In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, countless media and entertainment companies released statements and made donations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, more must be done in order to affect real change regarding systemic racism in the U.S.
This sentiment was made clear during a panel presented by The Paley Center for Media, where media and entertainment executives weighed in on ways brands can inspire true equality within the industry. Titled “BET: Uniting Brands and Networks for Change,” the conversation included BET Networks president Scott Mills; NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson; CBS News exec VP Kim Godwin; WarnerMedia senior VP of corporate affairs and corporate social responsibility Dennis Williams; Procter & Gamble chief communications officer Damon Jones; and The Root editor-in-chief and event moderator Danielle Belton.
Speaking about BET’s Content for Change initiative, Mills emphasized that although media has played a large role in the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, its power can also be harnessed for good.
“Over time, people have looked to mitigate the harmful utilization of media, but people haven’t focused on the proactive, positive utilization of media to impact perceptions,” Mills said. “We created Content for Change anchored in this idea that it’s not just eliminating the harmful representations and narratives, but it’s actually about working with scholars and academics to identify what narratives and representations of stories can be shared across communities that can actually get to the underlying drivers of racism.”
Godwin said representation has also been on the forefront of her mind at CBS News while covering incidents of racial injustice and how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color.
“I think our biggest responsibility is to make sure that we are giving a voice to the communities that are often voiceless or not heard or underrepresented,” Godwin said. “I felt that in this moment, being an African American woman and being charged with the editorial oversight of our coverage, that put me in a unique position to make sure that voices were being heard.”
Williams pointed out that although companies publicly standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is important, it is equally as crucial for them to address their own compliance in systemic racism. Williams admires that WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar chose to speak out about the company’s racism, and believes it has put them on the right path toward becoming more equitable.
“Jason openly acknowledged that we have a problem with racism at WarnerMedia, and the reason we have a problem with racism at WarnerMedia is because WarnerMedia is a company that exists in the United States of America,” Williams said. “We cannot act as if we are an island and we have somehow fixed racism or we have understood diversity if we stand in the context of these United States, where systemic racism surrounds us every single day.”
As Johnson stated, “How can we call ourselves a just society when people can be murdered in broad daylight? How can we call ourselves a just society when an elected district attorney refuses to prosecute individuals for a vigilante killing in Georgia? How can we call ourselves a just society when the murderers of Breonna Taylor are still on the police force and nothing has been done?”
An important step in eliminating systemic racism from society is to restructure the narrative surrounding Black and Hispanic communities that is often conveyed within media and entertainment. Jones believes that this starts with inner reflection on one’s own biases.
“Yes, we need to tap into the talent of our Black people at every level within our company, but we also have to take this moment to really educate everyone, allow them space to delve into their own biases, and then challenge the systems to allow more holistic storytelling,” Jones said. “When you have more diverse people behind the camera, in the writers’ room, doing production, doing editing, you will get more holistic, more richer stories. Not because it’s a Black story, but because it’s a true, human story of everyday life in America. … Black people didn’t create racism, and we’re not going to end it ourselves, so we gotta bring people along with us and create room for them to learn and grow.”
For Williams at WarnerMedia, this means allowing Black creators to pitch stories and shows that aren’t necessarily centered on race.
“What standard are we holding Black content creators to?” Williams asked. “I think so often it is expected that Black content creators will come in and give us this story about race. And so we’re forcing them to write in contrast to racism, versus just letting them be creatives and write.”
Williams used the HBO shows “Insecure” and “I May Destroy You” as examples of content that has broken that mold.
“Take a show like ‘Insecure.’ Why is it that Issa’s voice resonates so loudly? It’s because she isn’t writing her show for white approval, she’s writing her show as a Black woman. Take a show like ‘I May Destroy You,’ it’s not about a Black woman living in London, she’s not writing about her experience. Clearly that comes into the story, but the story is driven by something else,” Williams said. “I think the next step for us as people who greenlight content, is to accept those stories when they come in. It’s not the only Black family in the neighborhood that makes the sitcom work, it is a Black family. Period. End of discussion. And I think when we allow that kind of creativity, it will normalize the Black experience for audiences in a way that will affect change.”
However, this is just the beginning. As Mills countered, true change is going to come not just from better representation, but from attacking the fundamental causes of racism in society.
“While it’s true that Hollywood has evolved the depiction of people of color and reduced this kind of overrepresentation in these negative roles, the alarming thing is that hasn’t correlated with the change of racism in this country,” Mills said. “What’s important to understand is those depictions were reinforcing perceptions, but the journey now is to understand what we have to do to fundamentally combat perceptions.”
Watch the full conversation on The Paley Center for Media’s Facebook page.