Why Gabrielle Union’s Experience At “America’s Got Talent” Resonated With Many Black Women

Supermajority Education Fund

June 2, 2020

The actress Gabrielle Union recently told Variety about how she felt singled out after speaking up about the working conditions on the hit show “America’s Got Talent.” Union, who was a judge on the show’s 2019 season, recently told Variety that when she raised concerns about fellow judge Simon Cowell smoking indoors, racist and xenophobic performances by some of the show’s contestants and guests, and the show’s failure to ask contestants for their preferred pronouns, she was told nothing could be done.

 “I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed,” Union said to Variety, noting that not only did smoking inside a workplace violate California law, it also affected her health and the health of other staffers. “I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to.”

Union’s feeling that she was labeled difficult is a familiar one to many Black women who speak up about injustice in the workplace, Sheri Davis-Faulkner, co-director of WILL Empower and a senior program director for the Rutgers Center for Innovation in Worker Organization, told Supermajority News that “the rules are in place, but they aren’t in place for everybody,” in terms of enforcement. 

One of the main reasons for this, Davis-Faulkner said, is that even when workplaces have clear rules and anti-discrimination policies, many do not enforce them consistently. To do so, “there is a culture shift that has to happen both at a leadership level but also in the workplace,” she said. “It requires getting to a much deeper level at the core and [in some cases] looking at the way the culture was built.”

Until that culture shift happens, it is often women of color who are singled out for speaking up, she said. That’s why Davis-Faulkner always advises women of color to network with others in their fields to have a strong support system. “That way, they can be bold and courageous knowing they are others bridging the same things to the table,” she said.

But even with strong support systems and clear workplace policies, the onus should never be solely on women of color to speak up when things go wrong. “It puts way too much weight and burden on the folks who are the most marginalized to be the ones to push for the change that is needed,” Davis-Faulkner noted.

Instead, managers should make an effort to understand the experiences of employees of color within their organizations while also pushing for truly equitable policies. Davis-Faulkner said managers, “should have a diverse workforce and you should have ways for people to communicate with you when there is something that needs to be improved.'”

As for Union, she told Variety that she would continue to use her platform to speak out. “If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband and I have, what is the point of making it?” she asked.