ET’s Nischelle Turner: ‘The Day I Interviewed Oprah, A White Man Assaulted Me In The Heart of Hollywood’

Nischelle Turner As Told To Lauren Krouse
Photo credit: Amy Sussman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Amy Sussman - Getty Images

From Women's Health

The evening of August 6, 2019, I was on a high. I’d just finished interviewing Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan for my job with Entertainment Tonight, and it’s always a good day when you interview Oprah. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in my fancy new convertible with the top down when a car pulled out of Sunset Gower Studios and cut me off. I had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting it.

I looked up to see two white men giving me the finger. We were both headed for a stoplight and we stopped at the same time. They were in the turning lane and I was in the lane beside them. I looked over and gave them a shoulder shrug like, “Really?” Then, they rolled down the window and started screaming, “F-you! F-you!” At that point, I turned back around, but they kept screaming at me. The guy in the passenger seat opened his car door, leaned out, and spat on my car.

I screamed, “Are you crazy?” Then, the passenger rolled the window down and the driver leaned over and started screaming the n-word over and over again. While I’ve faced various forms of racism and bigotry in my life, that particular incident really slapped me in the face. I was shocked.

Their shouts began to ring in my ears. The passenger got out of the car, leaned over, and spat on me. A crowd had begun to form. I could hear people asking me if I was okay. When one woman shouted, “Are you all right?” out of her SUV window, I snapped out of the haze. The guys in the car took off.

My only thought was that I had to get the license plate number, so I took off after them and started calling 911. After I gave the operator the info I had, they told me to stop following them, so I pulled over. It wasn’t until then that the magnitude and severity of what just happened hit me. I had a massive breakdown on the side of the road, crying and shaking.

That night, I wanted to tear up everything. I had no outlet. A wrong had been done to me. It had dug into my soul, and it was eating away at me. I almost scrubbed my skin raw because I felt so disgusting and dirty.

I want to share my story because many times when these racist incidents happen, people try to explain them away, whether willfully or unconsciously. They say, “we don’t know what happened” because we didn’t see video or a recording of the entire interaction.

Or they try to malign the Black person’s character, as if what they looked like, where they were from, or something that had happened in their past could explain why this happened. It’s a form of gaslighting that people do to make them feel better about not wanting to face a hard truth. But these things happen every day, no matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic status is or where you live. It happened to me when I was thriving in my career as a journalist in Los Angeles, California, arguably one of the most liberal and inclusive places in America.

While many of my friends urged me to speak publicly about this experience, at the time, I decided to let the Los Angeles Police Department do its job and see if justice could prevail. The 911 operators told me that since the men were gone from the area, I would need to file a police report. I went to the Hollywood Community Police Station to do this in person and asked if these men could be charged with a hate crime. The police told me that, because we’d nearly had a traffic collision before the incident, they didn’t think that was a possibility. As they explained it, in order for it to be a hate crime, the men would have had to essentially walk up to me on the street and start screaming the n-word at me. However, since the passenger in the car had assaulted me, the police could pursue a case against him for that.

Several months later, the detective on my case visited my office, asking me to pick out the driver from a photo line-up of men (it would take his participation to identify the passenger who had assaulted me). I will never forget that face—I spotted the driver right away. Unfortunately, he refused to participate. Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, nearly a year later, it doesn’t look as if I’ll have any justice through the legal system.

I’m grateful that I still have the voice to tell this story over and over again, but my Black body hurts for those who do not.

While I don’t condone violence or looting, I absolutely understand the rage behind recent uprisings. When you’ve turned your cheek so many times and you feel like you keep getting slapped on the right and the left, when you’ve had that conversation about fixing your relationship over and over again to no avail, after a while, you’re done. You get to a point where it just breaks you.

I’ve had many conversations about the protests for racial justice going on in our country, and I’ve found so many white people watching all of the recent news on TV have this desire to explain it all away. Just recently, a man working on my house said something along the lines of, “It’s really terrible that man was killed, but look at them burning down all of those businesses.” I wish he and other people expressing these types of sentiments would switch that sentence around: “It’s terrible what’s happening in these neighborhoods, but the killing of Black men has got to stop.”

