Blair Underwood Tells of Family's Struggle with Racism, Adversity

Credits family and friend’s efforts with giving him the inspiration to excel

By Dana Wilkie Oct 27, 2015
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B​OSTON—The experience of watching relatives and friends overcome racism and disabilities helped propel him to success, despite being black in an industry where a tiny percent of all actors make a decent living, Blair Underwood told attendees of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2015 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

“Sometimes, as a minority, you have to work twice as hard to be considered equal in the broader society,” said Underwood—a two-time Golden Globe nominee who played attorney Jonathan Rollins on the long-running TV series “L.A. Law”—during a keynote address on Oct. 26. “I chose this crazy business of acting. I can’t tell you how many people said to me, ‘Dude— and you’re black? What are you thinking?’ ”

Underwood’s 30-year career, which includes acting for TV, stage and film productions as well as directing, has garnered him three NAACP Image Awards and a Grammy Award. He has appeared on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “In Treatment.” and was in NBC's “The Event.”

Family Inspiration

Underwood told conference attendees that his father, a retired U.S. Army colonel, was one of a handful of black children in a nearly all-white elementary school in the early 1950s.

“His outlook on race and diversity, and on being a minority, was to never play the victim card,” Underwood said. “He lived his life and taught us, yes, there will be bigots, there will be racists out there, but never, ever allow them to define who you are.”

Underwood recalled that once, his father was reluctant to turn in a school assignment because he felt it wasn’t good enough—until a white classmate read it and told him it was better than hers. She convinced him to submit the assignment, and he earned an A.

“This moment was the first time he realized that he could even compete with the white kids,” said Underwood, who added that his father went on to excel in several high school sports and to be elected senior class president. “It was the first time he internalized the fact that he was as good as anyone else. And I say this to you as professionals in the business of providing resources to humans—you can tell someone they’re as good as anyone else, but until they believe it for themselves, their potential will never be unlocked.”

After Underwood’s mother, an interior decorator, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Underwood said she fell into a deep depression and tried to take her own life. After what he called “seven dark years,” she emerged from her depression and is now living life fully.

“She is one of my inspirations because I watched how every day she fought,” he said.

Finally, Underwood told of a friend in his mid-20s who, although having had both legs amputated below the knee, has won top awards in several sports competitions.

He added that when another one of his friends, a woman who is a diversity officer at a top U.S. university, learned he was speaking at SHRM’s conference, she urged him to impress on the audience “the difference between need and want.”

Underwood said his friend gave him a message that would apply to any HR diversity initiative: “ When you deal with the ‘need’ for diversity, people feel like it’s a punitive exercise: ‘We need to do this for our bottom line … to maybe receive some funding … maybe because it looks good’—not because they ‘want’ to. To get to the ‘want,’ you have to deal with the heart.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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