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Sheryl Lee Ralph Says That Racist Comments Did a Number on Her Confidence for Years

Paras Griffin/Michael Ochs Archives/Images Press/Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Images/Amanda K Bailey

If Sheryl Lee Ralph had to describe herself in a few words, confident would probably make the list. But her self-assurance (which also shines through in her role as veteran educator Barbara Howard on ABC’s megahit mockumentary Abbott Elementary) didn’t come naturally: In fact, she said that confidence is a “superpower” she developed while dealing with racist comments growing up.

In the latest episode of our Advice to My Younger SELF podcast, Ralph, our March cover star, opened up about the moments throughout her life that shaped her into the resilient star she is today. “It was so interesting to be a young Black girl,” Ralph told SELF’s editor in chief, Rachel Wilkerson Miller.

The Emmy-winning actor didn’t hold back when it came to the racism she’s experienced in her life. “I'm a child of the ’60s,” she said. “It was traumatizing to see kids just a little bit older than you in the street being hosed down by fire hoses, being attacked by dogs, being killed just for fighting for their rights to vote.”

Ralph said that racist comments, particularly about her appearance, did a number on her self-esteem. “For such a long time I was so unhappy with the way I looked,” she admitted. “[People] used to say, your lips are too big, they’re too thick. They used to call me liver lips, and I used to feel so bad about myself. And then, if you were a shade or two darker than a brown paper bag, they were saying that you were too Black.”

Her perspective started to change after listening to these iconic Nina Simone lyrics: “To be young, gifted, and Black is where it’s at.” Hearing that, she said, “made me feel more empowered to love [myself] when they would talk about [my] nose being too broad.”

It isn’t lost on Ralph that the features she once felt insecure about and was criticized for—like fuller lips and a self-described “curvy” body—are now more widely accepted and even celebrated. “I'll never forget one time, a fashion house said they weren’t interested in dressing me because of the shape of my body,” she recalled. “It was so vulgar.”

Hurtful jabs about her physical appearance weren’t the only reasons she struggled: “When I was little, nobody was picking me for their team,” she added. “At a time of integration, you know, white kids weren’t picking you for their team. Black kids sometimes didn’t pick you because of the way you spoke or where your parents came from.”

That’s why it was so important for her to actively learn to root for herself—even when others didn’t: “You got to come to the fact that you are what you are, own it, and move forward with that. Trying to compete with others, especially yourself, you just lose.”

You can listen to the full podcast on your favorite audio app, and access the transcript below.

Transcript

Sheryl: For me, I learned very quickly that the top of one mountain is the beginning of another.

[intro music plays]

Rachel: Hello and welcome to the SELF Podcast, Advice to My Younger SELF, where we talk to our cover stars about the things they wish they’d known earlier in life. I’m SELF’s editor in chief, Rachel Wilkerson Miller. Our guest today is SELF’s March cover star, Emmy Award–winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph. You may know Sheryl as the no-nonsense and boundary-protecting Barbara on Abbott Elementary, which is currently airing its third season on ABC. But Sheryl has had a long, impressive career that includes starring in the original Broadway Run of Dream Girls and appearing on the sitcom Moesha with Brandy. She’s also the founder of the Diva Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on the prevention of and better treatment and outcomes for HIV and AIDS. Sheryl, welcome to the show. How are you doing today?

Sheryl: I’m great today and good to be here with you.

Rachel: Well, I’m so thrilled to be talking with you and in this context in particular because I feel like you have a lot of important wisdom that you can share with the world and with our readers. So I’d love to jump right into asking you about some of the points in your life where you could have used a little extra advice from future you and ask you what you wish you’d known then.

Sheryl: Oh my God. I would think, you know, my brain goes immediately to high school where I want to say to my younger self, be patient, be patient, be patient, be patient with yourself, and be patient with others.

Rachel: I mean, those are both so hard to do. [Laughs.]

Sheryl: Oh my God. It’s so hard to do, so hard to do, but over the years I’ve learned it and I’m still working on it now, still working on it.

