Film & TV

Insecure's Yvonne Orji and Jay Ellis on Workplace Microaggressions

Yvonne Orji
Yvonne Orji Photo by John P. Fleenor/HBO
The stars of one of the best-reviewed shows on TV landed in Miami for the American Black Film Festival this past weekend. Insecure, created by Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’s star Issa Rae and former "senior black correspondent" on The Daily Show Larry Wilmore, was an instant hit when it debuted in 2016. With plots full of relationship troubles, hilarious misunderstandings, and everyday snafus, the series shows the sometimes subtle, always pervasive ways that race affects American society.

At the American Black Film Festival, New Times sat down with Insecure actors Yvonne Orji and Jay Ellis, who play characters Molly Carter and Lawrence, to talk about microaggressions, race in the workplace, and black identity.

"Issa and our writers are like supercreative and genius and brilliant at showing how we think we are in this postracial world, but the reality is there are all these microaggressions that happen daily," Ellis says. "There are these thoughts and these kinds of things we let slide and float by, but they’re still offensive.”

Orji's Season 1 storyline, in particular, hinges on race relations. Her character, Molly, works at a corporate law firm. “She’s like the Will Smith of corporate," Issa explains. "White people love Molly. Black people also love Molly.” But fitting in at work has forced Molly to manage her racial identity between her workplace and at home. But then a new summer associate, Rasheeda, shows up.
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Issa Rae and Jay Ellis
Courtesy of HBO
Orji says, “There’s a dichotomy, right?... Molly has set the precedent of what it means to be a black face in this workplace, and so here comes Rasheeda, who presents another type of black face.”

As the series progresses, Molly tries to help Rasheeda learn to code-switch, telling her in a private conversation that she needs to know “when to switch it up a little bit” in front of other staff members at the firm. A partner at the firm later asks Molly to speak to Rasheeda about her adjustment to the corporate environment. Orji reflects, “There’s the duality of ‘Hey, I gotta reel you in and introduce you to the landscape that exists.’ But at the same time, why do we need to be introduced to a landscape that exists? There are different types of black people, so why can’t she exist equally in this space in her truth as a black woman?”

Though people of color are somewhat present in the media landscape and leadership positions in America, prejudices still keep them from being accepted, understood, or respected, Orji and Ellis suggest. Diversity doesn’t just mean acknowledging that a different race exists; diversity means understanding and accepting the gradations and subtleties of all different types of people.

“When people think we’re beyond race, they don’t realize... that there are so many microaggressions," Orji says. "There are different types of black experiences.”

Season 2 of Insecure premieres July 23 on HBO.
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Minhae Shim Roth is an essayist, journalist, and academic.
Contact: Minhae Shim Roth