WE’VE ALL BEEN GABRIELLE UNION
December 4, 2019
The saddest thing about the story of Gabrielle Union’s dismissal from the NBC television show, America’s Got Talent, is that it’s so unsurprising. People casually dropped racist jokes around her in the office? Her hair was deemed “too Black” (whatever that means)? The boss smoked cigarettes indoors when it was illegal and harmful to her? Her repeated complaints went unheeded and she ended up getting dumped? It all seems so tragically common. I feel like I’ve lived it myself. Young Black professionals should take note — the office is usually not the woke world that college was, and quite often when you complain about racism in a workplace dominated by white people, you are deemed “difficult” and there’s suddenly two strikes against you. For many white people, the worst thing in the world is being called racist, and quite often, when Black people suggest that someone around them is being racist, they are not listened to and then they’re let go. It’s easier to remove the complainer than it is to address a thorny problem.
Until mid-November, Union was a presenter on America’s Got Talent, a contest reality-show in its 14th season, but that I only know through commercials during NBC football broadcasts and backstage clips on Instagram. I’m a fan of Union’s, but I can’t say I even knew she was on the show, or what it’s really about — and I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. She was a key figure on a prime-time, major network television program where several murky things happened. We’re only hearing one side of the story, but we do know that Union was unhappy with many things that happened around her. She said there was a joke made at the expense of Asian people that offended an Asian co-worker. She said there was a popular contestant, a 10 year-old Black rapper, who was shoved aside for a white act because he wasn’t seen as someone America could root for (as if cherubic Black performers aren’t routinely embraced in this country). The company denies much of this, and I don’t know what really happened because I wasn’t there, but we know how Union felt and that she spoke up several times within the company and even though she joined the show in February, she is now off. And I feel like I know her pain.
To work day after day in a roomful of white people is to develop a deep sense of comfort with each other and to see the internal walls come down and have people stop being polite and start getting real. For example, at one job where I was the only Black person present during Black History Month, someone really did ask me, “What about white history month?” This was couched as a joke, but it was also, clearly, a serious question. When I replied, “White history month is every month,” the room went silent and cleared out and a thinly veiled air of disgust permeated the vibe, as if I was the troublemaker when in fact I was the one who had been virtually attacked. I carried the pain of that moment with me for months. At another job someone described a Black witness in the George Zimmerman trial as “straight out of the novel Push by Sapphire.” That one cut me even more deeply. It seemed way over the line, even though I had continually adjusted the line to accept more and more from the people around me, because I knew the people in charge would not understand unless I had a figurative smoking gun. I reported that comment up the chain of command. It was met with a shrug. There was no meeting. There was not even a written response. The tacit response was, “We don’t care.”
The larger sort of racism I’ve faced has never been accompanied by offensive words. It’s been the pervasive expectation that I could and should stick to covering Black subjects, while white writers are routinely allowed to comment on Black subjects even when they make it clear that they don’t really know what they’re talking about. This stems from the sense that whiteness is central in America, while Blackness is other. This virtual segregation has been tricky to navigate because I deeply love Black culture and I want to be in the thick of talking about it in my work. But I also love cultural things that aren’t a part of Black culture. I love Radiohead, Nirvana, the White Stripes, The Strokes, and several Taylor Swift songs — yet for the vast majority of my career, I have been blocked from writing about stuff like that. When I was a young writer being considered for a job an editor said, “I know you can write about Run-DMC but could you write about Eric Clapton?” It was a rhetorical question. He assumed I couldn’t write about Clapton but never said why — the bizarre thing about that example is Clapton’s music comes directly from the blues.
I have tried, at times, to speak up about all of this, but I’ve found that you have to do it in a certain way. You can’t storm into the boss’s office and say, “There’s racism in here!” Especially not if you lack multiple examples that are so blatant, even a white man can’t deny it. If you don’t have very clear receipts, you will have a problem getting that stuff returned. I’ve found that I have had to be subtle in my approach to speaking up. And I’ve found that you only get one shot to speak up about office racism. One mention of it, and you may have a case. But two or more mentions means it’s you who may have a problem with seeing racism too easily and too often. White people tend not to think racism is prevalent, so when you suggest that it is, that means you have a chip on your shoulder or that you are difficult.
I am not at all suggesting that Gabrielle Union went about this wrong. I am saying that I feel like I have been in her shoes, and have seen that you have to be careful and strategic about how you address it. I have learned that you usually have to accept a certain amount of it, and that, often, you must choose between speaking up and keeping the job. That’s a terrible choice to have to make. But there aren’t enough all-Black workplaces to avoid that fork.