Vanessa Williams took a "sigh of relief that Saturday morning" when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were declared the winners of the 2020 presidential election on November 7.
In an interview with PEOPLE’s Morgan Evans on the latest installment of :BLACKPRINT #NoFilter, Williams said the change in office is much needed — especially coming from her point of view as a mother to Black children.
“The point is, as a mother of a Black son I have to make sure that the local police know that, that's my son,” she said. “If you see my son driving my car, that's my son. You have to introduce your son to people knowing that he is a Black person in this community, so he's not a threat. My son has been pulled over driving simply because he's Black.”
She went on to explain that those without this vantage point or sense of empathy don’t understand that when Black people are murdered — it is a reality that the entire Black community experiences. But she adds that the transfer of power is already bringing a sense of comfort — even amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We all saw murder in front of our eyes in June with George Floyd, we all witnessed that as a collective,” she noted. “I have a Black Lives Matter lawn sign that I've had at [the] foot of my driveway, because I needed to make sure my voice was heard. We've still got some insanity going, but okay. So, we can feel a bit normal again and heard and seen because it's been really rough. Of course, COVID has been tremendously difficult for the world globally. So, it's been terrifying and exhausting, but it feels like life is getting a little brighter.”
In the midst of this unprecedented year, Williams has also been working to shed light on the Black experience, particularly in reference to beauty. The actress worked alongside a stacked cast, including Lena Waithe, for Dear White People director Justin Simien’s new Hulu thriller film, Bad Hair.
“In Bad Hair, the movie, it talks about changing your hair to fit in,” she said. “To work your way up the ladder in terms of success. And I think most people back in the day wanted to fit in with their hair just to be able to not look different. Black hair is and the Black hair industry has always been such an opportunity for expression, because we can curl it, we can kink it, we can marcel wave. There are so many creative options. We can braid it, we can cornrow it, we can twist it.”
The film follows a newcomer, Elle Lorraine’s character, at a music-based television station in the late 1980s who is pressured to wear a weave rather than her natural hair. This poses as a contrast to the state of hair seen today, as wearing natural textures is more embraced than ever before.
“Nowadays, I think that it's really celebrated as part of an accessory for how you are feeling and what you want to project,” she said. “You don't have to straighten your hair in order to walk into an office and be considered a part of a company. There is the CROWN Act, which recently talks about the stigma of not conforming to what your bosses wanted.”
Williams is no stranger to breaking barriers and norms in society herself after being crowned Miss America in 1983 — the first African American to win the title. As others work to break into the entertainment industry and move up in their careers, she recommends “with any choice, follow your gut” and “have the courage to walk away.”
“Whatever your first instinct is, is usually right. If you feel that is wrong, it feels like somebody is not on the up and up. If you just have that little twinge in there, don't do it,” the actress shared. “And B, have the courage to say no, it's okay to say. And I know a lot of women especially feel like, ‘Oh, I've got to be nice. I've got to be… I've got to fit in. I've got to be pleasant and polite and agree.’ You don't. If you really feel like it's something that you don't want to do, or it's not part of what makes you, your person, the person that you are, then it's okay to say, ‘You know what? No, thank you. Thank you for asking, but no, thanks.’”
While Williams notes that life may throw more at you after taking a stand or stepping away from a situation that does not serve you, she shared that your true strength will still show in these moments.
“Whatever tree you are, you're made up of matter that no matter if the wind comes, no matter if a limb breaks, you lose all your leaves, it still doesn't change the makeup of the tree,” she said. “So basically, you can withstand whatever comes your way and people can assume they know you and project all kinds of things at you, and think that you're something, but you know who you really are inside. And always have that as your safety, once the dust settles, you'll know who you are, and you'll have an opportunity to show people who you really are.”
The actress adds that after going through adversity, you should reflect and use the experience to grow as much as possible.
“Through these difficult times, which we're all going through, just know that you can turn all of your hardship into wisdom and you need to move forward,” Williams said. “The worst thing you can do is hold on and not move through pain and move through struggle. It's easy to get caught up in, ‘Woe, is me and I can't move on. And my anger is keeping me here.’ That might feel okay to stay, but the real glory is to move through and turn all that into wisdom, because all that wisdom helps you to the next step in life.”
For more, catch the :BLACKPRINT #NoFilter Instagram live interviews on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. ET.
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