Gabrielle Union opens up on 'AGT' ouster: 'Being blackballed in this industry is very real.'

Gabrielle Union talks about the fear of being "blackballed" when speaking truth to power in the entertainment industry. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gabrielle Union talks about the fear of being "blackballed" when speaking truth to power in the entertainment industry. (Photo: Getty Images)

Gabrielle Union got candid about her experience at America’s Got Talent, as well as her just resolved complaint against NBC in response to mistreatment, as she condemned the network and producer Simon Cowell for racist behavior in an interview for Marie Claire.

“I am one who calls people who continuously exhibit racist behavior racist,” she told the publication about Cowell, “but for the super sensitive, I will say he has exhibited wildly problematic behavior.”

The 47-year-old actress, author, mother and wife to former NBA star Dwyane Wade joined the judges’ table for the competition show’s 14th season. Her exit in 2019 was accompanied by a complaint filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing about an environment that the complaint called a “snake pit of racial offenses.” Union has been outspoken about “excessive notes” from the show’s producers when it came to her appearance and specifically her hairstyles.

“That is the beauty of being a Black woman,” she told Marie Claire. “I should be able to exist however the f*** I want to exist, because if you’re hiring Gabrielle Union for my talent, then my talent is going to come out of my body in every way, shape, and incarnation that I can imagine. You’re getting more bang for your buck the more you allow me to exist as I see fit.”

She also noted toxic behavior displayed by Cowell, who forced employees to comply with his habit of smoking indoors; racist jokes from guest judge Jay Leno; and a lack of diversity across the show. Although she thinks her experience isn’t unique to her and AGT, Union explained that she believes other high-profile Black talent at NBC like Al Roker and Terry Crews didn’t speak up in support of her because of the fear of being “blackballed.”

“These racist institutions and systems have done an amazing job at keeping us very fearful of speaking up, asking for equality, and asking for accountability, because they have shown us time and time again that we are disposable,” she explained. “They will discredit and malign you, and you will never work again.…Being blackballed in this industry is very real.”

She even noted that after speaking out herself, she was faced with claims that the treatment she faced wasn’t racist, and that instead she was making it out to be that way for retribution for her firing. “That very sentiment is how all of this has been allowed to go on for centuries; that kind of gaslighting, I categorically reject,” she said. “You are not going to gaslight me into minimizing my trauma, which is exactly what allows this to continue on for the next person.”

As far as acknowledging the leveraging power she holds within the industry that has lessened some of her anxiety about speaking out, she offered, “How much do you need to have in the bank before you feel comfortable speaking truth to power?.…What’s the magic number?” She also explained that entering her forties allowed her to let go of her fear. “I emptied out my basket of f***s,” she said. “I cannot center fear in my life. I can’t center functioning from a fear of scarcity. They say silence is violence, and I refuse to be complicit in my silence. I have to be fully present in my body and fully free.”

Other Black actresses have seemingly done the same, which Union spoke to as a collective effort.

“We want to be free, and we want to try and protect as many people as possible,” she said. “They want you to feel like ‘It’s not me, it’s you, you’re crazy, you’re doing something that’s causing this, you are complicit in your own oppression, your own trauma, your own abuse.’ And as long as you’re in that space, you’re not going to talk about it. You’re not going to reach out to anybody.”

Union also has the support of her husband, with whom she has spent most of her time throughout the coronavirus pandemic, as they stay safe at home with their children. During a year that she characterizes as “Anxiety on top of anxiety on top of anxiety,” she’s speaking her truth is what feels best and most needed.

“The more you are transparent and the more you speak truth to power, it creates more space for other people to claim their reality, to claim their pain, to claim their healing, and, if you want, to claim your justice,” she said.

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