Gabrielle Union on Learning to Speak Out After Her Rape
Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.) Here, actress Gabrielle Union talks about getting the courage to speak her mind.
When I was younger, I was always trying to be a good girl. I didn’t ruffle feathers or question authority. I was very polite, even when faced with the worst kind of disrespect. I swallowed my anger when classmates asked me to do Buckwheat impressions or when friends’ parents told racist jokes in front of me.
I wanted to be visible in only the “right” kind of way through achievement in school, sports, or community endeavors, never through speaking my mind. Because calling anything out meant I’d be one of those kinds of black people: aggressive, threatening, and scary. Good-girl expectations froze me into silence in the face of hostility or crappy behavior.
I learned to speak out once I became a rape survivor. In 1992, the summer after my freshman year of college, I was raped at gunpoint at my part-time job. And afterward the thing I was most afraid of was people thinking I was damaged, somehow less than perfect, even though I was the victim of a crime. I wanted to glide under the radar and magically heal on my own. I kept up a façade.
But as I got older, I started letting go of the myth of the good girl little by little. I realized the world legit does not stop spinning because I made a decision or I said no or I held somebody accountable or I broke up with a friend or I ended a marriage.
In 2000, when I was in my 20s, I had a role on City of Angels, a medical drama, and there was an episode where a serial rapist was loose in the hospital. It was close enough to my own experience that I knew I had to tell the producers. And around that time I got my first magazine cover story. In that piece I decided to speak about my rape because I realized that my silence wasn’t helping anybody.
I was worried about being so honest. But I took the risk to say, “I’m a survivor. Rape is the most under-reported crime in the world. Survivors are your mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers.” Since then I’ve told the story countless times, and it never gets easier—even now, 25 years later, talking about it makes me feel like I’m going to puke. But once I was open with my story, I saw there was no blowback from being honest. In fact, it only helped me connect with more people.
These days I rarely hold my tongue. I can’t help it. Whether that means I’m calling out racism, misogyny, white privilege, or simply somebody who doesn’t know a basketball from a football insulting my husband’s abilities [Union’s husband is NBA player Dwyane Wade]. If I’m not saying something, it’s not because I’m unaware of current events or I don’t have an opinion—it’s generally because I haven’t figured out how to articulate my rage in 140 characters on Twitter.
There have been moments when I’m like, “I’m not into getting death threats today,” so just for my own sanity, I scale back what I say. But that never lasts long. There are too many people who think they’re alone. If you have the key to somebody feeling a little more understood and you withhold it, you’re an asshole.
I’ve realized that I’m never going to be everything to all people. So what? Life goes on. No matter what I do, the world keeps turning. Either I can do nothing out of fear or I can speak out to try to help someone. The latter always wins.
—As told to Leigh Belz Ray.