A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed for a video commemorating a diversity event I moderated back in 2018. To prep me, the organization sent me a list of questions.
“What does diversity mean to you?” “Why does diversity matter?” “Have we made any progress?” “What would you like to see happen next?”
A few days later I was sitting in front of my computer, the red “recording” light blinking in the corner of the Zoom screen, and telling the interviewer that under no circumstances was I going to answer the first two. If someone doesn’t understand what diversity is and why it matters, I said, they need to be fired immediately.
We started this latest diversity movement in TV more than 20 years ago, and so far, the progress has been slow to excruciatingly nonexistent. For every executive of color promoted, many more are held back or denied advancement. For every show developed by a writer of color, so many more are passed on. We know the acting talent is out there, but it continues to be overlooked and the ratios are still terrible. UCLA’s 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report notes Latinos accounted for less than 7% of the leading roles in broadcast, cable and streaming, and Asians less than 4%.
What I want to know is, “Why are we still asking remedial questions?”
And that right there is how this interview became less of a polite Q&A and more of a rant.
Suddenly I heard myself railing about Asian and Latino representation. I paraphrased a book I’d read called “This Is an Uprising,” about how it takes years for a social movement to take hold. Before same-sex marriage became law in the U.S., decades of work went into “normalizing” gay relationships.
By those calculations, we’re light-years behind on Asian representation. “We are kidding ourselves if we don’t correlate the lack of Asians on-screen with the rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community,” I said. “When was the last time we saw an Asian lead who wasn’t doing martial arts?”
We know what we know. The field is not level. The question is: How do we fix it? We can start all of the programs we want, but we still need to address the fundamental problem that lies underneath. The system is biased.
(Sidebar: If you’ve ever uttered the words “I want someone with agency experience for my new assistant job,” you’re not helping. It’s been well documented that agency assistants have had to go to the mattresses to get fair wages and the average pay is still $40,000 a year. Without family support to backstop them, BIPOC assistants struggle even more, so saying “agency experience” is really just a subtle call for a white assistant. Really want to do yourself a favor? Recruit from an HBCU. Those students have a code of ethics unlike any other I’ve seen. Bring one of them up the ladder with you and watch what great things unfold. If you can’t find an HBCU student to hire, that’s on you. You’re out of the loop.)
Diversity is still the last item discussed in a meeting. Executives of color are still harassed by their co-workers and then expertly gaslit into believing those slights weren’t personal. When they advocate for a project from a BIPOC writer or an idea with a brown lead, it’s still questioned much more than if it had a white one. Black male executives continue to be hired at pathetically low rates, and when they do get hired, they’re eventually pushed out by a system that refuses to support them.
Here’s my challenge to everyone at the executive vice president level — mandate it. If you have the power to order another mildly entertaining series starring Oliver Hudson, you have the power to order a spectacular one starring John Cho. Better yet, for every script you bought this season, tell the showrunner you are making the lead a person of color. That will separate those executive producers who are with the program from those who just pretend to be.
If you can make 50 overall deals with co-producer-level white guys without a track record, you can surely find 20 experienced BIPOC writers just as easily. If you can’t find them, you have work to do.
I finished up the video interview regarding the diversity event by saying that BIPOC culture is American culture. We’re not the side dish. We are the main course. I might know a few little girls who want to be Taylor Swift, but every little girl wants to be Beyonce.
When I finally climbed down off my soapbox, I was filled with dread. Not because I sometimes felt that my words tumbled out of my mouth inelegantly as I tried to vocalize every thought I ever had on the topic all at once. I was 100% confident we need more execs of color in the development process, more AAPI and Latinx representation on-screen, and more BIPOC with overall deals so they can compete with well-funded white production companies.
My only trepidation was that, because I hadn’t worn my glasses and couldn’t see the screen clearly, my eyeline would be off.
I needn’t have worried. In the end, the only part of my half-hour interview they used was two short statements — one in which I said that our content becomes more interesting when there is diversity present and the other thanking the organization for hosting the panel.
So here we are, back at the beginning. The only thing that’s changed is my personal decision that, from here on out, I’m ignoring your stupid questions about diversity.
Never ask me why or what again. I won’t reply. But … if you give me a when — when you will hire more execs of color, support them with promotions and shield them from bad behavior by their counterparts, make many more BIPOC producer deals, and greenlight diverse movies and series — I will absolutely help you with the how.
A veteran producer and creative executive, Kelly Edwards previously oversaw diversity for NBCUniversal’s linear and digital networks and created HBO’s emerging artists programs. She now runs the nonprofit Colour Entertainment and recently staffed the drama “Our Kind of People” for Fox. Her book “The Executive Chair: A Writer’s Guide to TV Series Development” is due in October.