That Deadline Article Hurt My Feelings (And is Racist)

I am coming off an amazing 5-day writer’s retreat taught by “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed, and expected my next blog post would be focused on detailing the experience and everything I learned.

But then I saw this: “Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings—About Time or Too Much of A Good Thing?” And I have to speak on it.

If you haven’t read the article, it basically looks at Hollywood’s recent acceptance that non-white people exist in society, and concludes it is putting white people at an unfair disadvantage. The small steps the industry is taking toward rejecting homogeneity may be leading it down a dangerous path- so watch out!

My first reaction to this article was not anger, but hurt.

It literally hurt my feelings.

This woman completely marginalized my existence as a black person. My story shouldn’t be told, she says, because a white actress isn’t the right person to tell it. Sure, white people need hundreds—thousands—of TV shows to depict their lives, but I should be more than satisfied that How to Get Away with Murder, Blackish and Empire depicts my truth. She suggests that art like mine, which has minority characters, is in opposition to art that features white characters. The idea that all TV shows, whether they feature black or white people, are at their core, stories about humanity with universal themes are inconceivable to her. The concept of people identifying with characters not of their same race is beyond her (unless, of course it’s non-whites identifying with whites because their stories are always universal). Honestly, it was so insulting.

My second reaction was an intellectual (as opposed to emotional) one. That reaction was that the article is racist.

If you follow this blog, then you know that I don’t go around calling everyone racist. Nicholas Sparks, for example. I said he was an asshole, but I’m not comfortable calling him a racist. The Sony chick who joked about Obama watching Kevin Hart? A person who said something dumb, not a racist. The reporter who asked if Fresh Off the Boat would feature chopsticks? Ignorant, but not racist.

This Deadline article was actually racist.

It’s racist because she turns the celebrated idea of diversity in television into something that is adversarial to white people. She turns it into a zero sum game, engaging in the age-old technique of using racial division to advocate for a white, male-dominated status quo.

How does she do this? By suggesting that Hollywood is using affirmative action in its hiring decisions, knowing this is a trigger. The problem is that she presents no real evidence that anyone is actually using quotas, and if they are that it’s nothing more than anomaly. She completely dismisses the concept that the directed focus on increasing diversity and having color-blind auditions is a) a response to demand and b) an attempt to capitalize on the opportunity present in this moment to finally be able to hire the best actor, instead of the best white actor.

Any attempt to reinforce structural racism is, to me, racist. Any attempt to capitalize on our nation’s racial trigger is, to me, racist. So the Deadline article is racist to me. And frightening.

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What do Tyler Perry and Scandal Have in Common?

Let’s start with Tyler Perry.

A long time ago, when I was just wide-eyed girl living in Queens, NY, I would go to the movies. And every season or so, those movies would star black people. I watched Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar, Soul Food, Love Jones, The Best Man and even The Wood, and life was good. Then I went to college, and a move came out called “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” It was OK, no beef. Then another Tyler Perry movie came out. Well, can’t have a good black movie every season, I thought. But then another came out. Then another. Until an entire generation (generation being 10 years for my purposes) had no idea what a non-Tyler Perry black movie was. And real actresses like Phylicia Rashad and Angela Bassett were forced to act in his movies too—just to get food on the table.

I have my issues with TP, but I will say this: he gave a lot of black actors work, who may not have been able to find it otherwise. And, more importantly, he made a lot of money. It is my belief that at some point the non-TP studios realized, if that Madea stuff can make money, just imagine what would happen if we produced a move that was actually good?? What followed was a season when a bunch of black movies were out around the same time: The Best Man Holiday, Black Nativity, The Butler, Mandela. And that was good.

Tyler Perry reminded movie execs that stories about minority people can be profitable. This fact had already been established, but like the generation who thought TP movies were the only black movies ever to exist, a generation of people hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, and therefore couldn’t believe it to be true.

I think the same thing can be said about Scandal. Scandal wasn’t successful in spite of having an African-American star, I would argue that a large part of that success was because of Kerry Washington. Because the show was making history, it received a greater amount of coverage and instant fan loyalty. I have more thoughts about Scandal and Shondaland, but that’s the point I’m trying to make for now.

As much as I love Scandal, do I think it’s the perfect example of how to utilize minority characters in mainstream media? No. Similarly, do I think Tyler Perry movies accurately portray African American life? Hell no.

But both Tyler Perry and Scandal told the world that stories about minority characters are worthy of investment. So my question is this- who is going to teach that to the publishing industry?

Inspiration: Shonda Rhimes and the Depiction of a Diverse World

It’s premiere season, so let’s talk about TV.  And by TV, I mean TV writers.  And by TV writers, I’m talking about Shonda Rhimes.  The woman behind Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, but also Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (didn’t know that did you?).  Shonda once told Oprah that directors own movies, but television is all about the writers. I thank her for that because it gives me a good excuse to blog about Scandal.  🙂

In all seriousness, I actually really admire Shonda Rhimes, and have followed her career ever since I found out that a black, Ivy Leaguer (Dartmouth undergrad, UCLA grad) was behind Grey’s.  She has been commended for doing “color blind” castings, meaning that actors of all races try out for her roles and the best person wins (yes, the fact that idea is so revolutionary is sort of crazy, but whatevs).  In fact, Jennifer Weiner specifically mentioned Shonda to me, when I asked her about the issue at her book signing a couple of months ago. Still, it has been noted that, despite the diversity of Shonda’s shows, race almost never emerges as an issue in the plot lines.

I am fascinated by this issue because I think about how race will play out in my future novel all the time.  I want it to have a black protagonist, but I do NOT want to be pigeon holed.  My audience will be women–all of them!   But we’re talking about Shonda.  On the one hand, her telling the same romance stories just with minority characters—and by that I mean, brilliantly breaking your heart just with minority characters (see Scandal episode 6)—is not insignificant.  The depiction of the relationships, professional hurdles, etc. of a diverse group of people is simply more representative of the world that people in Seattle, D.C., New York, LA live in.  In case I’m not being clear—it just does not make sense to anyone (black or white) to see a show take place in New York without any minorities!  Or, as my Hawaiian friend (not Obama) says—in Hawaii without any Hawaiians! It’s simply inaccurate.  A fallacy. And annoying.  So, when Shonda shows a workplace with non-white people, non-straight people, non-young people, it’s just more like the world most of us live in, whether she talks about identity issues or not.  In my opinion, that makes the show better.

So now the question is, since Shonda (left) is in the powerful position of being able to reach the masses of pop culture, does she have a responsibility to draw attention to various racial/identity issues? I can’t give a yes or no answer to this one.  All I can say is this: minorities bring a unique perspective to whatever they do, which particularly comes through in art.  If Shonda is a minority who is aware of racial issues, understands the role race plays out in her industry, and embraces blackness as a part of her identity (which I believe she does), bringing that perspective to her writing (whether she explicitly talks about race or not) is valuable and helpful.  One of the reasons it occurred to her to have the “color blind” casting, for example, is that she sees a diverse world, and notices the absence of diversity.  That all said, after 8 or 9 seasons Grey’s, and now having a black lead in Scandal (my girl, Kerry Washington), I think it’s getting a bit conspicuous NOT talking about it.  The workplace is so political, meaning professionals have to and do think about the role their minority status plays in their careers all the time.  So, I think she should go for it.  She’s a deft writer, she can do it in a way that coincides with the light, pop-culture feel of her shows.  What do you think?