OPINION: Is Gabrielle Union’s truth really that different from Julianne Hough’s?

This image released by NBC shows celebrity judges (from left) Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and Simon Cowell on the set of “America’s Got Talent” in Los Angeles. Union recently thanked supporters for defending her amid reports she was fired from “America’s Got Talent” after complaining about racism and other issues. TRAE PATTON / NBC VIA AP

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This image released by NBC shows celebrity judges (from left) Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and Simon Cowell on the set of “America’s Got Talent” in Los Angeles. Union recently thanked supporters for defending her amid reports she was fired from “America’s Got Talent” after complaining about racism and other issues. TRAE PATTON / NBC VIA AP

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

That comment by the late Maya Angelou leads this column because of what it says and because, given recent controversy surrounding Gabrielle Union’s and Julianne Hough’s exits from “America’s Got Talent,” it just feels like a good thing to remember.

More than anything, we need to practice it.

Both women were let go as judges from the competition show last month — Union allegedly because she had asked NBC and the show’s producers to address an environment that tolerated racist jokes and remarks, including what she said were multiple notes from producers saying she was wearing her hair “too black” for the show’s audience.

Hough, while congratulating Union for speaking her truth, has denied any toxicity in her former work environment.

Therein lies the problem.

Racism occurs because liberal whites like Hough and even some black women who wield power do not see themselves as prejudiced or interested in domination by coercion, yet as author bell hooks said, “They cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they profess to wish to see eradicated.”

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Susan Peppers-Bates, an associate professor of philosophy and director of the Africana Studies program at Stetson University, said that some white women historically have sold black women out in order to preserve their own racial privilege.

“Julianne Hough’s initial distancing of herself from Union’s comments about the sexist focus on appearance and racial insensitivity on the set and her gushing how much she ‘loved working with the cast, crew and producers’ feels like her throwing Union under the bus to keep favor with the prominent white men running NBC, who she looks forward to continue working with: The temptation of currying favor outweighed the call to sisterhood here.”

Peppers-Bates pointed to a split that goes back a few centuries.

“No black women were invited to attend the famous 1848 Seneca Falls suffragist meeting headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,” she said. “Even today telling the history of women’s suffrage, too many feminists leave out amazing black women activists such as Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells.”

In fact, she said, first and second wave feminism pushed forward a largely white, middle-class women’s set of issues.

“The intersectional feminist movement begun by the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s has reached fruition thanks to activists and scholars such as Tarana Burke, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, among many others,” Peppers-Bates said. “As a professor at a small liberal arts college, I have observed white women students remain silent when white men who deny the reality of explicit or implicit racial bias in American society attack women of color for sharing their experiences of gendered racism and white mansplained an alternate reality where they are the real victims of inequality. I have observed sororities that are 99% white react with hostility to the establishment of a historically black sorority on campus.”

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But she said she has also witnessed moments of solidarity and concern among women across racial lines within her classroom, where students feel safer to open up.

Adria Goldman, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia’s University of Mary Washington who has done research on popular culture and representations of black women, said the issue isn’t as simple as it may seem.

It is so important and complex, she said, it deserves a lot more conversation, research and open reflection than a single news column can give it.

For starters, Goldman said, we must recognize the differences that exist between white women and black women, and other women of color because frankly we are not all the same.

“Failure to recognize this prevents progress and true support for and from each other,” she said. “In everything we consider — feminism, beauty standards, expressions of emotion, for example — there are different considerations for white women and black women.”

Take for instance, she said, alleged reports that Gabrielle Union was called “difficult” on set.

“That’s not just a word for a black woman,” Goldman said. “That’s a new way of explaining the angry black woman — the sapphire, the bitch — the trope that keeps following black women. While white women have dealt with stereotypes of being ‘overly emotional,’ black women have dealt with the burden of being unexplainably angry.”

Don’t I know it.

To understand their experiences, Goldman said, you have to consider how those experiences intersect with oppression.

“We can’t just operate under the umbrella of ‘women’s issues,’” she said. “While white women may deal with oppression as a woman, black women deal with oppression as a ‘double minority’ due to her sex and race.”

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Recognizing these differences can help us support each other, Goldman said, but we also have to acknowledge their privilege and put it to work.

“One may likely assume Julianne Hough’s reactions, or lack thereof, are strategic and an attempt to appease her fans and her working relationship with NBC. Furthermore, to some, racism isn’t ‘her issue,’” Goldman said. “As Julianne mentions in her reply, Gabrielle shared her truth. But (‘Grey’s Anatomy’ star) Ellen Pompeo expressed it nicely in her social media post calling white women to task and realizing that an issue of injustice is their issue — regardless of the target. There could be great power in Julianne sharing her truth and supporting Gabrielle. As a white woman, she has privilege.”

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The downside to that, of course, is “fans of patriarchy eat this up — you have groups of women divided, feeling as if one group can’t help the other without risking their own success in the struggle.”

The problem, as I see it, is centered around the mistaken comparison of racism with sexism. When we do that, the role race plays in the lives of blacks almost always becomes less important compared to concerns whites may have.

But there is hope, and it comes down to simply asking how would that make me feel.

“Ask yourself how something impacts a person’s well-being. Perceptions from others? Own self-concept? Opportunities in the workplace? News coverage?” Goldman said. “In doing so, we can learn about others’ struggles and ways we can help each other.”

We also must recognize, she said, that this isn’t a “women’s issue” and instead help all women by considering the unique elements of their cultural identity and how those elements impact their experiences.

“We need to openly discuss privilege and how it can be used to benefit others, not just those already in positions of power,” Goldman said. “And of course, we have to be willing to speak up and against popular opinion — even when we don’t feel directly affected by an injustice. This isn’t a magical Band-Aid that will fix the problem, but these steps are a crucial start to the conversation.”

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