Barriers linger, but scribes of color make progress
Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, showrunner on “Lincoln Heights,” started writing television in the late 1970s. A Columbia U. grad with a master’s in filmmaking, she was predisposed to write drama, but Hollywood mostly offered her African-American sitcoms instead.
“There was a very narrow window of opportunity and a very narrow prism through which we were viewed as writers of color,” McGhee-Anderson recalls.
Thirty years later, in an era in which stereotypes are being smashed for actors and in the nation as a whole, daily life for minority TV writers is a mix of progress and misgivings.
The latest WGA stats show African-American membership at 4.2%, Latino 2%, Asian 1.7% and Native American 0.2%, behind the demographic curve.
Monica Owusu-Breen, the Brown U.-educated, African-American showrunner on “Brothers and Sisters,” dropped her maiden name at the outset of her career for fear that employers would have racial misconceptions about her before she even interviewed.
“You’re with a group of writers day in and day out,” she says. “I don’t think (racism) is conscious exactly, but I think that there’s a desire to be around people who you have a lot in common with, and sometimes that translates to ‘people like us.’ And that has some racial and gender consequences.”
Those who encounter racism once they’re hired pick and choose their battles carefully; stereotypes linger at all levels.
“My name could be Smiley McLaugh,” says Virgil Williams, an African-American/Puerto Rican writer and supervising producer on “ER.” “And I could write romantic comedy and wear a tutu to work and still someone would ask, ‘Virgil, why are you so angry?’ My passion is misconstrued as anger. Whereas a white man may be able to lose it, if I did that I’d pay for it.”
Indian/Filipino writer and “Cold Case” showrunner Veena Sud adds: “If I’m (supervising an) audition, and they don’t know that I’m the showrunner, they’re definitely looking at whoever the white guy is in the room as if he’s the authority.”
But the hurdles are worth it, perhaps less for the personal rewards than their impact on television as a whole.
“Everybody Hates Chris” co-exec producer Luisa Leschin came from a pedigreed background. Her father was president of El Salvador; she is fluent in French and Italian and danced in the Swiss Grand Theatre de Geneve ballet company. Yet as an actress, she was limited to playing hookers, maids and so forth. Fed up, she started writing.
“It’s very important to have people of diverse backgrounds in the room because I might say, ‘Why don’t you make the principal a Latino?’ If a writer of color isn’t in the room, that suggestion probably won’t happen.”
The writers interviewed for this article express gratitude to those (many of color themselves) who helped pave the way for their success.
“People haven’t judged my words based on how I look,” says Korean-American exec story editor Bryan Oh (“Life on Mars”).
Even though challenges remain for writers of color seeking to move up the ranks, Sud says, “Once those challenges were met, people were amazing.”
And, on a personal level, intimacy develops quickly.
“You show up on day one on a show,” Sud says, “and at the end of day one, you’re telling each other about your surgeries and your mother’s alcoholism.”