In the White Room With Black Writers: Hollywood’s “Diversity Hires”.
This article, by Beejoli Shah dishes out some of the real workings of what is basically Affirmative Action in the TV writer’s world. She discusses what it is to be a “Diversity Staff Writer” (DSW) on a show and the pluses and minuses that come with obtaining that title. It is a bit of a long read, but definitely worth it. [Below became a long read as well.] There are many great insights in this article, I’ve quoted blocks of text below and appended further thoughts on the issues raised.
Most every writing room has one—an entry level, non-white staff writer, explicitly hired due to their race. (If you’re really lucky, being gay or a woman might just suffice, in lieu of not being white.) […] Perversely, Hollywood’s genuine attempt to remedy the overwhelming whiteness of the industry has instead led to a place where networks pat themselves on the back for hiring a token writer by institutionalizing those sotto voce complaints.
This is going to be a major issue (again) as of this week, since the hiring of Sasheer Zamata to be the first Black Female cast member to be on Saturday Night Live since Maya Rudolph left 6 years ago. It’s great that they’ve hired her, but it was only done so after major backlash after the current season was newly staffed and it is very clear that she is the token; the diversity hire. They didn’t look at her in the pool of everyone who auditioned, they’re looking at her in a pool of other black, female comediennes (an issue which Beejoli discusses further down). They’ve seen her in a pool of people like her and seen her as the best, but she shouldn’t be boxed in to a subset. More on this later.
It will then tack on some extra cash earmarked solely for a diversity hire, so that the studio budget can instead go towards everything that’s “integral” for the show to function.[…] Showrunners don’t have to worry about wasting their studio budget on a token hire that may not be so great in the room, a young colored writer gets a shot at the dream, networks proudly get to proclaim their commitment to diversity, everyone wins!
She kind of make it sound like an internship. The intern is the bottom of the office food-chain (in this case, the intern thankfully gets paid, but the same amount of respect). The show doesn’t really have to put any mental effort into hiring this person (they should, obviously, if they want a person who will creatively contribute, but it can be anyone and they lose no money for the choice).
Beejoli goes on to tell us that not a single new show brought in this season (2013-14), was created by a person of color. And I’m not even sure how many veteran shows are; Beejoli mentions Shonda Rhimes (because how can you not), but the fact that no one can ever name anyone else? That’s a problem. Essentially, Shonda is the showrunner diversity hire. No one has to hire a show runner of color because we already have one on TV.
Fox can guarantee a person of color a job to return to in future seasons, but also cleverly hold a person down at the level of diverse staff writer, even though they may be far too qualified to remain there.
It also seems to me that this could prevent new DSWs from getting work on a show because a show already has one that will remain on staff for that second season, while being paid with the diversity money rather than the regular staff writer’s allocation?
Beejoli says that some shows try to circumvent the issue by allowing “diversities” in traditionally white, male writers that aren’t usually considered diverse. A man reached deep into his family tree to discover he was a part Mexican, while another writer was given the position due to his heart murmur. I have a rare extra superior vena cava in my heart, can that count in my diversity points (besides being a nerdy, black, female obviously)?
there was a known stigma in the TV writing world that diversity hires are never quite as good, so much as they are just there.
This is my fear for Sasheer (I’ll probably post on this more later), but it’s also a problem in other Affirmative Action environments, like schools, etc. There is a lot of fear when being a black student at an expensive, possibly Ivy-league (/quality) school, that the other kids will look down on you because they see you as less intelligent. You got into the school because you are [black, Indian, Asian, etc], not because you “belong” there. And sometimes, when you feel overwhelmed in those environments, you have no one to talk to about it, because then it seems like you really don’t belong there (when in fact everyone feels the same way).
But in practice, the diversity hires are traditionally seen as slightly lower than plain old staff writers. The showrunner had to really want the staff writer there to be willing to part with $70,000 that could be spent on production or a different writer, whereas the diversity staff writer was a free gift from the network.
Like I said, kind of like an intern.
“Do you want to be writing partners? This white male writer not in a partnership thing isn’t working out.” “Listen, you’re both good writers, but he needs you more than you need him. He’s never read you before—he just wants an easier shot of getting staffed, because you’re diverse.”
I feel like this has come up in my life or the lives of my Friends of Color. Where someone attaches on to you because, “you’re black, they’ll let you in because they have to.” I don’t have a specific example, but it’s always strange to think of times when you have more possibility of doing something because you’re a person of color, since usually it’s (/you fear) the opposite. OR, as the article sort of talks around, people look down on you because you got in because you were diverse, but once you’re in, it’s a whole ‘nother set of issues.
“You know, you’re just like that girl from The Office. You could be the next Mindy Kaling!”
Whenever I mention my love of TV and desire to write for it, everyone says, “You could be the next Shonda Rhimes!” Which is cool, I admire Shonda for all that she’s done, but why can’t I be the next… Joss Whedon (another show runner I admire—Agents of SHIELD notwithstanding…) or Aaron Sorkin (without the drug problem). When it comes from other black people, I think it’s really just them wanting my name to be with hers (or something along those lines, my thought on this isn’t fully formed), but the fact that it comes from everyone who you mention it to… A friend of mine is a black actress who is producing a web series, so everyone says, “You could be the next Issa Rae!” As Beejoli mentions, it’s stuffing us in a “racial box.” She quotes Mindy Kaling herself, who said: “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”
I was also starting to think of myself as only a diversity writer. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve called my agents to tell them that I heard there’s a diversity position open on a show.
This has been so relevant to my thought processes. When thinking about writing (because I need to sit down and actually do more of it…), I’ve gone from saying, “I should write for [insert show with predominantly white cast/writers]” to “I should watch more black produced shows so I can write specs for those.” And while this is certainly something I should do, because part of my desire to write is to create more content for black people to watch on television, I shouldn’t have to feel like I could only write for the next The Cosby Show or Fresh Prince. And it’s poisonous to think you should only write for diverse groups and then “move up” to, say, network television.
It’s poisonous to think that you should be the “diversity hire” and then “move up” to regular staff writer. It’s putting diverse writers and diverse television shows on a lower rung than the “rest” of television. “Shows with PoC are lesser than network shows without.” Back when UPN and the WB existed, they were looked down upon compared to the other networks, and part of that had to do with their commitment to airing shows with black casts (I say partly because even now the CW is “lesser” than the big 4 even though the CW has long abandoned the WBs diverse offerings). We must get out of this thinking. It’s one thing for the white dominated studios and networks to see the diversity hire as being of less worth, it’s another for it to spread to our own ways of thinking. Then we’ll never rise above the way the system works now. But as Beejoli says, the higher ups aren’t making the change just yet (outside of severe pressure from audiences *coughSNLcough*), so how can things really change?
I think Beejoli’s article is one way. It’s better to go in understanding how things may work, so that if given the opportunity, you can change it. People can band together to make things run differently. The “diversity hires” need to stick together and help everyone realize that there’s more to a person of color joining your writing staff than filling your token quota.
Related links: More Than A Diversity Hire: WGAW’S Female Asian Comedy Writer’s Panel Notes