When White Audiences Have Problems With TV Diversity


The 2014-2015 television schedule has been hailed as a breakthrough for television diversity. Not only did networks unroll an unprecedented number of shows featuring predominantly mixed race or non-White casts of colour, but many of these shows have outperformed the schedule’s more conventional — and thus more conventionally White — fare. Although some shows have flopped (Selfie), others like Black-ish, How To Get Away With Murder, CristelaJane the Virgin, and Fresh Off The Boat have performed beyond expectations to carry this year’s television lineup.

The year’s breakout star is, of course, Empire — a delightfully soap opera-ish musical epic about an ambitious ex-con hip hop producer and her business mogul husband, who must identify a successor for their musical empire among their three wayward sons. Empire has been demolishing its Wednesday night competition in the ratings — remarkably, the show has increased in viewership every week — to finish with 21 million viewers who tuned in for its 2-hour Season 1 finale last week.

Not everyone is thrilled about television’s new age of diversity however. Last evening, Nellie Andreeva, television editor for entertainment blog Deadline penned a lengthy screed on “ethnic casting”, asking of it: “about time, or too much of a good thing?

“The pendulum may have swung a bit too far,” says Andreeva in the text of her post, before launching into a tedious list of actors of colour who have landed roles through colourblind casting, or who won roles initially conceived of as White. Instead, Andreeva implores us to think of the plight of White actors, who now face a field of growing roles written for a person of colour.

“Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors,” complains Andreeva.

The world’s tiniest violin is playing right now, and it can only play sad songs.

The Huangs of ABC's new sitcom, Fresh Off The Boat.
The Huangs of ABC’s new sitcom, Fresh Off The Boat.

It goes without saying that Andreeva’s post is just ass-backwards wrong.

Andreeva makes the inflammatory suggestion that networks have established some sort of definitive quota on actors of colour cast as leads in primetime TV; there is literally zero evidence that such a quota exists. Not only has there been no reports — beyond Andreeva’s unnamed and anonymous “talent representative” — of such a policy emerging out of any major television studio, but studies of television casting fail to corroborate the assertion. In 2013Think Progress compiled statistics on the leads of all primetime TV shows for four major networks, and found that the majority of characters are White men; a scant 5% of characters were Black, and a mere 1.9% were Asian or Latino.

There are no data to support the quote given by Andreeva’s unnamed “talent representative” that networks are applying a mandate that “50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic”. There is literally zero evidence to suggest that FOX, ABC, CBS and NBC executives ever got together in a smoke-filled backroom to screw over their fellow White man.

Yet, Andreeva doubles down on her Great Primetime TV Diversity Conspiracy Theory by offering an anecdote from an unnamed source that appears to buoy up the claim that networks now mandate that pilots should feature 50% actors of colour. She references a scenario where two White actors were allegedly considered for two lead roles, one was not cast because the show wanted 50% of its lead cast to be non-White. I can’t help but notice that this all sounds eerily like a prosaic fictionalization of Think Progress’ interview with Brooklyn Nine-Nine producer Michael Schur, who said, “the New York City police force is roughly 50 percent Caucasian and roughly 50 percent non Caucasian. So we used that as our guideline. If we want this to look like a Brooklyn police precinct, that’s what it needs to look like”; in that interview, Schur later emphasizes that the show achieves a diverse cast through colour-blind, not “quota-based”, casting.

Andreeva fails to make this distinction, however.

Instead, Andreeva proposes that the only reason anyone would cast a person of colour on a television screen is because they had to; ergo, there must be a quota, right?

Andreeva is fundamentally infuriated that television diversity efforts have put too many racial minorities on her television screen. Her insipid list of racially cross-cast characters communicates an unmistakable message: actors of colour are taking all of these roles away from White actors, and this has just got to stop. The racism of this assertion is obvious: the actor of colour — a seething mass of Brownness Andreeva euphemistically refers to as “ethnic” — cannot ever be more legitimate a casting choice than a White actor. They are assumed to be illegitimate, less talented and inferior: the Hollywood equivalent of an affirmative action baby; Or, alternatively, only there to be capitalized on by skin tone alone, as Andreeva suggests in criticizing 2015’s fall lineup for attempting to replicate the success of a show like Empire by “by mirroring the ethnicity of their leads” in new endeavours.

Much of the logic of Andreeva’s writing is simply faulty. Rarely do White actors find themselves excluded from playing a specific role based on their race. In fact, history demonstrates the opposite: a remarkable willingness to cross-cast White actors — but not actors of colour — into roles originally written for characters who do not share their race. Consider the White-washing of The Last Airbender21, and more recently, Ghost in the Shell. Meanwhile, even actors of colour cast to play characters of their own race face backlash; never mind the hate that the rare actor of colour cast to play a race-neutral or White character becomes target for.

Andreeva’s writing is just regurgitated White fear of becoming a numerical minority, rearticulated in the same old boring reverse racism rhetoric. Never mind that people of colour — or, as Andreeva puts it, “ethnics” — are not exactly the same. That’s not how math works.

Once again, it seems, we find manifestation of America’s newest Culture War: the war on diversity. Whether we’re talking about movies, television, comic books, video games, the tech industry, or higher education, we see the same arguments being repeated over and over again: Minorities are underqualified. Minorities are unwanted. Minorities are not allowed. Diversity initiatives — that seek to break down barriers towards access — are discriminatory because they can no longer be privileged over the racial and gender underclasses.

For these people, equality is defined as the privilege to equally oppress everyone else.

Andreeva ends with a bizarre plea for television to end their diversity casting quota — a quota that appears to exist only within Andreeva’s own head.

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.

This point relies on the faulty assumption that Black actors playing Black characters make for Black shows for Black audiences; and that no discerning White person would want to tune in to see a non-White face helm their favourite show.

Well, that all-White-all-the-time approach might be how it works in Nellie Andreeva’s living room, but I think Empire’s 21 million viewers — including its 7 million non-Black viewers — would disagree.

And, yes, I’m totally embedding this song just ‘cuz.

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