Tracee Ellis Ross Is The Lead in Her Own Life

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey, y’all it’s Brittany…So this week after enjoying entirely too much leftover sweet potato pie, I woke up to a CNN News headline, well, you could say it left a bad taste in my mouth.  Headline read, and I quote, “to the Republicans telling the truth. Thank you. This was one of the smoothest elections ever.” I don’t know what tap dances on my nerves more—the idea that we should be serving up cookies to the very few Republicans who managed to actually not lie about who won this election or the idea that this election was smooth sailing. Sure. By smoothest, they probably meant that there was no widespread voter fraud and it’s true—there wasn’t. But language matters and words mean things. And the last thing this election was, was smooth. It really doesn’t have to be 1955 for us to have poll taxes in Florida, and polling place closures in Milwaukee, and rampant discrimination across all of Beyonce’s internet about everything from Kamala Harris to who can vote and where. Y’all, they tried to hijack the U.S. Postal Service! Y’all, we didn’t win because the election was smooth—we won because the most oppressed people, once again, fought like hell. Narratives are not just empty frivolous words. They have the power to shape how we behave; how we donate; the issues that we care about.

And if we don’t think that voter suppression is the real danger that it absolutely is, we won’t fight it until it’s too late. So we gotta own the narrative, y’all. Never ever let anyone erase us from what’s true. We are undistracted.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today, Tracee Ellis Ross!

I’ll be talking to the award-winning actress about “Black-ish,” “Girlfriends,” and how she hopes to change the narratives of Black women on TV. 

Tracee Ellis Ross You know, the term Black Girl Magic, I think has been really helpful for the world, but I don’t think we’re magic. I think we’re real.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but you know first, issue on our “UNtrending News.”


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Elliot Paige, the star of “Juno” and the “Umbrella Academy” has come out as transgender. On Tuesday, he shared on Instagram that read “I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot…” Elliot said that, “I love that I am trans. And I love that I am queer.” But he also admitted that he has his own fears.

Elliot wrote: “my joy is real, but it is also fragile. The truth is despite feeling profoundly happy right now and knowing how much privilege I carry, I am also scared.” Elliot, we love that you are feeling free to live your most authentic life. Discrimination is real, whether it’s the violence that trans people experience or the kind of verbal attacks that our girl Laverne Cox experienced while walking in LA this past weekend. Despite Elliot’s privileges and despite Laverne’s visibility, it is still not fully safe to be a trans person. Thanks, Elliot, for being open and real about the full picture of how you’re feeling, for using your platform to highlight the at least 40 trans women who had been killed this year alone, almost all of whom had been Black or LatinX. We’re sending love to you. You most certainly got our support. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham So most of y’all know Stacey Abrams, the politician and voting rights activists, but people are often surprised to learn that Stacey has written eight, EIGHT romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery. 

Stacey Abrams All of my characters are African-American women who have fascinating lives and are not that good at dating. So it’s slightly autobiographical.

Now in the romance community or “Romancelandia,” as it’s known, they are showing up to support Stacey’s efforts to turn out the vote in Georgia. Romance writer Sarah MacLean and critic Jen Prokop who make the podcast “Fated Mates” started a phone banking initiative called “Fated States.” I see what you did there. And a group of romance authors, including Bree Bridges and Donna Herren, who write together under the name Kit Rocha, recently held an auction called “Romancing the Runoff” to raise money for all of the organizations working on the ground in Georgia. Y’all they managed to raise nearly $400,000 in less than three weeks. Okay! Stacey, or should I say Selena, even donated a signed hardcover of her first book “Rules of Engagement” for an epilogue auction. Look, we say everybody has a role in the movement and this is how you use your gifts for the rest of the world. Yes! Like, I love to see this woman-dominated industry rising up to help us take our government back, or, you know, should I say, like come to the rescue in the knick of time and sweep it off its feet, carry it into the sunset.

I don’t know. I’m not a professional. I’m not good at this, but do your thing, romancelandia, we’re behind you.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Last but most certainly not least. Over in Mexico, 2020 has become the deadliest year on record for women and the women there are done with it. In September, a group of activists took over the federal human rights commission in Mexico City. So they actually kicked out the government officials and put up posters with the names and faces of the women who’ve been killed.

They’ve also created a shelter there to provide safe space for women and children fleeing from violent homes. Researchers say femicides in Mexico have grown by 130% in just the last five years. And the World Health Organization has also reported about half of all women in Mexico will experience sexual or intimate partner violence during their lifetimes. Protests against physical and sexual violence are spreading to cities across the entire country. Women should not have to occupy a stately marble building in order to have a safe space. But guess what? If that is what it’s going to take, then I say power to the people.

