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Episode Fourteen: “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism” with April Reign

Simran Jeet Singh Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining our program,” Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism.” I’m your host, Simran Jeet Singh, and I’m so delighted to be joined today by April Reign. She’s the creator of the hashtag #Oscarssowhite, which many of you probably remember, and she’s the founder of a new […]

Simran Jeet Singh
Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining our program,” Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism.” I’m your host, Simran Jeet Singh, and I’m so delighted to be joined today by April Reign. She’s the creator of the hashtag #Oscarssowhite, which many of you probably remember, and she’s the founder of a new digital content studio that advances opportunities for people of color. It’s called Ensemble and it’s with Overture Global. And we’ll, we’ll talk a little bit more about what she’s doing and why it matters in a moment, but before we get there, I just want to give a word on the program. Our vision is to offer two things that we believe the world needs badly right now.

First we want to offer insight into what’s actually going on with racism. What does it look like? How does it happen? And, and really every episode we try and take a particular aspect and walk through it. Our goal is to help us understand how racism affects people at a personal level and at a systemic level. And the impulse there comes from James Baldwin, who beautifully stated, if I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.

The other thing we hope to do here is to receive guidance from our expert guests on how to move from just understanding racism into actually taking action. And this may come as wisdom on how to grapple with the racist ideas embedded within ourselves. It may come as guidance on actions we can take to address the racism all around us. At the end of the day, what we’re really looking to do is turn our learnings into action because, as Angela Davis said so profoundly, in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.
So that’s the goal. It’s, it’s a spiritual journey. It’s a political journey. It’s, it’s a collective journey. But what we’re really hoping to do together is to push back against racism and all the forms. We encounter it within our lives. So today I’m really excited to introduce, to those of you who don’t know her, April Reign.

She’s the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and she’s the founder of this new digital content studio called Ensemble. And it advances opportunities for people of color in front of, and behind, the camera. She’s the vice president of content strategy. And I’m so excited to talk to her. She’s huge on Twitter, if you don’t follow her already. That’s how I connected with her initially.

So thank you April. Thanks so much for being here and, how’s everything going on your end? How are you doing you?

April Reign
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here. Everything is going relatively well. You know, I actually experience some guilt sometimes, because I have been very blessed and fortunate that my immediate family is still healthy, you know, our bills are still getting paid. And I know that that is not the case for so many people. So in the grand scheme of things, you know, we’re doing okay for now.

Yeah. Yeah. That’s good to hear. And it’s also good to maintain the perspective. I’m, I’m with you on the, on the guilt that comes with that privilege, especially, especially in this moment. So I appreciate you. I want to start by asking you what I asked a lot of my guests and that’s around your first encounter of racism. Do you have a, do you have a striking memory, is there a moment in your life where someone was racist towards you or you experienced discrimination, and it kind of lit up a light bulb in your head, I guess?

I do, and, I am 50 years old, and this happened when I was 10, so it’s been 40 years and it’s still very top of mind.
Summertime — we lived in a lovely, you know, lower middle-class community. We had a community pool. My parents both worked outside the home full time. And so during the summers, it was up to, you know, me and my brother to entertain ourselves very often while our parents were at work. And so my mother would allow us to go, my parents would allow us to go, to the community pool. And I love water. There’s something very grounding for me about being near water, especially the ocean, but if I can’t get to the ocean, then it’s a pool. And so I would go every single day, and not wear sunscreen at all, which I know is horrible but I was 10 and whatever. And so I would get very tanned and very dark-skinned. And my hair, because I had some chemicals in my hair and because of the chlorine from the, from the pool, my hair would actually turn orange or very light orange. So here’s this very dark-skinned girl with orange hair and I will be there every single day, and I remember, that, you know, it was — whatever they call it — the rest time. Like, you know, every 10, you know, every 10 minutes of every hour, they make you get out of the pool so they can do whatever it is that they do. And so we were sitting on the shade, in the shade, just waiting to get back into the pool. And for some reason, unprovoked, a little white kid called me, a ‘fuzzy haired F-word.’