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: You know, I remember once my father said, “This will be the greatest and probably longest lesson of your life, and that is patience with yourselves and patience with others.” He said, “You’re, you’re, you’re kind of fast.” He says—

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: “You get things kind of fast and you gotta give other people time to catch up. And at the same time, you have to give yourself time to catch up. You know, don’t be so quick to change things about yourself or, you know, be patient with your looks,” because for such a long time I was so unhappy with the way I looked and I just thought that, you know, if it could just be different, everything would be better. But now I look back at it and I think, my God, had I changed one thing, so many things might not have turned out so good.

Rachel: Absolutely. Well, it’s funny you brought up your looks because that was actually something I wanted to ask you about because when I was researching you, I was surprised by how much of the early coverage of your career touched on your appearance and basically said that you got called ugly a lot as a young person, like through high school. And then you go into the entertainment industry, which is so looks-focused; it’s also racist. And I think that would take a number on a lot of people’s self-esteem. And I would love to just hear a little bit more like what that was like for you and how you dealt with it at the time. And you said, you know, you wish you had been more patient. But you know, just going through that specifically, what advice do you wish you had known at the time?

Sheryl: It was so interesting to be one, uh, to be a young Black girl. And I was so happy because the song came out just when I was feeling so bad and it was Nina Simone and she said, “To be young, gifted and Black is where it’s at.”

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: So it made me feel more empowered to love when they would talk about your nose being too broad or they, oh my God, they used to say, your lips are too big, they’re too thick. And they used to call me liver lips and I used to feel so bad about myself. And then, you know, if you were a shade or two darker than a brown paper bag, they were saying that you were too Black.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: It was just horrible. And then, you know, I was so happy when Nina Simone got her natural hair because you know, when everybody’s talking about your hair, you know, I chopped mine off because she chopped hers off. And it was like a sense of empowerment. And had I known then that these lips would become all the rage, my God.

Rachel: [Laughs.] Is it wild to you to see that now, to see people trying to make their lips look more like yours?

Sheryl: Oh my... It’s so crazy. Had I only—

Rachel: Yeah.

Sheryl: …known, and to be a curvy girl.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: You know, I’ll never forget one time a fashion house said, Oh, they weren’t interested in dressing me because of the shape of my body. It was so vulgar, with all of its ins and outs. And now thick is in, it’s all the rage. Who knew? Hmm. Crazy. Sometimes you just need patience and time.

Rachel: Yeah. And kind of on the note of patience; were you, you know, your dad was giving you that advice. Would you say you were impatient when you were younger? Was that sort of how you describe yourself or what other sort of were the main qualities you had when you were a teen and a young person?

Sheryl: Oh, I would have to say, you know, what do they call, um, Capricorns?

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: Real go-getters.

Rachel: Okay.

Sheryl: Oh my God. Once I got up on the mountain, I was not backing down. I wasn’t going back, I was going up. I wanted to see what was up there on the mountaintop. So I was just going, going, going. And I learned how to be surefooted, making my way there, being aware that, you know, not all, not everybody makes it to the top of the mountain. Sometimes people slip and they fall, you know, a lot of times people drop off the mountain.

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: So many things happen to people as they take it to take the journey on their own private mountains, you know? And—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …for me, I learned very quickly that the top of one mountain is the beginning of another. It just, it just didn’t stop.

Rachel: Right.

Sheryl: It was just a continuation and what it took to remain strong, what it took to love myself on this journey when so many people along the way wanna tell you how you’re not gonna make it, how you should be on a different mountain. Oh, you’ve chosen the wrong path, or you should do something else. And I learned really quickly that we start to listen to what everybody else is saying instead of listening to ourselves or realizing that sometimes people talk to you because they’re telling you about their experience.

Rachel: Hmm.

Sheryl: You know, I learned just because it didn’t work out for somebody else, does not me, it’s not gonna work out for me.

Rachel: You strike me as somebody who’s very confident. Is that accurate or is that how you would describe yourself?

