Gabrielle Union on speaking up for what's right after 'AGT': 'Don't be the happy negro that does the bidding'

Gabrielle Union addressed her firing from America’s Got Talent during an event in New York on Tuesday. The actress spoke about workplace inequality and the challenges black women face in the industry during a panel for her New York & Company holiday collection. She alluded to the controversy surrounding her departure from AGT without mentioning the show by name.

“Don’t be the happy negro that does the bidding of the status quo because you’re afraid. Don’t allow them to call you angry when someone else is called passionate. It’s terrifying. There’s a solid chance you’ll lose your job,” she said per Variety, quipping, “I speak from experience.”

US actress Gabrielle Union poses during a photocall for the TV show "La's finest" as part of the 59th Monte-Carlo Television Festival on June 15, 2019 in Monaco. (Photo by VALERY HACHE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
Gabrielle Union at the 59th Monte-Carlo Television Festival on June 15, 2019 in Monaco. (Photo: VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

Union was fired from the NBC show after she reportedly raised concerns about toxic behavior on set and racially inappropriate situations. One example in a Variety report allegedly involved a joke made by Jay Leno that offended staffers of Asian descent. The Bring It On star also purportedly received notes that her hairstyles were “too black” for AGT’s audience.

Another report from Vulture detailed similar allegations, claiming Union was let go after clashing with Simon Cowell who labeled her “difficult.” While she has not addressed the alleged incidents directly, Union confirmed she had a lengthy, five-hour meeting with the network after controversy surrounding her exit made headlines. While she called the meeting “productive,” it’s unclear what has happened in the days since the sit-down.

“Do your best because corporations want global dollars,” Union said at the Power of Inclusivity and the Women Leading the Charge panel. “Do your best to try to hold the door open and hold people responsible. Yeah, I’m asking you to do the impossible … I’m fully aware that job loss is on the table … but if you’re not doing it, nobody is.”

The 47-year-old actress stressed the importance of looking out for others when discussing how she thinks about personal career decisions.

“How many checks do I need? This financial freedom, they’re shackles, masquerading as zeros in my bank account. … There are a lot of people who are only interested in filling their own plate,” Union continued. “I can’t enjoy my food if everyone else is starving.”

Union shared that she has wrestled with the challenges that come along with speaking up for what’s right ever since she was a little girl.

“Being the chip in the cookie, you are always in this situation where you are seeing things, hearing things … and you’re presented with a choice: What kind of chip am I going to be?” she explained. “Are you going to assimilate and allow all of this to go on? Or are you going to say something and immediately be other-ed? Are you going to say something? You know it’s wrong. Everyone knows it’s wrong.”

Union said she experienced “anxiety, depression, fear and terror” every day because she was burdened with the question: “Am I going to say something?”

“Eventually, I couldn’t sleep. I knew I obsessed about every single time in my life where I didn’t say anything. And it got to the point where I was like, ‘That’s not right!’ And every time I chose to speak up and the world didn’t end and I could speak a little bit better, I knew I was doing the right thing. It just made it so much easier,” she explained. “I’ve got to call it out in real time. But you have to navigate, ‘What will I lose?’ I have to weigh all these things. ‘How much am I willing to lose for the peace?'”

The actress concluded, “As long as I have air in my lungs, I will always try to cover us all and I will certainly try to center the needs of the most marginalized.”

Union has retained legal counsel, Variety notes, as she navigates her grievances with NBC. Cowell has apparently lawyered up as well. NBCUniversal is reportedly investigating Union’s claims, labor code violations like Cowell’s reported habit of smoking indoors and a hostile climate for AGT’s female judges.

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