- In her new book, "We're Going to Need More Wine," Gabrielle Union continues to tackle tough issues, address sexual assault, diversity in Hollywood and more.
Gabrielle Union isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Whether it’s publicly discussing the mental and physical trauma of being raped at 19 or her experiences as a black woman in Hollywood, Union is now just as well known for her activism as her acting career.
Union’s new book, “We’re Going to Need More Wine,” continues to showcase her willingness to tackle deeply personal—but often universal—struggles. Topics broached in the collection of essays include what it was like for her growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, her father’s infidelity, and her marriage to NBA star Dwyane Wade.
Union’s colorful language and honesty make her stories equally relatable and resonant. Earlier this fall, Union spoke to The Crossover about what it’s like to speak out, the emotions that come with discussing sexual assault, and more.
Rohan Nadkarni: Were you always comfortable speaking out against racism and sexism or issues like that? Or was that something that came to you more recently?
Gabrielle Union: When I was younger, and I was so firmly committed to assimilation, no, I never talked about racism, because that would make me “other.” And then they would know I was black. Not that they didn’t Black Nicky behind my back. But in my mind, it was like, "I’ve got to be quiet, I’ve got to let these racist jokes fly, I’ve got to ignore some of my friends' racist parents. I have to get along just to go along." And then when I was raped at 19, the fear of being found out, not that I was raped, but that something bad had happened to me, just when I was so firmly committed to fitting in, again, things that could identify me as “other.” Highlighting injustice and oppression will definitely make you “other.” Being terrified of that as a younger person, I just never did it. One of the biggest influences that got me more vocal was an African-American studies class at UCLA, when I became more familiar with black authors and black activism. I was surrounded by these brilliant minds from all walks of life who were encouraging me to have pride in myself. To have pride in my voice. The more I educated myself, the more I realized assimilation is just a path to being invisible and complacent. I began to reject it.
When I got into Hollywood, there was a moment where I had just been asked one time too many about who was the best kisser that I’ve worked with. And I was like, I’m on a show that’s dealing with a serial rapist, so I could actually talk about my own sexual assault, and perhaps offer some education and insight and help enable people to have more empathy or sympathy for their loved ones and even themselves. I took that first opportunity for the cover of Savoy magazine, which is now defunct. It was my first cover story when I was doing City of Angels, and it was the first time I talked about being raped. And every day, to this day, it’s been 25 years since I’ve been raped, I still get nauseous. I still want to puke. My arm still goes numb. I still have massive anxiety attacks. It’s never gotten easier. But every time I talk about it, it feels like a revelation to people. They’re always shocked. And it’s always followed by, “me too.” “It happened to me too.” “It happened to me too.” And just knowing that I’m providing a sense of connectedness for so many people who’ve suffered in silence, it’s enough to keep me going. When I talk about my journey, and my evolving consciousness, and being more of an activist, people are like, "Thank you. I’ve always felt like I’m screaming into a hurricane and it’s nice to know that other people feel the same.” Other parents raising children in predominantly white communities that struggle and that sense of isolation—who are you going to talk to about this that’s going to understand? Every time we tell these stories, people are saying “thank you.” It’s been a process. I’m not going to say it’s been an easy process by any sense of the imagination, but it’s always worthwhile every time I talk, so I just keep talking.
RN: What were the emotions you felt the first time you discussed your rape publicly? How did you find the strength to overcome those emotions?
GU: Terror. It feels like terror in my body, that time and every time. I suffer from post-traumatic stress. When people are like, “trigger warning,” my life is a trigger warning. Smells. Sights. There’s so many things that can trigger an anxiety attack. But my annoyance at getting asked dumb questions supersedes that. My annoyance like, God, they ask so many stupid-ass questions but I could actually be talking about things that could help someone else or get them on the path of healing overrides it. It doesn’t mean I experience [terror] any less. It just means I feel like I have a greater purpose. If I have to suffer for a small amount of time so other people can feel a sense of community I will do that every time. And luckily I have access to great mental health, and I have a great support system. Every time I speak I am supported. And I recognize that is a huge privilege that a lot of people are not afforded.
RN: How did it affect you mentally before you were comfortable speaking out? How did it make you feel to have to suppress those thoughts?
GU: Rage and resentment. A lot of rage and resentment. And I thought it was just me, but then you talk to other people who deal with the same thing in there work environment, or in school, or in their community. When you tell racist or sexist or homophobic or just evil jokes at someone’s expense, there is someone sitting near you who that is so angry they want to sock you in the freaking mouth. It might not happen today, but if you get socked in the mouth, don’t be surprised because you’re evil and you eventually pay a price.
The sense of rage and resentment, it affects how I view my childhood. To some it would seem amazing and idyllic. And in some senses it was. Your parents made a certain amount of money and you lived in a planned city with a greenbelt and everyone had bikes and cars at 16. But I was angry. And I was isolated. And I was very resentful. And it was just bubbling inside of me. And people are like, “Do you ever go back?” And I’m like, “Go back to what?” I’m so angry. There’s no acknowledgement of oppression people were put through.
RN: As you’ve gotten more successful, do you feel like there are more opportunities for black women in Hollywood? Or do you feel like you’re still pushing up against a glass ceiling?
GU: A little bit of both. On the acting side, what has been proven time and time again, and it always has, is that real inclusion, actually showing all different kinds of people, having real diversity be reflected on screen, actually makes dollars and cents and people are finally catching up. So there are more opportunities than there have ever been. I am in more demand in my 40s than I ever was in my 20s. Financially, it’s been much more lucrative now than in my 20s and 30s, which is the opposite of what they tell you. But I’m still reaping the benefits—and I don’t know if it’s the public shame that networks and studios are facing, or they actually realize the importance of inclusion.
But where I do face a ceiling is on the other side of the camera. I’m producing more, and the lack of diversity and real inclusion behind the camera, in the decision-making positions, is stark. And it’s still quite difficult to get things made. It’s still quite difficult to increase diversity with directors, or in the executive ranks, or in the heads of studios. You still see it look the same as it always has. That is the next phase of where we need to see real change that actually reflects the demographics of the world.
RN: So we have to sneak in one sports question here, and there’s an obvious tie-in for us. You reacted on Twitter when SI ranked Dwyane Wade at No. 77 on our Top 100 list. Where did you actually think he should be placed?
GU: Realistically, he’s No. 1 in my heart and No. 1 in our household. When you actually look at, 77 on your list, he’s not on other lists, Lonzo Ball who’s never played a game is ahead of Melo on another. I get that these lists are clickbait. I get it. Everyone has a job to do. Everyone has to earn their paycheck. You have to get creative. A lot of these rankings are about stirring up controversy and hoping to get a rise out of players. But at the end of the day, when you look at who teams max out, and where guys rank, using the example of Utah last year in the playoffs, when their season was on the line, did they go to the guy who was ranked high or who they paid all the money to? Who got the ball in crunch time?
RN: Joe Johnson!
GU: Exactly. And where is Joe on that list? Again. I get it. I get we all got to earn our paycheck. But I think the proof is in the pudding. As guys get older, and their minutes go down, and their averages go down, there’s this idea that they are no longer competent. They are no longer good at what they do. They are no longer working as hard. But again, when the game is on the line, when the season is on the line, who do they trust? So if there’s a Who Do You Trust in Crunch Time list, I would be very curious to see that list. Because I don’t think it’s going to match who gets paid the most or who’s ranked the highest.