Simon Cowell Responds to Gabrielle Union

December 2, 2019, 6:03 PM UTC

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Add another credit to Gabrielle Union’s already impressive resume: workplace advocate.

The actress and author was new to the unscripted variety show, now in its 14th season, when she heard a racist joke on set and asked for it to be reported to human resources. Unfortunately, the joke was from guest judge Jay Leno. According to exclusive reporting from entertainment-turned-leadership magazine Variety, “Her argument was that production needed to understand why the joke might offend the staff and audience of ‘AGT.'” 

The joke was ultimately removed from the show, but the issue never reached senior leaders.

Union, who was cut from the show after one season, was also “subjected to a very specific critique—that her rotating hair styles were ‘too black’ for the audience of ‘AGT,’ a note she received over half a dozen times,” reports Variety. Union had also critiqued the racial insensitivity of certain performers and was ignored.

Yesterday, she finally got a response. 

Simon Cowell’s production company, Syco Entertainment, released a joint statement with NBC, along with British television company Fremantle. “We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture.” 

“We are working with Ms. Union through her representatives to hear more about her concerns, following which we will take whatever next steps may be appropriate.”

Her representatives now include her union. 

Following the NBC joint statement, SAG-AFTRA weighed in. “We take issues of workplace health and safety very seriously,” said the statement.  “While we have taken steps to investigate this matter, we have nothing to report now.”

Union has not commented publicly yet, but longtime fans know what will happen when she does.

In a prescient must-read interview in Harper’s Bazaar from 2016, culture writer Rebecca Carroll tells you in the first opening paragraphs what to expect from the profile, and from Union:

“Gabrielle Union will let you know. She is going to go right ahead and tell you about the ‘bullshit’ that comes along with being a black woman in Hollywood: ‘That sense of being hyper-visible or invisible on sets,’ says Union, voicing what many black women feel in our lives and work on a daily basis, but that is perhaps somewhat more heightened in the arrantly white industry of commercial film and television. She’s kind of over it, actually. ‘When do you stand up and point out every micro-aggression, and when do you stand down so you’re not the angry black person all the time? It’s tiring. It feels like another job that you’re not getting paid for—that is all encompassing.’”

Gabrielle Union is kind of over it, actually, and she has plenty of company.

Consider the breakout success of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table by author, educator, and consultant Minda Harts. 

The book has become a go-to resource for Black women, and a crash course in cross-cultural understanding for anyone who manages a diverse team. Harts spent the better part of 2019 crisscrossing the country convening Black women to talk about what holds them back at work. At every stop, she found herself surrounded by Gabrielle Unions of every age and at every stage in their careers.

“While on book tour, I traveled to 26 cities, and in every state, I heard stories of Black women being discriminated against due to their hairstyles to the simple usage of their government names,” Harts tells raceAhead by email. “And whenever they tried speaking out on those workplace inequalities, they were met with opposition.”  

Last September, I interviewed Harts in an intimate event at the Kranzberg Arts Center in Saint Louis, in an event organized by Left Bank Books, an independent bookstore and local treasure. 

In an emotional back-and-forth, I asked the nearly 50 women who attended what work was like for them. They called out a list that will sound familiar to many: Worn down by microaggressions. Held to a different professional standard. Contributions ignored. Tired from having to represent an entire demographic. Lonely. No path for advancement. Unable to speak productively with their managers. One young woman had relocated to the city the year before to join a big firm for her dream job, only to realize her mistake. She cited all of the above. “It’s not going to get better so I’m going back home,” she said. “I’ll be losing a lot of money but it’s not worth it.”

Harts says it didn’t surprise her. “Many of the women I met were just like her, uncertain how long they would last due to the lack of cultural competency by those companies and their colleagues,” she says. Corporate jobs, non-profit jobs, academic jobs, the stories were all the same. “It’s unfortunate to hear what Gabrielle Union went through, and it hit home because we know exactly what she is experiencing because that’s our experience too.”

