Hollywood needs to move past ‘diversity’

The first time I saw myself on television was in Justin Simien’s 2017 version of Dear White People on Netflix. I was Joelle, the smart, beautiful, quick dark-skinned black college freshman. There were issues with her character but she was the closest I had ever seen to my experience on a mainstream platform.

The second time I saw myself on screen was in 2018’s Black Panther. The black women in this film were beautiful, strong, smart and funny. I saw myself in Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje warriors–as a black belt in Kenpo karate I often felt like women in combat and martial arts roles are rarely present in popular media. Black women are often depicted as aggressive not strong and restrained like Okoye and I found myself to be.

Hollywood is so focused on cramming racial diversity into a single film that they often miss the point of representation and inclusion.

I feel strongly about diversity and inclusion but I am growing to dislike the word diversity.

To me, diversity initiatives seem like a challenge to studio executives to pick one of each ethnicity, gender or nationality to have roles in random shows or films.

Focusing on diversity allows for movies like The Help (2011)— a film with two female black leads who were caricatures of black women with little to no dimensions — to exist simply for white audiences to pat themselves on the back. Hollywood also misinterprets movies about black trauma and slavery as diversity and inclusion. It’s upsetting to see people who look like me only win awards when they are on the receiving end of a whip in the Antebellum South. It shows young girls and boys like me that we are only important when we are submissive and/or in pain.

I think a better word would be representation. It’s diversity if you have a named black character playing a thug or a slut on a show full of white characters…it is representation to have a black nerdy girl in a lead role as a fully realized character. With representation, the impetus is on the kind of character not just the number of characters, which I believe is far more impactful in the grand scheme of things.

Even though I saw myself in these characters of Okoye and Joelle, I saw them after I turned 18.

Unlike many diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood, representation is most valuable when it is targeted to younger audiences, not to the members of the Motion Picture Academy.

I grew up with a very white Disney Channel. I never saw anyone who looked or acted like me and I believe that is one of the reasons for my self-esteem issues. Not only was I not reassured by the media I consumed, but my white peers were also not taught to find me or people who looked like me attractive. By catering to younger audiences, film executives have the power to reshape the normal for future filmmakers and scientists and lawyers and activists of the world. An emphasis on representation and portraying real people with real flaws and interests in different environments will ensure a level of self-esteem that did not exist for me and my peers who grew up without much representation. According to UCLA Sociologist and media researcher Darrell Hunt: “there are a few bright spots in television: Broadcast TV and children’s series are increasingly diverse and do well in the ratings. Most babies born in America today are not white,” Hunt notes, “so if you look at children’s programming, it’s unmistakable that you must have diversity, otherwise the show fails.’” Hollywood is far from perfect, but there it is moving forward.