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Gabrielle Union on Inclusion: Let’s ‘Be Decent Humans’

She is the first woman of color to be the All-American Weekend speaker

By Belén Bonilla | 10/22/17 9:33pm | Updated 10/22/17 9:33pm
Marguerite Tucker, Staff Photographer | AU Photo Collective

“I was the girl so committed to assimilation that I would let racist jokes slide.”

Last night, Gabrielle Union spoke these words while standing in her womanhood at the front of Bender Arena, addressing AU students and families on themes of sexual assault and racism in America. After years of healing, fighting and overcoming systems of oppression, the author, activist and actress refuses to let discrimination take its course.

As the first woman of color to serve as the Kennedy Political Union speaker for All-American Weekend in the organization’s 50 year history, Union utilized her platform to speak against the very inequities that isolated her throughout her Hollywood career. Famous for her roles in “Think Like a Man,” “Cradle 2 the Grave” and BET drama series “Being Mary Jane,” Union was upfront about some of the challenges she has faced as a woman of color in white spaces – both in her suburban neighborhood growing up and in the film industry.

“Our blackness was something we had to suppress or get over,” Union said. “But assimilation is a quick ticket to being invisible.”

Navigating Hollywood, the actress found herself asking tough, complex questions about blackness and her identity. At first, she feared being “othered” and “eliminated.” But after years of overcoming stigmas surrounding “good hair” and other narrow Eurocentric scopes of beauty, her advice to audience members looking to make their way into the film industry was crystal clear: “You will be called upon to make a choice and you’ll have to ask yourself – who am I?”

Speaking about her experience as a victim of sexual assault and as a woman of color in the film industry wasn’t something Union was always able to do. With confidence and poise, Union used her unconcealed healing process to speak to allies of traditionally marginalized communities.

“Being a good ally is allowing the person who has experienced the hurt and pain to lead you… everyone comes to healing in their own time,” Union said. “Be decent humans.”

Now, Union openly speaks on her experience, including in her recently released book, “We’re Going to Need More Wine,” of which she provided 400 copies for AU students and families in attendance. In an interview with American Word, Union shared that her commitment to social justice and speaking out against inequities comes, in part, from her mother’s commitment to families as a social worker.

“She decided from very early on that she wanted her girls to have a world perspective and not a town perspective… that upbringing allows me to have a lot more compassion and empathy than I would have had, had I had a different mom,” Union said.

The actress’s strength in coming forward to speak out against injustice last night struck a chord with AU students and families.

“I related a lot to her story,” Amina Niass, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “She put out there her own mistakes as part of her healing process… there’s a lot that she went through to become who she is.”  

In attendance with her family, Jela Lewter, a sophomore in the School of Communication, said that Union’s words were inspiring to her.

“Talking about blackness was really important to me,” Lewter said. “Going to a predominantly white school, it’s really hard sometimes to feel like you fit in, or to find the right people to hang out with… [Union] has found the people she can confide in, so it gives me hope that I can still find those people at AU and make connections that will last me a lifetime.”

But Union’s message wasn’t just for students. She called out the parents, board members and professors in the arena.

“Inclusion isn’t just a seat at the table,” Union said. “Inclusion is people in positions of power actually resembling the global community. As Hollywood has figured out, inclusion is quite lucrative. So I challenge the adults in this room to speak real inclusion.”

The actress reminded audience members that they each have a role in challenging inequities. “As individual voices we can be dismissed,” Union said. “But as a collective, they can’t stop us.”