You know, the, the gay slur, which I that’s just what he had. And, you know, but it was clearly more race-based, than it was with respect to sexual orientation. Cause I’m, I’m not an F-word. But I did have fuzzy hair that day. And, and it has always stayed with me. You know, it was unprovoked. We weren’t in the middle of a conversation and he needed to throw something at me.

You know, that’s just what he called me as he was walking by. And I, you know, when you hear stories like this, you always think, you know, when you hear it, you always say, Oh, well, if I had been there, I surely would have said XYZ. But in that particular moment, I was so taken aback that there was nothing that I could say.

It, it, it took me a while to even register what he had said, and then try to figure out why — because again, we weren’t interacting, we weren’t fighting it, wasn’t it, you know, you know, it never would have been anything that I had deserved, but it, it, it wasn’t even expected. And that has always stayed with me — you know, why would someone, have that type of hate in their heart for no reason at all? Just because I existed.

Yeah, I, I appreciate that. And I’m thinking through it and I have so many similar, similar stories of, of those moments where it’s unprovoked and, and you’re kind of caught off guard and you don’t respond. And so here’s my question as a follow-up. How did you, how did you process that? Right? So in the moment you didn’t say anything. Did you walk away and an hour later or start processing and wish you had said something? Or, you know, 40 years later, 20 years later, did that stick with you and you looked back and you’re like, I wish, I wish I knew this when I was 10?

Yeah. I, I try to give myself some grace, you know, cause I was 10. So which means I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade. You know, and I wouldn’t expect any kid to have the wherewithal to be able to process something that quickly. I vaguely, I remember telling my mother maybe that evening when she got home from work or something, or maybe it was the next day. And my mother, not unlike me, I definitely get it from her, you know, was in full mama bear mode. You know, protect the cubs, you know, make it, make things better for them. And so, you know, she was on level, whatever bazillion, you know — what do you want to do? We can shut that whole pool down — you know, how do you want to handle this?

And I said, no, you know, I just want to let you know it happened. And so then she went through asking, you know, did I recognize the kid? And, you know, did I feel safe going back to the pool? And, you know, and so we worked it through that way. So it was more of a safety issue then, you know, and then we sort of had the conversation about race and racism and, you know, and, and these were continuing things. You know, my, my parents were both active in the Civil Rights Movement. So, you know, we had had those conversations about what it means to be a Black child in America, you know.

And I attempt to have those conversations with my children, especially my son, who is 20 and you know, off on his own at college and, you know, driving, and driving while Black is a thing. So, you know, we have conversations about what to do when — not if — you’re pulled over, as much as we have conversations about, you know, the classes that he’s taking.

I appreciate that. And I’m thinking about, you know, so, so often we think about people’s experiences of racism as happening in one moment, and then we think about these big moments of activism as, as single separated moments. Right? And so for you, for example, I asked you this question of what happened when you were a kid, and so you told me 10 years old, and then what you’re most well known for is your work with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, right? That global movement that, that really got attention all over the world and for all communities.
And so it could be so easy for us to kind of point and say like, Oh, this thing happened to you, and then, however, 30 years later, this other thing happened to you. Right? And I guess what I’m interested in knowing is, what is, what does the process look like for you, the journey into activism, right? You mentioned your parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. You’re talking now about conversations you have with your kids. But is there, is there a sort of thread that connects your childhood into your, your activism and your work today?

Absolutely. So the, the ten-year-old incident was the first one that I remember. The next one happened when I was probably 16. My dad was in the military. We moved around a lot. I went to three different high schools in three different states. That last high school, we moved there in March of my junior year. Okay? So I had like three months of my junior year and then my entire senior year. As many of your watchers and listeners know, you know, if, if you’re planning to go to college, you apply for college the fall of your senior year. Okay? And so as part of that process, you have to get recommendations from your high school counselor and, you know, write the personal statement and all the rest of that stuff.

