Black women on TV Black women producers Black women writers diversity Hollywood representation
Black Women Don't Need Another Diversity Initiative3/14/2015
by Nneka M. Okona This has been a transformative and groundbreaking season for for Black women on TV, as they showed their brilliance a...
by Nneka M. Okona
This has been a transformative and groundbreaking season for for Black women on TV, as they showed their brilliance and prowess on screens almost nightly. Lighting up primetime slots were Viola Davis on How to Get Away With Murder, Kerry Washington on Scandal, Taraji P. Henson on Empire, Gina Torres on Suits, and Tracee Ellis Ross on Black-ish.
Because of the momentum steadily growing and what seems to be the rest of the world awakening to our inherent talent, television networks see it as their shining hour. It’s an opportunity to make a commitment to diversity a priority. It's both a glaring realization of the lack of inclusion for people and women of color—Black women in particular—in leading roles on the small screen; and as writers and producers, those who contribute to an authentic fleshing out of our attitudes, thoughts, opinions, and ways of being in the world. It seems networks are finally seeing a clear connection between how unlocking a previously unexplored wealth and pool of talent can contribute to greater revenue.
In recent years, many networks have developed diversity programs and initiatives to address the deficit of the lack of inclusion. CBS has several programs and recently HBO announced their own through the HBO Access Writing Fellowship. Last week, submissions opened up for HBO’s fellowship—a nine-month mentorship opportunity in Los Angeles. Due to HBO only accepting the first 1,000 applications, their servers were overwhelmed with the number of people who logged on to submit for the program at 9am PST on March 4th. And to the dismay of many, they were unable to submit as the system crashed, locking out a large number of people from even accessing the site.
Amid the frustration, some questions have arisen, at least on my behalf. The main one being whether or not it should be considered noble or insulting to insinuate that our stories and characters should exist in spaces separate from the “mainstream”?
We've seen this assertion in media spaces already: for instance the documentary series Black in America on CNN and most recently the pop-up of NBC BLK. I see these projects as insulting because of the implication that our stories, our interests, and the causes near and dear to us should only exist in a vacuum. Our voices, insisting to be heard, can only be dedicated in a realm separate from the mainstream, deeming us to be different, to be othered, picked apart from the crowd. Where is our dignity? Why are we yet to be deemed worthy enough, glorious enough to be a seamless thread alongside everyone else, a piece of the puzzle within the norm? Are we destined to be aliens, rarely understood, never fully accepted, seldom brought into the middle, ushered into the concurrent commotion? Are we destined to forever stand alone?
Calling into question the various opportunities to be heard is important in terms of one crucial component: compensation. Many of these diversity initiatives are glorified internships, offering only a bare minimum of funding, in most cases not enough to get by. We know PoC and WoC are at the bottom of the totem pole on several accords, especially in terms of earning the same amount for our non-PoC counterparts. Asking the vast majority of us to sacrifice on behalf of opening doors for the future is unthinkable. Doing so requires such privilege and tapping into resources some may not have. It's asking, perhaps, to do without necessities, for the sake of the future, fulfilling of dreams, and a vision which may never manifest.
We want a space at the table. We so ardently want a designated spot. Our own chair. Our own voice. Our own opportunity to be heard and seen and felt. But why should we have to continue to clamor to even get wedged into a corner space, not even sitting at the table? Why not create our own spaces and stop fighting over the leftover crumbs corporate entities can offer us as an afterthought?
The answers to some of the questions are so obvious they're damning, thundering, roaring. The same lack of access to funds which prevents many PoC from latching on to otherwise great, possibly career-defining opportunities, can stop us in our tracks when we step out on our own two feet, when we dare and leap to chart our own course, create our own spaces.
Perhaps a viable direction is venture capitalism for us. Investing in ourselves to launch us forward or calling on others who have the means to support us, by lending their financial backing. Or identifying organizations already doing such work and encouraging them to continue to do so and urging they do more and more and more of the same.
But most vital, I believe, is the insistence in seeing the intrinsic value ourselves, instead of seeking so rabidly the validation from others, from other entities, to make us feel secure, in order to further greater representation of faces which look like ours on television screens. We don’t have to scrape the bottom of the barrel. We don’t have to fumble around in opportunities which don’t pay us our full worth. This is where these diversity initiatives fall short. They recognize the lack of inclusion pointed out to them by external sources, despite a clear of history of a sea of White faces. Because of that, these opportunities fail to supply us with our greatest need—seeing ourselves as worthy, talented assets.
We don’t need another diversity initiative. What we need is seat at the table, from the very beginning.
Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.