I understand that it’s very uncomfortable for people to come to terms with the fact that we live in a racist society, that we haven’t overcome those 401 years of oppression since Black folks were brought to this country in bondage, that we’re not in a completely different space and time. Yes, we’ve come a long way, but our lives are still devalued regularly. Racism is alive and well. It’s ingrained, systemic, and institutionalized in our country. Generations of people have built the inequalities and wealth gap we still live with today.

While I haven’t had experiences with racism on the job that are as blatant as what happened to me last year, I have faced microaggressions throughout my career.

Early in my career, when I was working as a reporter in local news, I had the opportunity to audition for a nationally syndicated talk show. Chances like this are few and far between for women in this business and slim to none for Black women. But when I asked my bosses if I could go, they said no—even though other employees had been given permission to pursue similar opportunities.

In a meeting, one of my managers told me, “You should be grateful for what you have.” I’m always grateful, but I have also earned everything that I have gotten. Hearing this, I thought, What is happening here? But of course, I knew what was happening. I’d had plenty of life experiences like this before. After this interaction, I no longer felt comfortable working there and knew I had to keep pressing on. So when the time came to renew my contract, I left.

As a Black woman in the workplace, if you want to have a conversation about something, you’re often viewed as confrontational—a “diva,” an “angry Black woman,” or “difficult.” I’m a no-nonsense person, and I tend to face situations head on. But time after time, I hear, “So-and-so is afraid of talking to you.” Afraid of me? I’m a 5’5” and weigh 130 pounds! What are you afraid of?

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#tbt Cute is not cancelled. 💋

A post shared by Nischelle Turner (@nischelleturner) on Mar 26, 2020 at 1:11pm PDT

These days, I love my job at Entertainment Tonight, and I work with a fantastic team. However, when I first started working there under different management, there was no one in the hair department that knew how to work with ethnic hair.

When I tried to address this situation, it became, “Nischelle doesn’t want anyone to do her hair or touch her hair—she’s asking for something special.” That’s often how microaggressions go: You ask for something that you see as very simple—to be treated equally—yet you’re viewed as “difficult” or “not playing the game.”

I didn’t want special treatment. I just wanted what my other coworkers already had—someone who knew how to work with their hair and make them look beautiful, the way we all want to look when we go on TV. Thankfully, when we got a new management team, they saw this issue as important and it was fixed immediately.

Microaggressions like these may seem small, but they build up into something much bigger. Sometimes, I go home at the end of the day and have a long sigh because it’s tough. As a person of color and a woman, I’m underrepresented in my field, and it’s a battle to feel heard or seen some days.

I don’t want to paint myself as a woman with a chip on her shoulder because I have an amazing career and a great job in a place that I love. I’m deeply grateful for my career and the life it has afforded me. But that does not mean that I am going to stop demanding to be treated the same, paid the same, looked at the same, and promoted the same.

This isn’t just my story. This is what people are talking about when they say that there is institutionalized racism, bigotry, and prejudice in our society. This problem exists throughout corporate America, and you will hear these stories over and over again. Many times, it’s not even conscious—it’s just the way things have been for so long before someone like me shows up.

While I’m just one person and I don’t speak for the entire Black race, for myself and the people that I know, I can say that what we want is a level playing field with true inclusion and diversity. That doesn’t mean one Black person on your staff, executive board, or talent team. It means that we’re all in this thing together, and our businesses and organizations should reflect society by including not only Black people and people of color but also LGBTQ folks as well.

I’m really happy to see so many people standing up and speaking out against racism, but as my grandmother said, “Don’t talk about it. Be about it.” African American people are tired of having this conversation. We’re done studying the issue and putting task forces together because we know the issue. You just have to implement change. While there’s a laundry list of things this country needs to do to advance itself to true inclusion, change starts at the local level. Exercise your right to vote, and put people in office who advance your interests, and take a look at your own life. Surround yourself with people who don’t look like you, worship like you, or love like you.

In the meantime, I want women of color to know that taking care of yourself physically and mentally is imperative right now. Your health and wellness are so important. I practice yoga on a regular basis, for instance. It centers me, and tapping into my breath helps me breathe through a lot of this mess.

There’s so much on our shoulders and it’s heavy, but if my generation can be a catalyst for change and really start to eradicate these social ills in our nation, I’m happy to carry that burden. It’s time.

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