And back in those days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was applying for college, you know, everything was written, you know. If you’re lucky, if you had a typewriter, but you know, the applications were thick and, you know, you had to get a postmark by a certain date as opposed to submitting everything online now.

So anyway, so I had been there for two months, March through May of my junior year, and then starting in the fall, starting in August or September, and this, this college, this excuse me, this high school was in Georgia. You know, I had to reach out to my counselor now. I always had good grades, never got in trouble.

So, you know, I was, I think top, I think I was number 17 out of 536 students when we graduated. I was, you know, 17 with respect to GPA or whatever it was. You know, had never been called to the office, and that kind of thing. And so in the fall, when it was time for me to submit my college applications, I asked my counselor for a, a recommendation.

And at that time you could choose whether the recommendation would be private. So, you know, I thought, well, there’s no reason, there’s no issue. So I just checked yes, meaning I could not then see the recommendation that she had written for me. Okay? So she did it and you know, and my applications went out. And then again, I had the grades, I had the scores, you know, I, everything looked perfect for me to start getting into some of the best schools in the country. And I started getting rejection letter after rejection letter, after rejection letter. And I could not understand why. You know, and I had people working with me on my personal statement. There was just no reason why I wasn’t getting into the schools that I had chosen.

So eventually my mother, again, mama bear, somehow contacted an admissions officer at one of the schools to which I had applied and been denied, and that person said to her in some — you know, I can’t tell you what’s in that recommendation, but you should get a lawyer. And so we found out, you know, obviously I, I can’t say for sure, but again, this woman who knew me for maybe three months and who had never really interacted with me and definitely never for anything negative, had written such a scathing review of me that it turned off admissions officers. And so I didn’t get into my top choices for college.

So that was incident number two. And obviously that one has stayed with me as well, because it affected the trajectory of my life. You know had I been able to go to this school as opposed to that school, who knows? So anyway, I went off to college, and, had a, had a, an, an interesting experience.

I opened, I ended up at the University of Texas at Austin. No regrets, you know, great education. They had a top 10 business school and a top 10 law school at that time. I knew I wanted to go to both. I knew that after moving around so much that I want it to be in one place for seven years, ’cause I’m not sure that I’d been able to say that I’d ever done that, or really at least not for a really long time.

So undergrad and law school, seven full years in one place was the goal. And because their schools were good, it ended up being a great choice for me. and then on campus, spring of 1990, so I was — I skipped a grade, I was like a year younger than most of my colleagues — so I was 19, spring of 1990, my junior year, a white fraternity had a three on three basketball tournament fundraiser kind of thing as they did all the time.

Now, 1990 was the era of Michael Jordan, right? He was the biggest thing in sports, not just basketball. And what they had done is, for the basketball team tournament, they had t-shirts made. And so they had the body of Michael Jordan in the, you know, the jump man pose, but they had the face of Sambo.

In 1990. And, so I was, I think vice president of the Black Student Alliance on campus, and we had 3% Black students. So in a school of 50,000, we had, I think the number was 1,836 Black students. And so we knew we almost knew all of each other. We, you know, we kept a very close and tight-knit group.

And so we mobilized. We moved into action. And so there’s a picture on the Austin American Statesman, the, the local city paper there with me, I’m leading a march to the fraternity house, right off campus, literally across the street from campus, to demand some changes.

And there were other issues too. At one point we had to sit-in, we had conversations with the vice president of student affairs. We, there was a hunger strike And during all this, you know, again, I’m a 19-year-old kid. I had my own apartment at that time. And we started getting death threats. So I had, really big hulking football players escorting me to and from my home, because there was concern about my safety.