Coming up. I’ll be talking to “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross about expanding the humanity of Black women on and off screen.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So the seventh season of “Black-ish” is on TV and THE Tracee Ellis Ross is back as Dr. Rainbow Johnson. 


Dr. Rainbow Why don’t we have a virtual hang?

Andre Johnson Jr. Really? That’d be great. 

Dr. Rainbow We can’t let this virus stop us from living our lives. 

Andre Johnson Jr. Thanks, mom. 

Dr. Rainbow You’re welcome. 

Andre Johnson Jr. Hey, but no wacky backgrounds.

Dr. Rainbow That’s the fun of Zoom! Okay. We’ll discuss later. No. It’s my account. We do wacky backgrounds.

Tracee Ellis Ross is a BOSS who has always been carving out her own life, her own story, not only as the daughter of Diana Ross, but in an industry and a society that really hasn’t always valued Black women, certainly not complex ones. In the early 2000s, a little bit before “Black-ish,” Tracee starred in the beloved UPN sit-com “Girlfriends.”

And ever since she’s continued to highlight the full humanity of Black women on screen and off, whether it’s been in the roles she’s taken or the causes she supports or how she runs her hair company Pattern Beauty. 

I first met Tracee at a Time’s Up event. I have just so much respect for how genuinely and fully she shows up, which is probably why this conversation felt like talking to an old girlfriend.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Oh my gosh, THE Tracee Ellis Ross. Congratulations! People’s Choice Awards “Fashion Icon!” I mean, incredibly deserved. The new season of “Black-ish” just started. It’s been fantastic. The voting rights special is especially good. We’ve had a pretty wild year, lots of ups and downs. How are you feeling about it all as the year comes to a close?

Tracee Ellis Ross The truth is it’s been a really wild and unprecedented year with a lot of really deeply healing experiences and also a lot of pain and absolute discomfort. Having made it through the election, I honestly feel tired and also I wouldn’t say determined, but focused in a very different way than I’m grateful for and awake in a way that I’m grateful for.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, we’re grateful cause I think you being awake has awakened a lot of people. And I want to talk about the present day in a little bit, but I want to rewind for a second. In the early 2000s, you starred in “Girlfriends.” I mean, I just want to pause and take a moment because it’s just so iconic and I actually just went back and rewatched the whole thing. It has now found a new home on Netflix and is reaching new audiences, but rewind for us, like how was “Girlfriends” regarded when it first aired.

Tracee Ellis Ross In the experience of shooting “Girlfriends,” it was a great job. It was a dream come true. It was both challenging and wonderful, but we certainly were not getting even a quarter of the attention we’re getting right now. It’s fantastic, but it’s also like, “Wait…Whaaaat.” I have always been so proud of what we did, but it was very insular because it wasn’t a mainstream success. We were cordoned off at that time. I had never been to the Emmys. I had never been to the Golden Globes. I had Jay Leno, all of these shows would not…there was no place for me. I remember the booking agent on Jay Leno at the time said to my publicist: “We love Tracee. Call us when she gets something.” It felt like this mystery. I was like, “what am I supposed to get? How do I find out what this thing is one needs to get?” You know, and then “Girlfriends” ended and after that, you know, the work I did, I really thought the pearly gates of Hollywood were going to be open and that, you know, there would be stacked up at my door and it was like, which one, which movie would I choose that was sending me to the Oscars.

So in this moment, obviously, our world has changed. I don’t know that it has been healed. I will admit to you that I did start to go back and watch it. I actually love watching myself. I had to pause and stop on “Girlfriends” for a really fascinating reason. You know, I don’t know if you saw, but four years ago I did the speech “My Life Is Mine,” even though sure that sounds like something that’s a given it wasn’t something that I was realizing and walking through my life with that assumption of, particularly again, in a patriarchal society where our assumed role as women is just to support the desires, the ambitions, and the happiness of men. That to say my life is mine, especially as a Black woman, is sort of a revolutionary thought. And in that speech that I did at Glamour Women of the Year, it was something I was exploring at the time and I’m still sort of making sense of. I kept saying that society, culture tells us as women, you know, having a child and finding a husband or getting chosen by a man is like the goal and all of these other aspects of how you build your life, fill your life, curate your life, and create a life that you want sort of become nothing, you know, if that doesn’t happen. And then when I started watching “Girlfriends,” I realized that it wasn’t just society. I played a role for eight years using the language of somebody who was totally immersed in the patriarchy of being chosen. 


Friend Call him.

Ross as Joan Clayton Okay. Now I’m confused. Isn’t that too controlling? 

