I know it’s played out to say but Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union have existed in the rarified air of being “relationship goals” for some time now. We, the general public, have had access to their lives through the ups and downs, splits, memes and Gatorade commercials. The couple has let us into their struggles with having children, break-ups and custody battles to keep their family together. Which is why so many of us have been so impacted by the recent events in their lives. In the past week, we saw Union get fired from her job for simply being a Black woman at work and we watched a whole world of social media backlash come down on the family for a simple photo. All of it has reminded us that no matter how much money and fame the Wades accumulate, they will still always be Black in America.
It’s hard to imagine the emotional rollercoaster Gabrielle Union, especially, has been on in the last few weeks. First, she was unceremoniously removed from the “America’s Got Talent” TV show for essentially the same reasons so many other Black women get fired, demoted or ignored at their jobs. Union merely spoke up in defense of marginalized people when she filed a complaint about Jay Leno’s racist jokes and Simon Cowell’s smoking. She also tried to speak up for a Black contestant in the face of a racist idea that America needs a white face to rally behind. As a result, she was allegedly deemed “difficult” for these moments of outspokenness and was subsequently let go.
Union’s experience resonated so widely because it’s an experience that is shared by so many Black people – namely Black women – in America. Black women are so often forced to be silent for fear that simply expressing their very real and legitimate concerns will be seen as abrasive and confrontational. If a superstar on the level of Gabrielle Union is going to get fired for being a Black woman with an opinion, then what hope does a Black woman in a corporate office have of keeping her job? And what hope does that woman have of being able to speak when she doesn’t have the financial flexibility of someone like Union, whose economic well-being isn’t reliant upon a job?
Because Union’s story was so relatable, she was immediately supported with hashtags expressing love for her as well as calls to boycott “America’s Got Talent.” Union responded with a tweet of thanks: “So many tears, so much gratitude. THANK YOU! Just when you feel lost, adrift, alone… you got me up off the ground. Humbled and thankful, forever.”
Union probably felt heartened by the support as she and the rest of her family gathered around the dinner table to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday. Maybe that’s why she and her husband felt comfortable sharing a special family photo for the holiday. Maybe they forgot about the world they were dealing with. Maybe they didn’t care.
As soon as the family photo went online, many on the internet focused on their 12-year-old child, Zion; namely the fact that he had long nails and was wearing a “crop top.” The young Wade has attracted attention before for wearing “women’s” clothing and appearing at Pride festivals. It is important to note, here, that neither Zion nor his parents have commented on Zion’s gender identity or sexual orientation. That still hasn’t stopped the homophobic among us from using the above picture to attack Wade and Union for allowing Zion to wear those nails and that shirt, which, may or may not even be a crop top anyway.
Posts featuring the family photo with a simple “what do you all think about this” as we see so often on Twitter and Facebook is a micro-aggressive way of inviting people to leave homophobic comments about Zion and even Wade himself. As if any child’s perceived masculinity is any reflection on the father’s masculinity.
The backlash is another reminder that Black support requires intersectionality. Some of the same people who sympathized with Union as the only Black woman speaking up at work had no tolerance for a child expressing a possible gender fluidity. Our support for Union as a woman at work only goes so far if we aren’t going to support her as a mother or support her children.
As traumatic and devastating as it is for Union to have lost her job thanks to racist microaggressions, the rhetoric behind the insults hurled at Zion threaten his life, and the life of Black gender-nonconforming kids across the world. Remember: at least 20 black trans people have been killed this year alone. And the murderers exist because of the same hatred that begins with insults hurled at children for not dressing a certain way. It is imperative that we see the revolutionary importance of loving Zion until loving Zion is no longer a revolutionary act.
Looking at Union and Wade’s past week is a microcosm of what it’s like to be Black in America. To be discarded by white folks for being your Black self. To be supported and loved by Black people and finally having none of that matter when one’s identity doesn’t fit into a neat box others have built for us. But we can’t do this halfway. We can’t claim to want to back the Union-Wade family unless we accept all of them. That’s probably something we should remember for the sake of all of the Zions across the country.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.