I kept a suitcase in the trunk of my car for several weeks, because there was concern that, you know, maybe I wouldn’t be able to go home on a particular day, and so I wanted to make sure I had what I needed with me, for a couple of days, at least. You know, and of course I’m still trying to go to class, you know, and I’m still trying to just be, you know, a young woman on campus living her life.

And so, part of that was when my activism, or advocacies, started, you know — speaking up on behalf of fellow Black students on campus. And then it just sort of continued. It’s always been part of my DNA to attempt to help people less fortunate than me. And very often those, my attempts have been more race-focused than another marginalized community.

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for sharing those stories. I mean, on one hand, I can’t imagine being in that position and having that situation. And on the other hand, it’s, it’s almost like what’s, what’s changed in the last, sorry — what’s changed in the last 30 years, right? What you described there, it’s not just that it could have been today. It’s that it does happen today, and a lot worse happens today. So it’s it’s, I don’t know — we, we often, when we think about racism and racist experiences, we try and distance ourselves and be like that, that couldn’t happen here or that couldn’t happen now. And, and I think it’s important for us to recognize like — yes, there’s important progress. Yes, there’s activism. But there’s also a lot of, a lot of it stands still. And it, and it doesn’t go anywhere. It might go backwards, right? It’s not a linear progression at all times.

And — let me, let me ask you, as, as you sort of continued on your journey, you know, you, you, weren’t doing this as a full time career, right? Like you had, you had like, as you, as you mentioned that you, you were still a student when you, when you were doing this activism and you’ve, you’ve had your own professional journey. And that’s true when you, when you brought up the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

And if I can ask you to talk a little bit about why, why you brought that forward, where it came from. And, and what I mean, just, just the genesis of it — like what you thought might come out of it, what were you trying to say, and hoping people might hear.

So, #OscarsSoWhite was not my first viral hashtag and it wasn’t my last, and it, hashtags come apart — come, come to fruition in two different ways. Sometimes they’re organic. You know, you, you’re just out there and you’re not expecting anything, you’re not looking for anything. And it just happens — something goes viral and then, you know, you decide what you want to do with it. And other times they are intentional. So, you know, these are the goals. This is, you know, the message I’m trying to get out there. This, you know, this is what, I’m trying to communicate with folks.

#OscarsSoWhite was a former. I was, as you mentioned, still a full-time practicing attorney. I was practicing campaign finance laws. So there was no, I had no nexus to the entertainment industry whatsoever. I was getting ready for work and watching the Oscar nominations ’cause the Oscars were like my Super Bowl. And that particular year, 2015, January 2015, when the nominations were being read on one of those morning shows, there were no people of color nominated in any of the acting categories. That’s 20 slots, best actor and best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress.

And this was the year that gave us Selma, that gave us Beyond The Lights, that gave us Dear White People, which is now a popular TV series, and a few other films. So there were definitely talents out there. But people were snubbed or overlooked or whatever word you wanna use. And so I just picked up my phone, which is typically embedded in my forearm, jumped on Twitter and said #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. And that was it. I was being snarky and sarcastic. I was also late from work, you know. So I went on to work. I checked in on Twitter around lunchtime and the hashtag was trending around the world based on that one tweet. And I was being snarky and sarcastic and the responses and the uses of the hashtag were equally so. So, it was, you know, things like #OscarsSoWhite, they wear Birkenstocks in the wintertime. #OscarsSoWhite, they think mayonnaise is too spicy. You know, issues like, you know, things like that. And so it wasn’t until a couple of days later when the conversation sort of shifted to an actual conversation about representation, and diversity and inclusion with respect to the Oscars initially.

And then over the years, the conversation has broadened to the entire entertainment industry. And in fact, and — so I, so I didn’t have any goals, you know. And then it’s like, well, you’ve got this viral hashtag, what do you want to do? You know, do you want to be, you know, do you want this to be a moment? And then you just move on or is there something here? And if so, do you want to be the face of it? And so we started having those conversations and in fact, I had to very quickly educate myself — because again, I was just being snarky, you know, it’s like, well, how white are the Oscars? And it’s like, you know, once I started the research, it’s like, Oh, you know, like, copy paper white.

