my movies to sell internationally. I know my movies do well domestically, but right now my sight is to get them international.

You know, I just think the more we learn about each other, the better off we’ll be overall.

Back when I was in grad school, my thesis was about how different women are represented. And it turned out actually that black women tend to grow up with better self-images because they’ve seen all of these different kinds of representations of themselves in the media. So why do you think that is, like culture to culture, maybe even in the back of our minds or whatever, we have just always kind of understood how important representation is?

Because we’ve always had to represent ourselves.

Wow, that’s good, yeah. That’s so true.

We’re still trying to prove ourselves, we’re still trying to prove that we deserve the same type of justice as everyone else.

That’s so true. And I can definitely tell, it’s emblazoned in my mind you getting up to hug, was it, Viola Davis, when she won her award. It was just another example of how we’ve had that “stick-togetherness”… I guess that’s the word now.

It hasn’t always been like that. The world pits us against each other. So it’s been up to us to make a conscious effort to support each other. And not only support each other behind the scenes but in front of the scenes. Just like Viola’s win — because she was the first African American to win a primetime Emmy in a leading actress role for drama — it was just as important for that hug to be captured for the world to see. That was so important and that’s just how I’ve always been. I’ve always felt like there’s enough for all of us. I don’t have a greedy mentality, I don’t have a “me, me, me” mentality. I know how to lift someone else up when they’re winning because that just means my day is coming. I’ve always been like that, my parents raised me to be that way, which is crazy because I’m an only child.

Do you think any of that has led to any of the mental issues that we face and our — I guess — embarrassment when it comes to getting the help we need?

You mean for mental health issues?

Well, the fact that black women have always had to work twice as hard, and it’s more like we’re striving instead of thriving. You think that’s contributed in large part to what we’re having to face mentally, now like it’s coming back to us?

Oh absolutely, I mean… coming back? It’s never left, there are often times where I want to scream and my head wants to explode. They did this breakdown of what actors are getting paid on television — there I am on the number one television show. On the number one network television show, primetime network television. I’m looking at white counterparts whom I’ve never even heard of getting paid twice as me on basic cable. That’s enough to drive you insane.

What finally empowered you to say, “You know what? I have to say something about mental health.” You know, I saw you on — I don’t know what talk show it was… but you admitted you needed to go see your therapist. Like, “I’m overdue for a visit.”

That’s a big deal; I have three chronic illnesses and I’m still nervous about being like, “Oh I’m going to the doctor.” So what empowered you to finally step forward and say, “I’m going to champion this and share my story!”?

Well out of necessity, when I saw the alarming numbers of the lack of African American therapists; I was like, “This is wrong, this is so wrong!” The reason why it’s wrong is because it’s been taboo, and I’m sick of being in the dark about it. My white friends, they go, “I have a standing appointment every Wednesday with my therapist.” You know, my white friends include the mental with the whole entire physical health care.

Like, your brain is attached to your body. We don’t have problems about our thyroid, whatever is ailing us in the body. But we won’t talk about it in the mind, and that’s a part of total health care, and we just have to have an open dialogue. I thought if someone sees someone that they trust and look up to say that: “Hey I suffer too” — that’s big.

Tyrese actually hit me the other day and said, “You’re making it cool to seek help.”

So what is your goal from here on out? I’ve seen you play every part, you do everything. What is your goal now for when people hear your name, you want them to think what? The one word that stands out. Besides, of course, “amazing actor.”

I just say love, that’s what my name means and that’s what I’m all about. And even me start launching my foundation was out of love; out of love for my people, out of love for myself, out of love for humanity. So I think for me, it’s just love. I love what I do, I put all my love into my work, and I just want people to think of love when they think of me.

The #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers Social Innovation Investment will distribute $500,000 in grants to groups and individuals who exemplify their mission. Thus far, there have been three #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers Summits and they will continue into 2019.
Marriott International