Sheryl: It’s my superpower.

Rachel: [Laughs.] It’s a good one to have. Have you always been that way?

Sheryl: Oh no, I had to learn it. I had to learn it. You know, I learned to pick, get my own team because when I was little, nobody was picking me for their team. You know, at a time of integration, you know, white kids weren’t picking you for their team. Black kids sometimes didn’t pick you because of the way you spoke or where your parents came from—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …being an immigrant’s child.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: So I learned very easy. Pick your own team, put people on your team. There are a lot of people feeling like a loser just like you. [Laughs.]

Rachel: Yeah. That’s really lovely advice. And I think it’s true for whatever age you’re at, but it’s hard when you’re a kid and you don’t feel like you have that control. Um, but it’s nice when you get to a point where you can start to connect with others and build that team of who wants to be on your side, who’s rooting for you.

Sheryl: Absolutely. It’s important.

Rachel: Agreed.

Sheryl: And you have to really learn how to root for yourselves.

Rachel: Which I think is one of the hardest lessons, and it sounds so straightforward and so silly. But like, that’s a hard-won lesson I think for a lot of people. Even if you know it in theory, it’s hard to put into practice.

Sheryl: That’s why I tell everybody, wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and love what you see. And if you can’t love it, respect it.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: And if you can’t love it, lift it up. But be, by all means, be kind to it. Too many people are horrible to themselves. The things they say to themselves, “I’m too this, I’m too that. Oh, I wish I was like this. Oh, why couldn’t I be more like that?” You know what, you gotta come to the fact that you are what you are. Own it.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …and move forward with that. You know, trying to compete with others, especially yourself, you just lose.

Rachel: Well, I wanna pivot a little bit to talk about your family. You are a mom to two adult children who you seem to have a really, really good relationship with.

Sheryl: I do.

Rachel: I would love for you to think back on, you know, just motherhood and becoming a mom for the first time when your eldest was born, and what advice you really needed to hear at that point. Or just any other advice you would give your younger, younger self at a hard time as a mother.

Sheryl: I was very fortunate to have women around me, you know, like my mother who shared so much with me about what happens, what you go through when you’re having a child, what can, your body, things like that. And I’m shocked to this day how many times people and other women don’t talk to each other and other women.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: One of the greatest books I ever read was What to Expect When You’re Expecting, such a good book, full of knowledge. And if nobody's gonna share it with you, buy that book for yourself.

Rachel: Yeah. I think I read somewhere that you, um, you were saying you felt really grateful to have two, you know, safe and healthy pregnancies and, and you know, I think that’s a real fear among Black women that we’re not going to, you know, we all know how serious the maternal mortality crisis is for Black women. And I, and I really appreciated that you called attention to that and just said like, “This isn’t a given as a Black mom, this is an important thing to pause and be grateful for.”

Sheryl: Absolutely. I was also very blessed and fortunate that I had a Black male ob-gyn.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: And this doctor cared for the…. Oh my God. He got ill and he passed away. And so many of the children that he had delivered into this world all came around to send him off.

Rachel: Hmm.

Sheryl: And it was amazing because he cared for us. If your doctor…’cause I was in distress with, at the delivery of my first child—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know I was in distress.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: You know, I thought that you had all of these people around when you delivered a baby. And he said, “No.” He said, “You needed extra care.” And I was like, “Oh my God.” You know, very often women get into distress and they don’t have the proper care. They don’t have the person that says, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here? What is different? What is different about this pain? What is different about the position of this baby? What is different about this delivery?” And I was very fortunate to have Dr. Arthur Johnson, who did everything to make sure I came through on the other side with a healthy baby.

Rachel: That’s such a beautiful story and so lovely that his legacy was that all these children who, or these adults that, that he had delivered as, as babies came forward to send him off. And I feel like when you find a good doctor, it’s just one of the best experiences ‘cause it’s, it’s hard. Like a lot of doctors, you know, they don’t have the time or that's just, you know, they don’t have the bedside manner. So finding a great doctor who really sees you means a lot.