You know, like, you know, yeti in the middle of winter storm white. And so then, you know, we had deeper conversations on Twitter, but it wasn’t until a year later, 2016, when yet again, for the second time in a row, they were no people of color nominated for the, any of the acting categories that #OscarsSoWhite really took off. And I think part of that was people thinking, Oh, well, you know, one time as a fluke, but two times is a pattern. So maybe we need to listen to, you know, what this crazy lady is talking about and see if she actually is, if there’s anything there. And in fact there was. And in 2016 year, two of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy of Motion pictures, Arts and Sciences, the folks who run the Oscars, undertook several initiatives to increase the diversity among their ranks, among them doubling the number of people of color and — committing to doubling the number of people of color and doubling the number of women within their membership ranks by 2020, by this year.

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And I think, part of what I didn’t know about the story was what that initial tweet looked like. I guess I had never like kind of did the groundwork of going back to see what the, what, where it started. I guess for me, the, what’s what’s interesting, and what I’d like to hear from you about is — on the one hand, you’re saying you hadn’t done the research, you didn’t know the numbers for every year of how many people of color were included in the Oscar nominations. But something that morning as you were watching the shows and watching the nominations, something triggered you and you noticed that all the, all the actors and actresses were nominated were white.

And so I, I’m interested to know, like, what is that experience like? What, what was it about your own psychology that made you notice? That makes a lot of America not notice? What made you speak up? Like you, you, it seems like you had a sense that there was a there, there before you did the research and before everyone else jumped on the bandwidth.

You’re very kind. And I would like to tell a more informed story. I’m not sure what it was. You know, what I will say is that in January of 2015, I had been on Twitter for almost five years. I started in 2010, and I have learned so much from people who are clearly much smarter than me and much more knowledgeable than me on Twitter than I ever did in college or law school.

And so I think that part of, part of what triggered in me that day is it just taking in some of the learning that I had done in the, you know, in those years, I mean, you know, unlearning racism, becoming anti-racist, you know, just becoming an adult. You know? A full-fledged, compassionate human, is a lifelong journey.

And so there isn’t anything particular that I can say, you know, that it struck me that particular day, because you know, this wasn’t the first time. And as I mentioned, not the last time that no people of color were, were nominated in any of those categories. And so I, I can’t tell you, unfortunately, you know, if there was something that triggered in me — it, it just, it felt wrong. Right? And, and sometimes that’s what you have to go with — you know, something doesn’t feel right. And so I need to speak up. And at that time I had eight, about 8,000 followers, I think. Which is no small number. It’s not the obscene number that I have now. You know, but I, I like to think that I have curated an engaged following both then and now.

And so once we started, you know — so I can’t tell you what the trigger is. But then once we started having those conversations, it became very, very interesting, to continue having those discussions about, you know, the difference between diversity and equity and inclusion. Because they’re not synonymous, you know. And, and what things should look like. And the fact that, you know, once you have the phrase ‘Oscar winner’ after your name, it doesn’t carry as much weight as one would think, especially if you’re a Black woman.

You know, we don’t have to get into all the minutia there, but you know, as I was able to pull the curtain back a little bit and really get into my research and start talking to people and then eventually, you know, meeting people in the entertainment industry and having those more in-depth conversations, it made me realize, you know, one, the Oscars aren’t any different than any other awards organization, you know, and they all have their problems. And two, perhaps we, as entertainment consumers, put too much stock into them when determining what we should and should not see. And three, that it’s not just the award shows, you know — that we have to start with respect to Hollywood and who the gatekeepers are, you know — who green lights those films? Who keeps giving us, you know, slavery porn every single year?