Friend Not if you play the damsel in distress. 

Joan Clayton That is not me. I’m not going to act all weak and helpless. 

Friend No, no, no, no, honey. It’s, it’s the okie-doke. Okay? You let him catch you. His ego goes up, he’ll ask you to marry him and then you take charge of his life.

Tracee Ellis Ross And I didn’t realize the impact that it had. And how much time it has taken for me to unpack that as an individual to truly articulate and find my own worth in my own life and my own experience and meaning in my own life. And that even, you know, people saying, “Oh, Tracee, you’re the poster child for singledom.” And even that is a reduction of the truth of what my journey is, and so many of us, what our journey is. Yeah, I would like to be the poster child for the liberating life. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham This is so fascinating because I remember, I mean, you know, you take the quizzes and whatnot I was a Joan all the way through.

And for folks who haven’t watched “Girlfriends,” Joan was this very empowered lawyer, turned entrepreneur and restaurant owner. You know, we go through Joan’s series of relationships and I think it’s interesting hearing you trace your own evolution through the lens of that character and the lens of being chosen, because I didn’t have that conversation with myself until I technically was chosen.

And I was like, “Oh, you all think this is the prize? Like I’m not the prize.” Come on now. I remember I announced my engagement on Instagram two days after I announced my book deal and got like four times as many likes or something. And I was like, our priorities are fascinating. And I ended up writing a piece after that to remind people that like being chosen is not actually the prize or a prize and the way that patriarchy upholds it’s not.

Tracee Ellis Ross And you know, and then as soon as you say, “I’m happily, single” people are like, “Oh, you don’t want to be with anyone.” I’m like, “I didn’t say that.” So what am I going to do? Just like, wait to live my life until I find a partner. I said, this recently, someone said, you know, that old term—like I want someone to come and sweep me off my feet.

I was like, first of all, I like where my feet are. Second of all, I worked so hard to get my feet on this ground. Why do I want some guy out of nowhere after everything I built to come and sweep me off it, I want some guy to link arms with me and stand next to me. And like the two of us kind of go about our lives and we get to negotiate what our relationship looks like for us to us, that would make us feel good about ourselves and about this third thing, that would be our relationship. And yeah, I again, I say like, I’m so proud of what we did on “Girlfriends.” We were four Black women. We were telling the stories of our lives of what was happening in our hearts. Our identity was not wrapped up in us being in relation to anyone but ourselves and each other. These things are groundbreaking in terms of what television has showed us. You know, the term Black Girl Magic, I think has been really helpful for the world, but I don’t think we’re magic. I think we’re real. And I think our reality is so extraordinary that it can look like magic, but it’s NOT magic. It’s real. It’s very real. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, let’s talk about this because I want to come back to this kind of authenticity conversation in a second, but I want to talk about what the waters are like now, because if you fast-forward from “Girlfriends,” in 2014 you started starring in “Black-ish,” which of course follows an upper-middle-class family. You are now, you know, on one of the big four networks. What is different about how “Black-ish” was received versus a show like “Girlfriends”? 

Tracee Ellis Ross There was just more attention on it in all honesty. I mean, no one was out there hanging out. I remember, um, Spike Lee was very upset when “Girlfriends” first aired, because we were dancing in the opening titles. Oh yeah. He was real pissed. He was like, why they gotta be dancing? Like I, it was, it was shocking. I was like, Oh God, I don’t know. Is that bad? Should we have not danced? And then “Black-ish,” you know, was on a much grander scale. It was ABC and the title itself, before the show even came out people had issue with. I knew where I stood with “Black-ish.” I felt very proud of this idea that I was going to be on a show that was exploring a family that was thriving and not just surviving. And what does it mean? Is it tradition? Is it culture? Is it race? Is it identity? What is it that you are wanting to pass onto your children? And again, I was playing, a really intelligent woman. But I wanted to be very mindful about not being stuck in context, in relationship to just my husband or my children. And that’s something that I mean, I can say it like that was my push.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Yeah. I mean, I know that you’ve spoken up about, I think you called them “lady chores” and making sure that was not all you were doing on the show. 

Tracee Ellis Ross Yep. I’m always looking at, “Okay. Does this work for the scene? Does this work for the character?” And then what does this look like in the context of television as a whole and in the history and legacy of television as a Black woman on TV.

