Shonda Rhimes recently won The Diversity Award at The Director’s Guild Awards. According to Entertainment Weekly, she stated that she is "truly profoundly honored to receive this award" but is "also a little pissed off.” This type of dichotomy in response makes sense to me because obviously she doesn’t even want such an award to need to exist but for the industry to simply reflect what is true; the lives of diverse people. Her shows incorporate queer relationships and Black women, people not always seen on every major show. Also, she’s spoken out before on media diversity in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation.
Part of her speech included this:
It’s not because of a lack of talent. It’s because of a lack of access. People hire who they know. If it’s been a white boys club for 70 years, that’s a lot of white boys hiring one another. And I don’t believe that that happens out of any specific racism or sexism or prejudice. People hire their friends. They hire who they know. It’s comfortable. You want to be successful, you don’t want to take any chances, you don’t want to rock the boat by hiring people of color because, well, look at us,’ she said. ‘Both Betsy and I like the world that we work in to look like the world that we live in. Different voices make for different visions. Different visions make for something original. Original is what the public is starving for.’
I think this statement is great because it is mostly true. We know of the talent of actors of colour. Much of the public is starving for this excellence. For example, some in the media act perplexed over the success of Sleepy Hollow (not one of Shonda’s shows though) but I would think it would be obvious that such a diverse cast—many of the actors with great resumes and great training—would draw people in.
However, I do have an issue with the "I don’t believe that that happens out of any specific racism or sexism or prejudice" part of this excerpt from her speech. Though I absolutely adore Shonda Rhimes’ creativity and brilliance, she is incorrect here. It is specific.
There is a history and reasons why Whites’ neighborhoods, schools, networks and eventually friendships remain White. This is not solely about them “coincidentally” preferring White people. The same applies to the media. For example, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (who awards Oscars) is not “coincidentally” 94% White and 77% male because they’re all “buddies.” That is specific. Hiring decisions for television writing—what mostly keeps Black people out—is specific. Knowing diverse shows do better than ones that are not diverse and still casting majority or all-White casts is specific.
I understand what she was trying to do here—point out a need without associating serious blame—but the facts are the facts. Sure, personal relationships develop that are homogenous because of the fear of “the other” for Whites and protection from oppressive interpersonal interactions with Whites for Black people and other people of colour. There’s issues of families connecting and shared culture. That makes sense. But in the case of Whites—who structural power affirms—it’s like “friends” are playing poker, but at a table in a house built on structural inequality and institutional racism.
I want to see media get to the place that Shonda envisions. I really do. But this can occur without separating the history as to why media is the way it is now or without pacifying those who think it’s all a misunderstanding and just about friends doing things for friends.