And that’s sort of the only thing it feels like that Oscar voters will, you know, be drawn to. That kind of thing. So you know, all of those questions and and issues are things that I had to learn over the years. And so there, there wasn’t really a — I don’t know that there was a thing that, that particular January morning, that, you know, clicked on for me and said, Hey, you know, you need to — you know, this correlates with everything that you’ve been talking about all this time. It just, it really was just very natural.

Yeah, no.

I see a question in the chat. So I don’t, I don’t know what the question is yet, but…

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll, I’ll, I’ll get to the questions in a moment. And if you’re listening and watching, this is “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism,” and we’re with April Reign, the creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and she does a lot of work in the space of media and representation and race. And that’s what we’re getting into right now. So this is, this is where I’m most excited about our conversation, April.

What you’re, what’s your describing as, as your experience, it really resonates for me because in previous episodes, we’ve talked to folks who, who have explained how, how normalization works, how — and normativity, that you’re so used to whiteness, that you don’t even notice that it’s the norm until someone points it out — and so for me, growing up in, in the states, I’d never really thought about representation in the way that we’re talking about it now.

And once people started having that discussion and I started tuning in, I was like, Oh yeah, of course. Like, that’s my experience too. But kind of like you’re describing, I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on it before. I guess what I’d like to hear from you a little bit more on is, is around this idea of representation, right?
There’s a lot of conversation and, and there’s a, there’s now, I mean, I guess you could even say it’s an overused cliche that representation matters. So, so talk to us a little bit about that idea. What, what is the value of representation? Not just on award shows, but, but also in media, generally.

Everyone, regardless of who they love, or who they are pray to, or what they look like, or where their family is from, or you know, how they move in the world deserves to see themselves represented on screen. You know, deserves to have a story like theirs told. And so that’s why representation matters, you know, and not just in the entertainment industry, you know, but, you know, there are pieces of it. You know, art imitating life and life imitating art.

So the fact that we have something like Doc McStuffins, you know, the little Black girl who pretends to be a doctor, I guess, who is a doctor, you know, that’s important for little girls of color to see, Oh, you know, I can do that. I can become a doctor. It’s also important for little boys to know that, yes, there can be female doctors in the world. You know, all doctors don’t have to be men because that was an issue for a while as well, way back in the day. You know, it’s important that we have, you know — representation also helps us understand communities that are not ours. So, you know, having Pose on TV, opened up a lot of eyes to the trans community, right?

And, and it’s — to me, it’s all about normalizing inclusion. You know, you just, you don’t need to think about the fact that she is trans. She’s just trans and she loves the color yellow and, you know, and she eats pickles, but only on Saturdays. Like everything, you know, should have its place in the world, and we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t pigeonhole people or try to label them because, you know, they belong to one community or another.

That’s just an innate part of who they are. And so, you know, talking about representation in the corporate world, you know, what does it mean to attempt to, you know, ascend within your particular company or organization, but never have a mentor, you know, who identify, identifies similarly to the way that you do, who can help, you know, scale that ladder of success? You know, so if you’re a Latina and there aren’t any Latinas in your company in the C suite, who do you rely on? You know, who do you ask questions of to say, how do I get to where you got? I’m dealing with, you know, microaggressions, you know, how, how do I work with that? You know, so it, it matters everywhere. You know, the fact that we have Afro Latinos in baseball, you know, that can be some little boy’s dream, right? The fact that we now have a woman coach in the NBA, right? Not the WNBA, but the NBA, all of those things matter. It’s unfortunate that we are here in 2020, and we’re still talking about first in so many categories.

And so the goal is to not talk about firsts, because we have of normalized inclusion, so that people from different marginalized communities, people from traditionally underrepresented communities, are sitting shoulder to shoulder post-COVID, you know, shoulder to shoulder with us, and we don’t even think about it anymore because it just is.