And I’m happy to say, why am I here? Why am I folding laundry in this scene? Why does he come home and I’m chopping vegetables? If I’m a doctor, like what…? Can I just be sitting on my computer with a glass of wine? You know, it was so interesting when I was nominated for that Emmy, that first year, it had been like 30 years and then the Golden Globe like 32 years since the Black woman had been nominated. And you think, well, what’s wrong with me? Because everywhere I look, Black women are being the leads in our lives. You look at just an election we’re the leads in the country, like, what are you talking about? Like, so why TV not reflecting that, is it because there isn’t a frame as Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw talks about and how do we in these positions that we have show the world how we have been here? How can I, you know, make sure that Bo Johnson is interesting because of her selfhood, not because of her motherhood or her jobhood her wifehood, but because she is a self with all of those parts, if this scene this episode is told through Dre, how do I make sure that every time I AM onscreen, you know, that there’s evidence of a life I have lived off screen? 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I want to play a clip from 2017. You won the Best Actress Golden Globe for “Black-ish,” and here’s what you said. 

Tracee Ellis Ross This is for all of the women, women of color and colorful people whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy and valid and important. But I want you to know that I see you, we see you.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham What did that win mean to you? And why did you dedicate it in the way that you did. 

Tracee Ellis Ross Oh, I get chills. Even when you say that, because, first of all, that was my first time at the Golden Globes. Right? So I’m like standing on that stage. I’ve never been in that room, standing on that stage, looking into Meryl Streep’s eyes. It was surreal. As a person who’s an actor I always wanted that. Since I was twelve I was busy working on my speech. Girl, let me tell you, I like it. I want to win. I like winning. However, it is always been clear to me, and I have known that my win is not mine. It’s all of ours. And from a collective experience, it is a marker, but it is not the validation that our experience has been worthy of award after award our performances.

I mean, we could go on and on and list the performances. And so in that moment, what I wanted to name was that yes, this is lovely, but know that there is a whole world out there that this experience never validates or puts light on. That is right there. It’s just right there and we’re good. We’re good. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I want to talk about that a little bit. You play a mother of five on “Black-ish,” but in real life, you’ve been really open about, like you said before, wanting to make sure that you are defining the narrative of your own life and that you are choosing partnership and a life that reflects and respects what you have built. And right now that means being unmarried. And not having children. And earlier this year, this was actually one of my favorite things that you’ve said all year. You said I’m 47 years old and on the hottest I’ve ever been. And I was like, yes! Has it been a conscious choice for you to challenge these real life expectations placed on women?

I know that you’re thinking about it in the roles that you choose, but even in your own personal life, are you thinking about that consciously? 

Tracee Ellis Ross Absolutely. Because there’s not enough information on the wallpaper of our lives, helping us to realize the system that we’re in. Like if someone had said to me at like 14 years old “listen, sweetheart, just so you know, like you’re going to be navigating some of this stuff and it’s not just you that it is hard; it’s not just because you’re doing something wrong.” We have been making, like having to use our own emotional muscle strength to make space for our wings to fly, for us not to be clipped; for our lives to be about more, to have our own ambitions and our own things. So look, I really think I am a great mother and I think of the…did you watch “POSE?”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Of course I watched “POSE!” 

Tracee Ellis Ross Blown away by the fact that MJ’s character helped to expand the idea of motherhood for everybody, because there’s this limited idea that something has to come out of my womb, or I have to have a child for me to be a mother. I’m “mother” everywhere. I mother all the time, Brittany, I am such a nurturing soul. I have not been robbed of the ability to be a mother because that didn’t happen in my life. As a matter of fact, I still want that. But the window of desire, might’ve closed. I’m 48. I’m real tired at the end of the day. I’m not going to lie. You know, like, I don’t know if I just started looking at the world through my eyes out in this big, broad way. I don’t know that I want to look down. I don’t know. And that, THAT could change at any moment and I’m open to it changing, but I think of these moments where I get to understand because of art, because of someone like you or Rebecca Traister or something I read from Audrey Lorde that helps me see my own courage, my own freedom, my own ability to dance and live in a different way that is not defined by an old-school status quo.

And so the ability to kind of start seeing it all that way and make my space within it whether it’s through the characters that I played, the choices that I make in my own life, how I choose to be a boss, honestly gets more and more exciting. And that’s what feels sexy and hot to me. I’m like, look at me just out here in my life.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That is the most beautiful thing, right? For me, that is what thriving looks like, whether it is about, you know, your physical beauty or how you feel as a mother, how you feel as a woman. That is the work. That is the goal. It’s interesting that you talk about discovering that in the midst of also beginning to pull at the threads of these systemic injustices and understanding how those things all interact with each other.

You’ve been very outspoken about social justice issues. When you and I first met in person, we were at a Time’s Up event for Black women with Professor Crenshaw talking about intersectionality. And I remember how hungry you were, right? Like you were right up front with your notebook and your pen, you were like, I’m here to WORK, and you did, you know, you’ve done work around voting, and fighting voter suppression, and posted about Stacey Abrams in Georgia and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

And you don’t just talk about it. You actually work on these things. How do you actually sift through what issues to take on?

