Los Angeles – At the time of writing, brown-skinned children are separated from their parents, being detained in modern-day internment camps in our country. (I am an immigrant to this country but my skin is white and my passport is Canadian so I don’t have to worry about cages, racial profiling, and xenophobia.) A Mexican-American man and his mother are called ‘rapists and animals’ by a racist white woman in Running Springs, California. Lakota children are being forcibly seized from their homes by the state, violating the Indian Child Welfare Act and at rates wholly disproportionate to white families. The micro-aggressions of whiteness are strong as ever, on a never-ending loop – Jogger Joe, Permit Patty, Sarah Braasch, Pool Patrol Patty – policing and endangering the lives of black people for imaginary transgressions. And when a white woman is politely asked to leave a restaurant because she works for the Trump administration, other white people demand people of colour don’t lose their ‘civility’. Much like my lament of the ‘passivity of good men’ there is undoubtedly a passivity of ‘good white people’.
It feels asinine writing about entertainment.
So here is a story instead.
Around ten years ago I was in the running for a new series regular role on a well-established sci-fi TV show. The showrunner, producers, the lead were all gunning for me. I was their pick and they were going out of their way to see me to the finish line. It was incredible and exciting. It was a ‘big break’ moment. But then they got the news: the network wanted more diversity. The show, along with the network at large, was rightfully getting flack for its lack of representation. I found a way to tune that revelation out because I wanted the job, like any unemployed actor. This was my literal meal ticket.
I didn’t get the job. It went to a woman of colour. I was upset and angry. It’s okay to be upset and have feelings. But how you handle yourself matters and I handled myself deplorably.
To cope, I chose to call up a friend who happened to be a woman of colour and vent. I did what many men accused of sexism, many white people accused of racism, many heterosexual humans accused of homophobia do: I sought out a person that could represent that grievance and convince myself I’m the victim in the situation.
On and on I went, talking at this woman not to her. I remember talking so fast, steamrolling my way through because in my gut, I knew I wasn’t standing in the light. I was wrong. I didn’t want to just prove my point, but anticipate any possible objection or interruption in my belief. By the end of it, she complied but it was probably more out of exhaustion than actual agreement. And I knew that deep down. But I lied to myself with the thought, “see, I was right because my [insert minority/special interest group] friend didn’t object.” Any possible opportunity for meaningful dialogue was lost because my ego, my economic security, my feelings were more important than her lived experiences as a black woman. It would have been the perfect moment to employ empathy and go “wow I feel so angry that my skin colour made me lose a job opportunity, I wonder how women of colour feel on a daily basis?” There was no such awakening. I manipulated the moment, weaponizing my white woman tears, abusing white privilege that at the time I didn’t even know existed. That’s how myopic my bubble was. I honestly, to this day, have no idea how she felt. I never bothered to ask. And we are no longer friends – is it any surprise?
Representation matters and it’s a team effort. In the same way I expect men to actively work to end sexism and rape culture, white women need to step up and start listening to women of colour (and support their excellence at the box office while we’re at it). White feminism only helps white women. That’s not good enough.
The Hollywood system is white dominated. This means our stories are white dominated which leads to cultural narratives – how we express, define, and record ourselves as a society, literally how we record ourselves in human history – being white dominated. Executives, creators, writers, directors are all primarily white males. They pitch, greenlight, create, direct stories primarily about white men with white women supporting and sometimes as equals or even the main event.
When white people dominate all aspects of the production chain, of course there will be a major deficit in non-white actors being cast. Agents and managers aren’t taking on people of colour in droves because they need to be able to ‘sell’ their clients. They can’t sell what studios don’t want to buy.
Yet, studies show that diverse casts have the highest median global box office. Despite this fact, Hollywood is holding on tight to its whitewashing. “…in today’s globalized movie industry, there is a myth promoted by Hollywood decision makers that foreign audiences will automatically reject films centered around people of color. Indeed, the conventional ‘wisdom’ in the film industry has been that ‘black films don’t travel,’ and this notion has posed a longstanding obstacle to advancing diversity in Hollywood, particularly among film leads and directors.” (Hollywood Diversity Report 2018, UCLA)
A recent report by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveals that out of the 1,100 top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2017 only 4% were directed by females and of that only four black females, two Asian females, and one Latina worked as directors. In all these reports, Indigenous artists barely rank, if at all and artists from MENA heritage aren’t even mentioned.
There is a danger in a single-story narrative and I want no part of it. ‘Diversity’ must move past an empty buzzword and become a normal, everyday expected element of our collective expressions of the beautiful and vivid tapestry that is the human race. I want to see all the colours of the rainbow. Don’t you?