Yeah, I think, I think that makes a lot of sense and it reminds me of this really painful conversation I had with my nephew a few years back, who is an incredible golfer. Young — he was, he wasn’t even a teenager yet, but really good at golf. And I asked him if he wanted to be a professional golfer when he grew up and he said, No, I can’t.
I was like, Oh, why not? And he said, Well, I wear a turban. And you know, on the one hand, I’m laughing in my head because I’m like, what is, what does a turban have to do with golf? But on the other hand, it’s, it’s heartbreaking because it shows you the impact it has on your psychology just to live in a world where you don’t see people like you who are on the stages where you would like to be, or where, what you’re trying to accomplish.

Exactly. Regardless of what industry or chosen profession or occupation you wish to do. You know, it’s, it’s crucial that there is someone there who, you know, can not only help guide your path, but who’s also already blaze that trail, you know? And so for some of us, in some categories, we have to be the people that blaze that trail. And it’s vitally important that we lift as we climb, you know, that we keep that, you know — we break that door down and then we put something really heavy at the bottom to ensure that it stays open so that other people can follow along behind us.

Right. And I think that’s, that’s a really interesting observation. I mean, in my own experience, you know, there’s within the Sikh world, a lot of, a lot of doors that need to be broken up in. But the politics of the first, right, to breakthrough — what does it look like to keep that door open for your community? Maybe it’s not even keeping the door open. It’s like helping to create a ladder to help, you know, some people can get up, right? Like maybe that’s part of the imagery and then part of the politics of how you really engage and build community power and representation.

I’m seeing a question here from Carole and I just, before I get there, I have one more question for you. And this is, this is a question I’d love to hear from you. I know you have experience in the media world and also in the corporate world. So I guess it’s a broad question around the difference between representation and tokenization. So there’s, there’s this impulse, I think everyone now, anyone you talk to will say, yes, diversity is important than representation’s important, but I — there, there, there’s also this feeling so many times, and it’s a frustrating one, where people will just, where it feels like people are doing something superficial. They don’t actually care about changing culture. They just want it to seem like they care, and, and check a box or, or, or create this sort of performance of, of doing what they’re supposed to do. And so can you talk to us a little bit about the difference between those two? How do you, how do you think about that and how do we guard ourselves from falling into that trap?

Yeah, I think we’re seeing a lot of that now, you know, with the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the country, and in fact around the world, organizations and corporations and networks and studios, and everyone else are falling all over each other to attempt to, say, you know, we’re not racist, you know? Maybe not even getting to, you know, we’re anti-racist, but, you know, Black Lives Matter here too. And I, I, I think for me, the easiest way to, differentiate between representation and tokenism is agency. So, yes, you’ve got a Black person in your, you know, fashion clothing ad. I’m trying not to say a specific brand name. You know, but do you have any Black people in the company? Or, you know, who is on, you know, who is on that ad agency? You know, did you hire a Black-owned ad agency to actually get that ad into the market? So I think agency and authenticity. You know, and, and part of authenticity is putting some money behind it.

So for example, if, if I had to, shout out a company that I think does it well, it would be Ben and Jerry’s. Ben and Jerry’s has been down with Black Lives Matter for decades. You know, you visit their place, I think it’s in Vermont, you know, their corporate headquarters and they’ve got Black Lives Matter flags there, and they weren’t just ordered. You know, they’ve been there, you know, flying full staff for, for years and years and years. And they have put money into Black lives, you know, causes that support Black lives.

And so, you know, there have been a lot of Johnny come latelies, especially in the last 30 to 60 days. And so you have to ask the question, do the people that you were hiring now, you know, because the big thing is to hire, you know, a diversity and inclusion specialist or director or something, you know, to say that you did something, but what kind of agency does that person have?

You know, you’ve hired them, but have you changed the hiring process to ensure that you are casting the widest net and getting, you know, the most talented person to work for your organization? You know? Yes, Black lives matters to a particular movie studio and you want to have representation, and so you’re putting out a, you know, a film that reflects one aspect of the Black experience. I don’t like to say Black films or Latinx films, or what have you. But you know, so your film represents what in the aspect of one of the experience, but are you supporting that film with your marketing dollars?