Sheryl: And really wants to care for you. But when I ask for a Black doctor, and I’m told, “I’m so sorry, we’re asked this all the time, but we only have one.”

Rachel: Man.

Sheryl: And I’m in a major city in America—

Rachel: Right.

Sheryl: …and you only have one?

Rachel: Right. You know, it’s funny to hear you say that because I’ve been going to the doctor for, you know, 38 years and it’s never once occurred to me to ask for a Black doctor. Like I’m, I didn’t even think about it. I just kind of felt like, “Oh, you get who you get, and if you get a Black doctor, lucky you.” But I didn’t even think to speak up for myself in that particular way. So that’s just another little bonus piece of advice that I’m gonna think about a lot from here and why it never occurred to me.

Sheryl: You know, for me it’s certain things like, you know, being an African American of Caribbean descent, things like sickle cell.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: You know, somebody has to know those things, you know, the way we are treated differently and need to be treated differently sometimes when it comes to heart disease, high blood pressure.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: Somebody has to be connected with your history because sometimes these are silent killers.

Rachel: I know. It’s scary. I feel like every time you go to the doctor, it’s just you’re crossing your fingers both in terms of I hope there’s nothing serious wrong with me, but also I hope that if there is, I have somebody who can diagnose it properly and won’t just dismiss me.

Sheryl: Correct.

Rachel: It’s—

Sheryl: Correct.

Rachel: …it’s a very fraught experience. Um, but actually that’s a great segue into what I wanted to talk about next, which is health and public health and specifically HIV and AIDS. So—

Sheryl: Yeah.

Rachel: …you were, um, you’ve talked about being a Broadway actress starring in Dreamgirls at the time of the AIDS crisis emerging. And the way that you talked about losing so many friends, I found incredibly moving. Um, you said in your one-woman show that quote, “AIDS blew out the flame of life, like candles on a birthday cake up and down Broadway.” And that just as, as somebody who I lost my dad to AIDS like that really—

Sheryl: Wow.

Rachel: …like, just resonated with me. I think a lot about the talent that just got wiped out, like a generation of talent that we’ll never have back. And so I have firsthand experience in a particular way, but I think yours is quite different and not something that everyone is still talking about and aware of. And so I wondered what that was like for you and if there’s any advice that you could give young Sheryl during the early days of the crisis, and what must have been a time of just like, incredible despair.

Sheryl: Oh, I would tell young Sheryl, “Look, I know it’s gonna be hard. I know it’s gonna look like there’s no end in sight. I know you’re gonna learn some very hard lessons about life and people, but that’s good. That’s good for you and you’re gonna carry that with you. And trust me, it will all work out.” I had no, I, you know, I'm a child of the ’60s and, you know, uh, anybody can tell you anything about being a child, especially a Black child in the ’60s, it was traumatizing.

Rachel: I’m sure.

Sheryl: It was... Oh my God. It was traumatizing to see, you know, kids just a little bit older than you in the street being hosed down by fire hoses, you know, then being attacked by dogs, being killed just for fighting for their rights to vote, to be, to sit at the lunch counter, to eat, to live, to pursue their happiness and to be killed and to see it right in front of you. Then on top of it, the number of men that literally got their heads blown off.

Rachel: Right.

Sheryl: You know?

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: And I’m saying their heads blown off. And to see those pictures, there used to be a magazine called Life

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl:Magazine and those pictures, oh my God, it was terrible. So when I dared to care about people who were one, gay, sick, and dying, people thought I had lost my mind. And they asked me over and over, “Why would you do that?” And I could never understand that question. Why would I simply dare to care, to fight for your, my, my friends? My—

Rachel: Right. These are your people. It wasn’t just, I mean, you, we should all care for everybody, but these are your friends. Of course you care.

Sheryl: Exactly. So I find it, I think about now being awarded for my work around HIV—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …and AIDS for simply doing what was right, to speak up for people, to visit them in a hospital, to hug them, to call their name when they passed away. In some ways, it’s sad to be honored for that because these are the things that we should do—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …for each other. But we find it, we find it difficult. And I find it very, very sad and disheartening.