Ellen McGirt


On Point

Speaking of Gabrielle Union… Union’s husband, former Miami Heat player Dwayne Wade, was also in the news for defending a pair of holiday photos that Union has posted on Instagram. The photos in question showed their second-youngest child, a son named Zion, wearing a crop top and long nails. "I’ve seen some post-thanksgiving hate on social about my family photo," Wade tweeted. "Stupidity is apart of this world we live in—so i get it. But here’s the thing—I’ve been chosen to lead my family not y’all. So we will continue to be us and support each other with pride, love & a smile!" The response brought out as many allies as haters.

Report: Disabled workers in London face biggest wage gap Workers with disabilities earn 15.3% less, on average, then their non-disabled peers. The pay gap tended to be wider for men, and people with cognitive or mental disabilities earned 18.6% less than their peers. You can find the entire report and methodology here.

Public libraries in San Diego eliminate fines to help their low-income patrons Thirty dollars may not seem like much, but it was enough to keep Diana Ramirez from checking out books throughout all of her high school years and beyond. "I felt disappointed in myself because I wasn't able to check out books," Ramirez said. "I wasn't able to use the computers for doing my homework or filling out job applications. I didn't own a computer, so the library was my only option to access a computer." Ramirez is one of 130,000 people whose debts have been erased. It turns out that half of the blocked patrons with late fees lived in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. There is a call now to eliminate fees across the country, calling them "a form of social inequity."

New Trump administration rule changes could eliminate SNAP benefits for millions If implemented, experts say that a million people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, most popularly known as SNAP or food stamps, could become food insecure. The FDA estimates that the changes would save $4.2 billion. The new rules create stricter work requirements, cap deductions for utility allowances, and change the way families that receive other federal benefits are enrolled in the program. Craig Gundersen, an agricultural and consumer economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has dire predictions if the changes are approved. "The essential goal of the program is to mitigate hunger and its consequences in the United States," he said.
NBC News

On Background

Saying goodbye to Riri Williams, for now The latest series featuring Marvel fan favorite Ironheart, a 15-year-old engineering student, MIT whiz kid, and Iron Man protégé, is coming to an end. It was the character’s first solo series, and her narrative arc had been entrusted to the poet, writer, educator, artist, and Chicago champion, Eve L. Ewing. "Ewing writes Riri as a smart-mouthed teenager with a chip on her shoulder that she wants to shake off, but can’t," explains The Beat, in this staff post. "It’s sad to see this series end… [It] feels grounded and real, even with the mythical elements, which is quite a feat."
Comics Beat

This career brought to you by domestic help Work/life balance for Black women is a whole different ballgame, reminds Kimberly Seals Allers. Even asking for support is fraught. "Women of color don’t have the luxury of being perceived as weak or taking their foot off the corporate ladder rung for one minute," she reports. It’s worth revisiting this short TED talk from Ai-Jen Poo, an activist and founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates for the millions of women who care for our homes and the people inside of them, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. This work has almost always been done by women, mostly of color, who are treated as unskilled “help,” largely invisible and undervalued. “They earn poverty wages without a safety net, so that the women that we're counting on to take care of us and our families can't take care of their own, doing this work.” She dives into the legislative solutions that can help, and makes clear why “the help” needs our help. And in an extraordinary twist, it shows how domestic workers, when organized, are able to band together to help others in amazing ways.

A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Allison Joyce—Getty Images

Healing Rohingya kids through play Last year, an innovative program was adapted for use in a refugee camp in Bangladesh housing 902,984 Rohingya Muslims. BRAC, the world’s largest NGO is bringing “play labs” to the camp, which brings play, music and joy, albeit for a few hours a day, to kids who have witnessed the worst violence imaginable. For kids living in refugee camps, cramped, impoverished, and filled with traumatized people, the play labs offer a daily respite from the pain. The play lab projects were piloted in Tanzania, Uganda, and Bangladesh, there are some 513 in use and the concept is being adapted for humanitarian crisis settings. The labs offer a loose curriculum that help kids prepare for school. But it’s really about restoring their humanity. “I try to take their pain away through play,” says one play leader. It’s not a solution, but it’s a healing balm for shattered kids and families.

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.


"Those who move with courage... make the path for those who live with fear."

Riri Williams


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