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Gabrielle Union was told her hair was “too black” by America’s Got Talent bosses. When will this racism end?

Gabrielle Union was allegedly told her hair was “too black” for the audience of America’s Got Talent, before being fired from her role as a judge. This racist comment is just the tip of the iceberg, as Soraya Bouazzaoui explains.

If, like me, you can only bear to receive your news through Twitter – since the humour on it dilutes the pain of Brexit and the December election – you’d have read the below tweets by actress and star Gabrielle Union and husband Dwayne Wade. 

The tweets reference Union being fired from her role as a judge on America’s Got Talent (AGT), and the racism she is alleged to have endured and challenged while working there. 

It’s hardly far-fetched to assume the two ordeals are linked, as Wade alluded to in his tweets. We’ve seen it before, in blunders such as the BBC’s Naga Munchetty’s reprimand of her expressing the racism she has endured as a brown woman, which was later overturned. However, for black women, the level of workplace racism they consistently endure is monumental.

Union allegedly received countless critical (and racist) notes in feedback, including a comment that her hair was ‘too black’ for AGT audiences, Variety reported. Comments like this have been an exceptionally resilient form of racism that has endured regardless of the backlash they receive. In 2015, actress Zendaya had to publicly address the racist comments she received from ‘Fashion Police’ host Giuliana Rancic, who stated at the Golden Globes that Zendaya’s dreadlocks looked like they ‘smelled of weed’. Rancic later apologised.

What do people mean when they make these statements? Why do they say it in the first place? These questions have obvious answers if you function on more than half a brain cell.

Gabrielle Union on the red carpet at the AGT quarter finals.

Emma Dabiri, author of Don’t Touch My Hair, stated in an interview for IMAGE magazine that “black hair is treated as almost an allegory for the way black people are treated and perceived”. She added that “a lot of the language that is used to describe black hair – unmanageable, coarse, unruly, defiant – is language used to describe black people, but you can’t say that anymore, so it’s shifted to head height”.  

Criticising and policing black women and men’s hair in the workplace is an unsubtle attempt to police them as a black person. As a human. Their hair holds no relevance to their capability and competence as an employee, but is instead a mere racist tool to confine them and oppress them into a position of little power. It works to belittle them and make them feel inferior, in order to never be challenged by them. 

Policing black women, and people of colour in general, when they challenge racism is another ongoing issue. Especially on social media. Instagram recently suspended writer, actor and mum Kelechi Okafor following her challenging and confronting now-disgraced mum-fluencer Clemmie Hooper, who she accused of horrific racism and racist targeting. Instagram later reinstated the profile, but only after receiving large amounts of criticism and a widespread backlash for its actions.

In its original piece, Variety also reported on the general lack of respectability, inclusivity and racism that the staff of AGT’s set are alleged to suffer from. The magazine reports that late night host Jay Leno made the comment – while being recorded as a guest judge – that a painting of dogs on display looked like “something you would find on the menu of a Korean restaurant”. This is a comment that he intelligently thought to make in front of one of the very few Asian staffers. It was Union who allegedly urged producers to report the incident to HR, and pressed for executives to understand the issues with the comment and offense it would cause. However, Variety states the report never reached HR.  

Gabrielle Union was allegedly told her hair was "too black" for American TV.
Gabrielle Union was allegedly told her hair was "too black" for American TV.

Instead, the line was merely cut from the episode when it aired on 6 August. This is simply not enough – just cutting the scene is a band-aid reaction to an incredibly deep rooted issue. Why was Leno not being held accountable for his alleged comment? The show’s HR should have been working to provide safe, non-toxic spaces where they would work with people who are conscious enough to understand why alleged comments such as these are unacceptable and racist.

A note to all employers: simply hiring a handful of black, brown and ethnic minorities within your staff is not enough. You are simply using them as a window display of diversity. As incredible as Union was to allegedly challenge AGT’s racism and insensitivity, the emotional labour is not – and never should be – only hers to bear and challenge

Vulture reports that Union was allegedly dismissed after Simon Cowell and other executives deemed her ‘difficult’ to work with, after what she alleged raised very real concerns regarding the alleged racism of the staff. You cannot offer a black woman a seat at the table while simultaneously denying them the right to say anything at said table.

While Union has, at the time of writing, not commented on the allegations, NBC and series producers Fremantle issued the following statement: “America’s Got Talent has a long history of inclusivity and diversity in both our talent and the acts championed by the show. The judging and host line-up has been regularly refreshed over the years and that is one of the reasons for AGT’s enduring popularity. NBC and the producers take any issues on set seriously.”

gabrielle union agt

Diana Young, founder of the digital marketing consultancy WeSocialis has previously addressed the issues that Union is alleged to have faced. Writing in iNews, she said that when it comes to black people working within elite white professions, “survival comes to mind”. Young states that these workplaces can feel “intimidating, unfriendly, or unreceptive”. When interviewing or meeting with potential clients, she has found herself having to clarify that she is the business owner and not, as she puts it, “an underling sent on their behalf”.

Young says she was even instructed by white clients to “not collaborate with black influencers or ‘people who didn’t look like them’ despite these people fitting their target audience”. 

That is not how diversity works. But for some exhausting reason, we are still here discussing why this is an issue. If it wasn’t so incredibly dangerous and detrimental to black people, and BAME people in general, it would almost be funny. But I have long since stopped finding white men funny.

Industries are setting black and brown people up for failure, and doing so with their whole chest because they believe their work begins and ends with simply hiring them. If high profile black and brown people with a public platform, such as Union and Munchetty, cannot challenge and combat racism without facing severe reprimanding and dismissal of their contracts, then what hope is there for younger black and brown individuals wanting to address systemic racism within their workplace? And how can we ever truly make a difference?

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Images: Getty