Rachel: It is. And I think sometimes I feel despair about how we just sort of dismiss. I mean, we’re in the midst of, you know, another virus, and it’s hurting the most marginalized people and we’re sort of repeating a lot of the same mistakes. And I feel really-

Sheryl: Absolutely.

Rachel: …inspired by the fact that you, you took that despair and turned it into action and said, “I’m gonna do something about this.” ’Cause I think that’s where a lot of us get stuck. We feel angry or we feel sad but don’t know what to do about it. And so, um, do you have any advice on how to actually turn your anger or your sadness into meaningful action?

Sheryl: You know, know, that’s interesting that you say that because my children were recently honored by the city of Los Angeles for their work around wellness—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: …and illness. And it shocked me because I remember the day when my son said to me, he was, he was in the street protesting with his sister and cousin around the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: A young Black man who was killed simply for running.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: He, he was run—you know, like a runner run.

Rachel: Right. Going for a run.

Sheryl: Just a—

Rachel: Yep.

Sheryl: …going for a run. And he stopped to look at a construction site and somebody said, “Hey, you.” And that was the end of his life. They chased him down in the street. But my son said, “If we do not heal from this pain, we’ll be good for no one.” And he took that pain, and he turned it into a purpose by creating a space for his peers to raise their voices, use their voices to speak truth to the power of their pain out loud. And that has now evolved into their own nonprofit WalkGood LA. And I think about, my God, my children were watching me these past 33 years doing my work around HIV and AIDS, taking my sadness around people’s inaction to help other people and turn that truth into a power that has just been for, for at least one or two people, lifesaving.

Rachel: So I wanted to pivot to Abbott Elementary, which was created by my fellow BuzzFeed alum, Quinta Brunson, and which earned you your first Emmy in 2022. Um, and I wanted to talk about the joy and exuberance that came through when you accepted that award, which clearly resonated with everyone in the room, but also so many people watching at home. And your career seemed like it, it really, like, took off in new ways, even though you had been a successful working actress for years. But I was hoping you could share a little bit about what you were feeling the day before those Emmy Awards and what advice you would’ve given yourself heading into that moment.

Sheryl: Oh my God. First of all, I was so happy just to be invited because my whole career, I’d never been invited to the Emmys. And the first time I am invited, I win.

Rachel: I mean, that’s a flex. So your first time there and you’re on stage winning an award. [Laughs.]

Sheryl: Oh, it was crazy.

Rachel: It’s wild.

Sheryl: It was, it was just crazy. And to tell you the truth, I was very happy just being a guest. I was very happy just being in the room. I was there as a supportive artist to whoever was going to win because I knew it wasn’t going to be me. And when they called my name, oh my God, it was, it was, it was a moment for me to behold. And I was so thankful, so grateful, so happy. And I guess it just spilled out and the world felt it too.

Rachel: I think so. And I mean, I think in everything, no one necessarily knew every specific detail of some of the things you were talking about, about your childhood and about all the things that you’ve been through. But I think we know when we look at you, you know, like no one gets through this life as a Black woman without experiencing racism and experiencing hard things. And so I think that’s part of what meant so much. But also I think, you know, people have fallen in love with you on Abbott Elementary or in other work you’ve done. I mean, I, people know you from so many different things. And I think that also was just like, what a special thing to see somebody achieve this. Something that felt, I think, long overdue to a lot of people.

Sheryl: Well, you know, something, I might have been, what is, what is they, what did they say? It might have been a delay, but I was not denied.

Rachel: Hmm.

Sheryl: And it’s, it, to me, it’s fine because everything is right on time in God’s time, in mother solar system, nature, whatever, in goddess’s time.

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: And it’s not going to happen before then. So, you know, I... and also for me to have it happen now, let that be known to everybody.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: There is no timeframe that is too bad or too late. It is all good. And God is there for you. Just, just hang in there.

