Critics are pissed that people of color are finally being represented in media

In this week’s episode of “Not Surprising,” we’re hearing from white actors and talent agents in Hollywood who think that the increase in roles available for actors of color is a threat to their success in the industry.

The recent success of shows like “Scandal,” followed by “How to Get Away with Murder” and, most recently, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Empire,” have made one thing clear: people are excited about seeing some color on their favorite shows. The visibility of people of color during primetime TV has not only increased, but has become the staple of today’s hit shows. And while these gains are worth celebrating, not everyone is happy about it.

Over at Deadline Hollywood, writer Nellie Andreeva suggests that Hollywood’s piqued interest in thespians of color could perhaps hurt the industry. She claims that more talented white actors are being slighted for pilot roles that they would have previously snagged, all because of a supposed (and by that I mean, not proven to be an actual thing) diversity mandate. She provided the following example:

In one instance, after a number of actors of different ethnicities tested for two roles in a pilot this year, two Caucasian actors ended up being the top choices for the two remaining regular parts. However, because of a mandate from the studio and network, one of the roles had to diverse, so the pilot could only cast one of the top choices and pass on the other to fulfill the ethnic quota. ‘They need to say the best man or woman wins,’ one rep suggested.

The implication is that racial bias in favor of people of color undermines the actual talent and merit of white thespians. Digesting this argument, I’d be remiss to ignore how similar it sounds to oppositional responses to affirmative action and, more recently, anti-immigration rhetoric. White supremacy has long perpetuated and supported the notion that racial equality is a direct threat to right of white people to economically flourish, all the while ignoring the very real socio-economic systems in place that make these policies necessary.

Hollywood is nothing special. Andreeva claims (and for the record, it’s a claim I’m not buying) that “the talent pool of experienced minority performers — especially in the younger range — is pretty limited.”

But I wonder if she considered how race plays a part in who is and isn’t considered “talented” in acting. Has she pondered which communities are more likely to have the resources necessary to pursue formal training in acting? Or which families and individuals are most likely to be able to financially support themselves while they wait for call backs?

Another concern that Andreeva mentions is the casting of people of color to portray people who, historically, would probably have been white. She writes:

As the photo of the 1972 graduation of the first 12-women class of the Boston Police Academy indicates, they appear to be all white, as were the members of the original Broad Squad, Rachel Keefe and Patricia Murphy, Boston’s first all-female patrol team. That is no surprise as non-Hispanic Whites constituted 80% of Boston’s population in 1970 versus 16% blacks. While set in the 1970s, ABC’s drama pilot Broad Squad, inspired by the real-life events, has a lead cast more consistent with Boston’s current racial makeup of 45% white non-Hispanic and 27% black as one of its four female leads was written and cast as African-American, Wesley.

I thought Hollywood was a site for fictive storytelling. I thought its success was based on its ability to draw audiences into the worlds of characters who don’t always reflect current or historical realities. Plus, if Andreeva is really going to complain about racially ahistorical casting, how are we to explain Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Christian Bale as an Egyptian pharaoh, or the plethora of other characters who have been casted by white actors? Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

But, of course, Andreeva claims she isn’t downplaying the importance of racial representation; she is simply worried that there aren’t enough Black people in America to make sure that all of these blossoming shows attract enough viewers. She says, “While they are among the most voracious and loyal TV viewers, African-Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, with shows as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAWM on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience might have reached its peak.” The sad assumption here is that Black people are the only ones willing to watch shows with Black people in them. While African-American viewership is about 60% for Empire, that number is only about 37% for Scandal, 32% for How to Get Away with Murder, and 24% for Blackish. While we certainly have a long way to go on the journey to eradicating racism, I think it’s safe to say most people are comfortable watching shows that have characters that don’t look like them.

At the end of the day, people of color have been yearning for more visibility and media representation for a long time. Even Andreeva admits that these strides are “long overdue.” But if that’s the case, why is she suggesting that there should be a cap on the number of roles available? Why does she think that we now have to scale back our efforts? I prefer to think of diversity quotas in the same way that I do court-appointed child support payments: They are imposed to take care of the basic necessities for childcare. Meeting these criteria aren’t the grounds for exemplary parenting, just as a one season boom hasn’t shattered the racial barriers of Hollywood. We can do better than the bare minimum.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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