Tracee Ellis Ross Wants You to Know Yourself as Well as You Know Your Phone

"The same way you know your phone, know yourself": Wise words from actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who, as you're about to find out, is as deep as she is funny on her hit ABC comedy, Black-ish. (Season 3 premieres Sept. 21 at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.) Here, the 43-year-old—whose real middle name is Joy ("My mom said I could let it go professionally because I embodied it")— talks with I Am That Girl's co-founder Emily Greener about feminism, practicing "compassionate activism," and what it's like having a living legend as a mom.

IATG Tracee Ellis Ross 2
Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

WATCH: What Tracee Ellis Ross Wants to Tell Girls Everywhere

You were very young when your mother Diana Ross’s solo career took off. What was your upbringing like?

The national treasure that is Diana Ross is a dim light compared with who she is as a mother. My mom paved the way not only for my career but also for who I am as a human being. There was a space created for me before I came here, and it is my job to fill it up. I’m trying to find a little joy and happiness, a lot of giggles—and maybe some pretty shoes.

You’ve spoken about not loving yourself growing up. How did you change that?

I was in, like, fifth grade, and I said, “I’m going to believe that these people are staring at me because I am beautiful.” I’m black, and I wore glasses, so I made the choice: He is staring at me because I’m beautiful.

Did that work?

Not all the time, but it was a way better place to land in than the other.

You’re an outspoken feminist. Is the movement where it should be?

I wish we were further along. There are moments when I lose all hope and think, “What is happening?” But then I see young women such as [The Hunger Games actress and activist] Amandla Stenberg and think, “If we are making even one or two people like her, we’re doing something right.”

What do you do when you lose hope?

I ask myself, “How do I take my frustration and translate it into something that actually helps the situation?” I have started using the expression “compassionate activism”: It’s about keeping my heart open so that I can understand the point of view of the other person.

What do you wish you knew when you were younger?

That I was enough. I had a mother who told me that, so I don’t know where the message got lost. I used to think there is a right way to look, there is a right person to become—and then I really got stuck.

Today’s girls have social media to contend with too.

This whole message that “I woke up like this”—uh, no, I didn’t, and neither did anyone else. It’s important to pull the curtain back. Why not help people instead of making them feel worse? This is what shame stands for: Should Have Already Mastered Everything. But you can’t.

How do you deal when you don’t feel 100 percent?

I accept it. Acceptance does not mean you like it. It means that you agree this is what it is. Once you have that, you can step forward.

How do you do that?

[Scholar] Brené Brown said, “Shame cannot live if you turn the lights on.” If you think, “I don’t want anyone to know this,” tell someone. Share shame so you are not left alone with it. If you can’t find another person, get a journal. I didn’t say make a video on Snapchat. It’s for you, not anyone else.

If you could tell every girl in the world one thing, what would it be?

First, I would say hi. Then I would whisper, “If anyone tells you there is a right way to do your life, they’re wrong.”

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