‘Justice For All’ At the Risk Of Being Blackballed?; Black Socialites Discuss Being Ostracized

By Alysha Conner 

Actress Gabrielle Union recently reached a settlement agreement with NBCUniversal to resolve allegations of racism and sexism on the set of “America’s Got Talent.” 

“We’ve reached an amicable resolution,” NBC and Union’s spokespeople said in a joint statement on Sept. 29. 

“NBC Entertainment appreciates the important concerns raised by Gabrielle Union and remains committed to ensuring an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds can be treated with respect.”

In a 2019 Variety Magazine interview, Union described the network’s TV show “America’s Got Talent” as a toxic work environment.

At the time, Union had been recently let go from the production as a judge. 

AMERICA’S GOT TALENT — “Auditions 4” Episode 1404
Pictured: (l-r) Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Terry Crews, Julianne Hough, Simon Cowell (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

“It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered,” Union told Variety. “I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed. I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to.”

Union filed a complaint in June against “America’s Got Talent” (AGT) with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The actress claimed to have encountered and witnessed racist and inappropriate behavior while working as a judge for the show.

Sources shared an incident during a season 14 audition taping, where Union and other staffers expressed concerns over a white male contestant performing in blackface.

Blackface has been used by white performers for over 200 years to mock African-Americans in the media.

The competitor’s gimmick involved rapid costume changes and impersonations of a multitude of famous singers. One of the contestant’s quick changes involved a guise of Beyoncé Knowles. 

 “At the very beginning of his act, he put on black gloves to [represent] a black performer,” Union said. 

Union mentioned the controversy behind the contestant’s act to the show’s producers prior to his performance.

However, he was allowed to proceed and audition before the judges and audience, without repercussions. 

“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,” she said to Variety Magazine. 

Union’s comment was referring to former AGT judge Julianne Hough’s photograph at a 2013 Halloween party. 

Hough darkened her skin to imitate Nigerian-American actress Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black.”

“I’d like to trust her at her word that she learned her lesson, and has educated herself amid the consequences she faced and is hopefully a better person,” Union said. 

“But you would think that perhaps the show and NBC might be more conscientious in exposing that, and it would be taken seriously. I took it seriously.”

Hough has not responded to Union’s remarks.

It was reported that both women were subjected to “excessive notes on their physical appearance” throughout their experience at AGT.

Union was told her hairstyles were “too black” for the show’s audience.

Several people expressed their solidarity with Union by taking part in the #BlackHairChallenge on Twitter to highlight and celebrate black hair’s versatility.

(Courtesy of Gabrielle Union’s Twitter Account)

Union also claimed to address complaints to the producers about AGT judge Simon Cowell smoking cigarettes on their indoor set. 

According to Union, Cowell’s smoking triggered her smoke allergy and caused her to feel sick for months.

“These racist institutions and systems have done an amazing job at keeping us very fearful of speaking up, asking for equality and asking for accountability, because they have shown us time and time again that we are disposable,” Union told Variety Magazine. “They will discredit and malign you, and you will never work again.”

“Being blackballed in this industry is very real,” she added.

During Howard University’s 2018 Commencement Ceremony, the late Chadwick Boseman discussed an encounter similar to Union in his speech.  

Boseman discussed the trials he overcame when advocating for a less “stereotypical” character portrayal for a previous soap opera gig.

(Courtesy of Howard University)

He explained that he was conflicted perpetrating the role of a fatherless Black boy’s upbringing with a drug addict mother. 

So, Boseman voiced his concerns to the executives of the show.

“I decided to ask them some simple questions about the background of my character,” Boseman said. “Questions that I felt were pertinent to the plot. Question number one.’ Where is my father?'”

“The executive answered, ‘Well, he left when you were younger, of course.'” 

(Courtesy of Howard University)

“Question number two,” Boseman continued. “In this script, it alluded to my mother not being equipped to operate as a good parent. So, why exactly would my little brother and I have to go into foster care?'”

“He answered, ‘Well, of course, she’s on heroin.'”

Boseman said the executives would allow him to share his suggestions for the character with the scriptwriters.

And when parting, one of the executives told him, “Thank you for your concerns. We’ll be watching you.”

The next day, his agents told him that the executives “decided to go another way.”

“The questions that I asked set the producers on guard, and perhaps paved the way for a less stereotypical portrayal for the Black actor that stepped into the role after me,” Boseman said.

“As the scripture says, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”

Boseman also implied that he was blacklisted after asking for the adjustments to his character. 

(Courtesy of Howard University)

“My agents at the time told me it might be a while before I got a job acting on screen again,” Boseman said. 

“Before you know it, you’re broke, and you find yourself scraping together change, just so you can ride the subway and get the next job. And maybe if you can book something else, that would eclipse the feeling of doubt that’s building. But it seems like you can’t pay them to hire you now.”

Boseman proceeded to ask his agents if he was blacklisted directly.

According to Boseman, their response was, “Well, we’re hesitant about sending you out to some people right now because there’s a stigma that you’re difficult.” 

Furthermore, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick is facing a similar situation right now. 

A team has not picked up Kaepernick since opting out of his contract in March 2016.  

Kaepernick notoriously kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to protest against police brutality and racial injustice.

(Photo Credits Unknown)

Changes were ultimately made to the policy on the National Anthem in 2018, following the start of league-wide protests.

The adjusted 2018 policy states, “All league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.”

Players wearing BLM warmups knelt and locked arms in a demonstration, technically, violating the league’s rules requiring everyone to stand for the National Anthem.
(Photo by: NBAE via Getty Images)

Kapernick settled with the NFL in 2019 for claims regarding the league preventing him from playing after choosingto kneel during the national anthem. 

He has not publicly said anything about being personally blacklisted. 

However, Kapernick suggested that the league is still blackballing his former teammate Eric Reid on Twitter  Sept. 13.

(Courtesy of Colin Kaepernick’s Twitter Account)

Reid played for the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and 2019. He is currently still a free agent. 

Several Black public figures have historically continued the marathon for racial justice by using their platform to stand up ‘by any means necessary.’

However, in doing so, testimonials have shown that it could presumably lead to being blackballed or worse. 

Nevertheless, it is a risk that Black celebrities like Union, Boseman, Kaepernick, and many others have been willing to take.

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