Like Gabrielle Union, I Was Fired For Being A 'Difficult' Woman

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

When the news broke about Gabrielle Union’s firing from America’s Got Talent, it was surprising. She’s a great judge and people love her. When the real reasons for her firing were revealed, however, I wasn’t surprised anymore. Black women often face repercussions for standing up for themselves. If you speak up, you’re immediately “difficult.” This isn’t new, but it’s great that we’re finally talking about it.

For those who may not know, Gabrielle Union was fired for pointing out racist situations on the AGT set and asking Simon Cowell to stop smoking indoors. Simon Cowell smoking indoors is actually illegal, but because he’s a rich white man, everyone looks the other way. Union was also criticized for her hair. This kind of “casual” racism on set is actually a very big deal. Union wasn’t being a “difficult” woman for simply asking people to not be racist.

Several years ago, I was a receptionist at a well-known, upscale hair salon. I was the only black woman in my position.

Black women generally have no trouble speaking up when necessary. We understand that the only way to make things better is to call attention to problems. However, we’re the ones most frequently punished for advocating for ourselves.

Several years ago, I was a receptionist at a well-known, upscale hair salon. At the time, they were up and coming, and I was excited to get in on the ground floor. It’s worth noting that I was the only black woman in my position, and there was only one other black woman working in an upper management position at the time. From the minute I was hired, I gave that job my all. I believed in the company so much that I never thought twice about sacrificing my mental health for the job.

I quickly learned that what most people respect about me made me “difficult” to upper management. I’m friendly and go out of my way to help people as much as I can. On the flip side, I don’t allow people to disrespect me and my people. The company’s culture, I quickly learned, was “the customer is always right, even at the expense of our employees.” Even if the customer is degrading. That shit is not okay.

The clientele at the location where I worked often acted very entitled. I never considered being branded a difficult woman for telling them “no.” In my mind, I was simply doing my job to the best of my abilities. Clients were abusing the system, and lots of good people were suffering. I had no problem talking about that openly.

There were numerous conversations with my managers about the horrible treatment — not just from the customers, but from upper management as well. We were all working so hard, but it never got us anywhere.

Any time I asked about a promotion, I was told that I wasn’t “friendly” enough. Soon, I began to realize the people getting promoted were the people taking abuse with a smile on their face while asking for more. My unwillingness to compromise my values was standing in the way of my goals. As much as I tried, I couldn’t let anyone treat me like I was inferior to them. If that makes me a “difficult woman,” so be it.

Against my better judgment, I still sought out a promotion. I went overboard to meet their expectations. I gave clients my phone number to reach me if they had issues with their services. On days off, I would fix appointments or help coworkers troubleshoot the system. I was coming home from work stressed and exhausted. None of my efforts mattered — I was already branded as difficult — especially after one of my coworkers saw a customer email complaining about me.

After a year and a half of giving them my blood, sweat and tears, I was fired. Officially, the reason was “excessive lateness.” My manager didn’t have to tell me the truth; I already knew. Difficult woman strikes again.

One famous black actress being labeled a difficult woman may not change the world. But it might get people to actually pay attention. Gabrielle Union puts a recognizable face on an issue that’s gone on for way too long.

For what’s it worth, I know that much of why I was considered a difficult woman is because I was black. Obviously no one would say it explicitly, but some people certainly alluded to it. During my time there, black women didn’t last very long in the company, mainly because we would talk about all the bullshit we had to deal with pretty openly. I don’t know how much the company culture has changed since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was still the case.

This isn’t an issue with one specific business. This is systemic racism in action, and it is rampant. To this day, I can’t walk by one of their locations without feeling sick to my stomach.

I know Gabrielle Union is telling the truth about her experiences with AGT. In the years since I was fired, I’ve feared speaking too openly about what happened to me, mainly because I didn’t think people would actively listen to me about what happened. A lot of black women have this exact same thought. We know our experiences will be discarded.

In recent years, there has been a push to “believe black women” and listen to black women. Sure, it sounds great, but any professional black woman will tell you it’s bullshit. Everyone is all about believing us and listening to us until we tell an uncomfortable truth. Then all of a sudden we’re just being difficult and angry. There is a big difference between being difficult and trying to get people to do the right thing, or advocating for oneself against injustices.

Seeing the way people are rallying around Gabrielle Union is helpful. Do I think the only reason her story is getting traction is because she has a very public profile? Without a doubt. Honestly, that doesn’t bother me — if that means something positive will come from it. Right now I don’t know if there will be any real traction from this on a larger scale, but I’m hoping it inspires more thought-provoking conversations and growth.

Will this trickle down to the black women in everyday jobs? I would like to believe it will, but I’m also realistic.

One famous black actress getting unjustly fired will not solve our problems, but it might get people to actually pay some attention. Gabrielle Union puts a recognizable face on an issue that’s gone on for way too long. Hopefully, one day people will truly believe black women, and I look forward to it.

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