Last week, news surfaced that Gabrielle Union was fired from NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Union signed a three-year contract with the show as one of the judges, but was let go after just one year. Entertainment writer B. Scott first reported that Union was fired over bringing up racism on set to higher-ups. That was ultimately confirmed by multiple outlets, and then by her husband Dwayne Wade, who took to Twitter to comment on the matter.
“Over this past year I’ve been approached by many people saying that my wife @itsgabrielleu is the main reason they’ve started watching #AGT or that they love her insight and sincerity on the show,” Wade wrote. “So when I got the news that my wife was being fired—my first question was obviously why!? I am still waiting on a good answer to that question.”
The racism that Union reported allegedly included her urging producers to report a joke delivered by Jay Leno about Korean restaurants. According to Variety, several people on set were uncomfortable with the joke, and it was ultimately cut from the aired show, though it was never reported to NBC’s human resources department. That incident was reportedly part of a larger problem of “toxic culture” at the show, according to a report by Variety.
Leno himself responded to the situation over the weekend, when TMZ stopped him as he was leaving a restaurant. His statement did little in regards to improving his image in the situation. He didn’t acknowledge or respond to any questions he was asked about the joke in question. When asked about Union’s exit from the show, Leno responded: “I love Gabrielle Union. She's a great girl. I really enjoyed working with her. She's really good."
When asked if he thought Union was treated fairly, he claimed ignorance. " I don't know…but I think she's a great girl,” Leno said.
Leno’s decision to infantilize Union as a response to a story that implicates him in the telling a racist joke that at least contributed to a Black woman losing her job lends credibility to the allegations that AGT is a toxic work environment. Union’s not a girl, she’s a grown woman — though according to former hosts of the show, the fact that she wasn’t young might have contributed to AGT treating her as easily replaceable.
Howard Stern, who was a host on AGT for four years, accused Simon Cowell of “orchestrating” Union’s departure. “He sets it up that the men stay, no matter how ugly they are, no matter how old they are, no matter how fat they are, no matter how talentless they are,” Stern said on his radio show.
The largest union for performers, SAG-AFTRA, announced they were opening an investigation into the matter. “We take issues of workplace health and safety very seriously. We immediately reached out to Ms. Union’s representatives when these reports came to light,” SAG-AFTRA’s statement reads.” Our enforcement action is usually handled confidentially to protect the member involved, and we typically do not publicize these matters unless the member requests that we do so.”
Beyond support from her husband and SAG-AFTRA, Time’s Up also released a statement in support. Celebrities like Ariana Grande have all spoken out in support of Union, who has responded to the entire incident with grace on social media.
“So many tears, so much gratitude,” Union wrote. “THANK YOU! Just when you feel lost, adrift, alone... you got me up off the ground. Humbled and thankful, forever.”