Rachel: Well, I think that’s one of the things that people really love about you, that you are proof that women don’t have to go away the moment they turn 40 or 50 or 60. And I think it’s really nice to see what work success looks like in these later decades. And I think that’s part of what people find so exciting. And it’s, it’s like there’s a new possibility that is visible when we look at somebody who is still achieving major career success. And it’s not like, it’s not like you were waiting this whole time for career success. You’ve been a successful working actress for a really long time, but there’s something about the fact that it’s not over. That you can still have your first Emmy at any point in your life that I think is really moving and inspiring.

Sheryl: Oh, absolutely. I’ll never forget the time, I think it was Titanic, and there was an actress in the movie, she was about 98 years old, she got nominated for an Oscar or invited to the Oscars, something like that. And she was an actress and she said—

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: “I’m 98 years old and here I am.” And I was just like, “Yeah, that’s right. Here I am 40 years and, and now I am an overnight sensation.”

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: “Thank you.”

Rachel: Right. This many years in the making. And I, I think that, you know, again, I think people who are even in their twenties and thirties feel like it’s too late for me. I am, I’m, you know, my time has come and gone and they feel like they can’t achieve these things. And so I think, you know, 40 is an age when I think people kind of start to freak out of like, it’s too late for me. And so I wonder if you have any advice, like how you were feeling when you were turning 40 and what you wish you’d known then, or maybe advice you’d give to other people who are about to reach that age.

Sheryl: Oh my God. Turning 40. I took a picture of myself on that day. I wonder where it is.

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: And I remember thinking, “I’m a woman now.”

Rachel: Mm-hmm. [Laughs.]

Sheryl: “I am a woman now.” And then I think soon after I would, you know, I hit a rough patch in my career and I was really questioning, you know, “What do I do from here?” And I ran into a big-time casting agent. And, uh, she asked, “What, what, well, what are you doing now?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m not doing too much.” And she stopped and turned around and looked at me and she said, “Oh, do you know who you are?”

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: “Because if you are not doing anything, it must only be because you don’t want to do anything.” And I was like, “Wow.”

Rachel: Right. Wow. [Laughs.]

Sheryl: Wow. And it just sort of changed things for me. It changed, you know, how I saw myself and, you know, what I was gonna do and what it would take to start all over again. And, um, I literally did that for myself. And it was, these were the, I made some moves that, you know, it felt like the beginning, but it felt like the beginning that I needed to keep on striving to climb that mountain to reach my goal.

Rachel: Mm-hmm. Well, my last question for you is, What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?

Sheryl: Oh my God. I would have to say my Aunt Virginia, well really wasn’t my aunt, but always felt like.

Rachel: [Laughs.] That counts.

Sheryl: Yes. A great actress by the name of Virginia Capers and Aunt Virginia said to me, “Be as kind as you can for as long as you can to as many people as you can, because the same ass you kick today.” And she said ass.

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: “Same ass you kick today, you might have to kiss tomorrow.” Oh—

Rachel: [Laughs.]

Sheryl: …now that was some good advice.

Rachel: That’s really good advice.

Sheryl: Oh, I’m telling you the number of people I have seen coming up in my career who were giving you coffee one day, then running the company the next day.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Sheryl: Oh, I’ve seen that quite a few times. Be as kind as you can for as long as you can.

Rachel: Thank you so much again. We’re so thrilled to have you on SELF’s cover. Everyone can read the incredible interview with you, see the photos, and we are just so excited to…. I’m so excited to have gotten to talk to you today, and I’m really gonna take your advice to heart, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.

Sheryl: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

Rachel: This podcast was produced by Hayley Fager, Rachel Miller, and Westry Green, and edited by Hayley Fager. Peyton Hayes is our audio production coordinator, Jake Loomis is our audio engineer, and Caitlin Brody and Sergio Kletnoy are our talent bookers.

Transcription provided by Rev.com, and lightly edited for clarity.

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Originally Appeared on SELF