Tracee Ellis Ross I don’t actually know. Sometimes it’s just the pull of my heart. And, you know, one thing you just said a second ago, you said like, thriving is sort of how you take up space or sort of own where you are for yourself.

But for me, it’s also so interconnected to this idea of service. And I feel that my humanity is bound up with yours. And I, I have a big heart—it’s one of my superpowers. And I feel like such a student of all of this. I did not grow up, pulling on the strings of all of this systemic stuff because of the privilege that I grew up in because of my mother’s hard work and her gift.

But the reality is I have black skin and I am a woman, you know, and even if I didn’t have black skin, I know what that means in this country. And how do we make it through that? And I also, I think at the core of all of it is my desire to not want anybody to want my life, but to want their own life. And I’m learning and I find it incredibly important to keep leaning towards those that know more than I do and not get caught up in my own celebrity or fame or attention and think just because of this…I know things—I’m not Cornel West—you know what I mean? Like I’m not Tricia Rose. You want to ask me about comedy and TV and I can tell you some stuff, but I’m not going to pretend I know things I don’t know. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I think what’s been so powerful about the arc of your career and your approach to justice work is you’ve been consistently carving out your own identity. You’ve been breaking down conventional narratives of Black women on screen and off screen. You’re now an executive producer. You know, you have a lot of different film and TV projects that are coming forth. What kind of stories are you most excited about putting out into the world these days? 

Tracee Ellis Ross So it’s really about stories that bridge the gap and that share our humanity in ways that we are not used to seeing, but is the reality of who we are. And joy is, or light is sort of a central factor for me, but I think of “Fleabag” or “I May Destroy You” or, you know, and how to see a woman be that sexual and that mean and also that loved—and these multi-layered stories that reframe assumptions about how we see ourselves and each other is what I’m interested in talking about and doing shows about and sharing with the world. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham One last question. 

Tracee Ellis Ross Don’t let it end, but okay. 


Brittany Packnett Cunningham No, I mean, I don’t want to let it end either, but I am sure you have things to do and we’re…Well, I mean, this has been, as we talked about at the very beginning a really wild year, as you think ahead, what are you hoping the we can capture from this moment and, and take forward so that we can really continue to unravel some of those very systems that you were talking about.

Well, I think one of the biggest things is this idea that staying engaged civically and socially is not like a one-time-a-year thing. And I hope that these last four years have shown us, first of all, the power that we each have, particularly as people of color, despite what anyone wants to say, we have a shit ton of power and we need to use it.

I also really hope that, and I can speak for myself, that I can maintain a level of balance around how we honor ourselves and what we need. And being able to say, “No, I actually can’t do that.” Why? I’m too tired, you know, I’m, I just can’t do that today or whatever that is that we all hold, our humanity as sacred—and as sacred as it is as this way that we can all be connecting to each other, not from a place of what we do, but a state of being, not a state of doing. Because the rat race I think was killing us. And I think it’s also part of what, you know, allowed a lot of this stuff to happen. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s right. And we are all far more than what we produce. 

Tracee, I’m so grateful for this conversation. I really could keep it going for hours on end. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have you back really soon. I hope you have a very, very happy holiday season. 

Tracee Ellis Ross You too. I’m so grateful for you.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Actress, producer and activist Tracee Ellis Ross. You can watch her as Dr. Bo Johnson in the seventh season of “Black-ish” currently airing on ABC. And if you haven’t checked it out yet, I highly suggest you go watch “Girlfriends,” which is available now on Netflix.

It really ain’t always easy to control the stories we get told-or the ones we tell ourselves. But it’s always worth it to try.  

Tracee reminds us that no one and nothing should be given the power to validate us: not Hollywood, not Eurocentric standards of beauty, or patriarchal standards of sexiness.  Owning the narrative matters because when we don’t-we relinquish our power to be ourselves. Our full, complex, sacred selves.

Of course, the status quo would rather we weren’t our whole selves. It’s much easier to flatten marginalized people into stereotypes. But as Tracee said, we’re not magic, we’re real!  And that’s why we need to continue writing our own stories. To complicate the narrative of what it means to be human… of what it means to be a Black woman…and to ensure that ALL people—not just the privileged ones—get to thrive.

That’s it for today… but never for tomorrow!


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our Lead Producer is Rachel Matlow.

Our Associate Producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, and Hannis Brown. 

Our Executive Producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself. 

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You can follow me @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED—and rate us!—on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.