OPINION: We’ve all been Gabrielle Union and we have her back
Guess what, it's ok to stop and ask for help or accept it when it's offered.
“Lord, you KNOW I’m tryin… whew and breathe. Support is everything.”—Gabrielle Union Wade
This was the Instagram caption that introduced me to the controversy swirling around the abrupt firing of actress, author, advocate, mom, designer, producer and entrepreneur Gabrielle Union from her role as a judge on the popular competition show, America’s Got Talent.
I admit that I somehow missed it all the days before. But, even without context, this caption, combined with the picture of Union, eyes closed, looking beautiful-yet-exhausted, laid back on her husband’s shoulder with him kissing her lovingly on her forehead, immediately felt familiar. As a Black woman, I knew, some bullshit had just gone down.
“Now what?” is what I said out loud.
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And, I was right. Some bullshit, all too familiar bullshit, had definitely gone down.
You can do a Google search and find any number of outlets reporting on Union’s recent dismissal from NBCUniversal’s AGT, which seems wholly unfair and straight-up messy. A dismissal — which was first reported on the blog, lovebscott.com that appears, from the outside, to have been a punitive act against a talented, more than capable, courageous Black woman, who called out racism, sexism and other problematic issues at the workplace and rightfully stood up for herself and for others.
On top of that, Union was a fan favorite! Variety reported that she was the most popular judge on America’s Got Talent stating, “The 18-episode season that wrapped in September generated 25 million social media impressions, approximately half of which engaged directly with Union, according to figures from Nielsen Social, effectively making her the most popular judge.”
It didn’t matter though. To us, she’s a hero; to them, she’s difficult. (And to Jay Leno, she’s a “great girl,” a perhaps unknowingly condescending choice of words — yet condescending nonetheless — that the comedian made when asked what he thought of Union, who reportedly flagged one of his jokes to the producers of AGT as racist toward the Korean community and requested that they mention it to human resources. They didn’t. Although they did remove the joke from the final airing of the show.
Unfortunately, this is what often happens to Black women in the workplace — whether you’re a celebrity pointing out issues and problematic behavior on a major television show or you’re a manager at your company, trying to keep your head down, and working hard in hopes of proper recognition or a promotion.
The constant barriers, the micro-aggressions, the insensitivity, the questioning of your position or authority, the disregard for your very real concerns and the lack of support in those environments are enough to have any of us laid out, calling on the Lord and needing a gentle kiss on the forehead.
This is why — just as Gabrielle has expressed through her effusive gratitude for the support that she has received since the news broke — support, especially from other women, is crucial. But, for Black women, it’s not always so easy for us to accept.
Glass vs. Concrete
In a 2019 study by Catalyst called “Advancing African-American Women in the Workplace,” there is mention of the “glass ceiling” white women encounter versus the “concrete ceiling” that women of color endure and bang their heads up against every day.
The study found that: “Whereas white women frequently reference the ‘glass ceiling’ as blocking their advancement up the career ladder, women of color often characterize the barriers they encounter as compromising a ‘concrete ceiling’ — one that is denser and less easily shattered. The underpinning of these barriers includes stereotypes, visibility, and scrutiny; questioning of authority and credibility; lack of “fit” in the workplace; double outsider status; and exclusion from informal networks.”
The report goes on to say that, because of this, African-American women in particular sometimes “set boundaries and use ‘guardedness’ in response to work challenges.”
As Black women, I believe we often don’t realize how much we have put our guards up and shielded ourselves from the very support we need to circumvent those concrete ceilings and take the best care of ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally.
I get it, though. Sometimes, we simply don’t trust it. In fact, I’ve found that many of the successful and ambitious Black women I know fear that accepting support, when you’re supposed to be the “strong one” or the “boss,” would be a sign of weakness or incompetence.
Meanwhile, our white counterparts may be celebrated for their collaborations and outreach. So, instead of reaching out and being open to the support that may show up for us, we choose to declare “I got this!” and struggle to handle whatever it is alone in order to prove ourselves. As a result, we end up stressed, anxious, sometimes ill, and often isolated and at a disadvantage.
Tearing the walls down
This adverse reaction to support is something that I didn’t realize was a blindspot for me until I attended a transformative, personal development workshop in 2015 called Momentum. The experience changed my life.
Not asking for support had been a learned behavior for me since childhood — coming from a family of generous folks who were always ready to give to members of our extended family and our community, especially when those individuals were having a hard time. I wrongfully associated this with support because to me it meant you’re having a hard time, you’re helpless and you can’t do it on your own.
Not only did this narrative cause me to not know how to ask for support when I was in need, but it also forced me to repel it even when it was offered, personally nor professionally. This revelation is what led me to create the Support is Sexy podcast and community, a space where I coach unapologetically ambitious women on how to get over what I call “I got it!” Syndrome and realize having it all doesn’t mean doing it all alone.
Because, you know what? A lot of times, you don’t have it and that’s okay! Yes, maybe you’re putting on a brave face and boldly standing up for what’s right and enduring tone-deaf comments about your appearance or other parts of who you are as a Black woman (Gabrielle was reportedly told repeatedly that her hair and changing styles were a problem for the AGT producers.)
Can we be honest? That shit hurts! And we have to make room for those feelings and get support — whether that’s from your girlfriends, your partner, your coach or your therapist. Don’t dismiss it as “small stuff.” It matters.
According to a “Women in the Workplace” report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In, micro-aggressions can have macro impact on us as Black women.
“Although they can seem small in the moment, these negative experiences add up…” the report says. “Women who experience micro-aggressions are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their job than women who have not experienced this form of discrimination.”
Here’s the thing, though. Gabrielle, from what it appears, wasn’t leaving. Even though it was a toxic environment (literally! Hello, Simon Cowell, smoking indoors? Ugh!). Even though the micro-aggressions appeared to be pretty blatant at times. Even though — in spite of her repeated requests — problematic issues around race were not taken to HR no matter how many times she asked, she wasn’t leaving.
Again, from what it seems, she was staying, fighting, doing her job and standing up for herself and others in a workplace environment that clearly did not support her, respect her contribution nor respect her thoughts and feedback. She was doing what a lot of Black women do: be the best you can at your job, no matter how they treat you and stand up for what’s right.
As a result, she was fired for it. And as I know — and every Black woman knows — that had to hurt, no matter how strong you think you are.
This is why, when you look through the comments of Gabrielle’s recent social media posts, you will see an overwhelming number of positive comments, affirmation and praise from thousands of Black women (and allies) showing their support by saying versions of “we got you, we see you, we love you, we’re behind you, we appreciate you, we understand.”
We are Gabrielle.
And, with that knowledge, we must remember — during times like these and always — support is everything.
Elayne Fluker, a business coach + connector for unapologetically ambitious Black women, is host of the Support is Sexy podcast and creator of the Support is Sexy community, where women learn that having it all doesn’t mean doing it all alone.