Right? So very famously back in 2014 when Selma, Ava DuVernay’s film, was released, you know, here’s this huge film about the march and Martin Luther King and John Lewis, may they both rest in peace. And yet when it came time for awards consideration, the studio did not send out the screeners. So, you know, the Oscar members are able to get the films delivered to their homes so they don’t actually have to sit in, you know, movie theaters with, you know, us common folk to see the films, but the studio didn’t send out the screeners. You know, if you’re an A-list actor or director and you don’t have the convenience, you know, to watch the film in your home, you may not see it. And if you don’t see it, you may not vote for it.

And so, you know, that’s the difference between tokenism — you know, I’m going to put a Black face on this ad. I’m going to say, I’m doing this quote-unquote Black project, but I’m, you know, I’m going to, you know, not put full steam into it. You know, and this is coming from a lower levels of management, but you know, when you get to the C suite, you don’t have full buy-in on issues of anti-racism. That’s tokenism. You know, actual representation is making sure that the people that you do put in place have agency to bring on more who looked like them and from other marginalized communities and that they are given the resources, both financial and otherwise to actually make the structural changes that need to happen.

Yeah. Thank you. That’s, that’s super powerful and clarifying. And if I can ask you to bring it back to Hollywood for a moment, is that a change we’re starting to see now are, are now that the curtains have been pulled open? Right? And they’ve been — it’s not, it’s not just that Hollywood’s been exposed. It’s also that many of us who weren’t noticing before have been awakened to this problem. Right? And partially because of, because of your work, right? Like that’s been, I think really important for many of us. Are we seeing change? Or is — there one of the things you, you mentioned at the outset of our conversation is the importance of gatekeepers, right? So yes, we may be seeing more actors and actresses and, you know, prominent roles, you know, folks of color, but, but are we seeing structural change from the top down or not so much?

I don’t think so. You know, the, the gatekeepers for like all of the major studios are older white men, and that hasn’t changed and they decide what films get greenlit. And, you know, they choose the films that resonate with them and that’s not prejudice or bigotry or whatever. It’s like, you know, well, make more of what I like to see. Stereotypically, what do white men like to see? They love a good war film, which is why, you know, at the beginning of every award season, you can clock it, you know, you can set your watch by it. You know, November, October, November, December, you’re always getting, you know, I think last year was 1917, and you know, you can go back to Platoon and, you know, Apocalypse Now. There’s always a war film every year because that’s what older white men love to see. Right? They, they love to blow stuff up and you know, that — those and all of that. Right?
So what I do think we are seeing, however, is that actors and actresses and others from marginalized communities, you know, we’re talking predominantly race here, are no longer waiting for a seat at the table. They are building their own mansion and putting their table in it. So obviously Ava DuVernay is one of the most famous ones, but other folks like Michael B. Jordan and Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and John Boyega are creating their own production companies. And that’s where they can say, you know, these are the works that we want to see. These are the projects, you know, where we have people of color, people from marginalized communities, both in front of, and behind, the camera.

Because for me, it’s crucially important, not just whose story is being told, but who is telling that story. You know, because if you don’t have the context to tell a story about a particular marginalized group or a particular person from a marginalized community, you’re going to get it wrong. You know, see, for example, Green Book. You know? And there are many many examples of that. So I think the incremental, slow, but steady progress we’re seeing is being led by people who are outside of the big Hollywood bubble in that sense. I think that the rise of digital content, you know, because we were all, you know, sheltering at home, is also creating a change because it’s a lot cheaper to put something on a streaming service than it is to put it on a huge, you know, theater on the screen, in IMAX, or whatever the case may be. And so that provides more opportunities for traditionally underrepresented communities, because it costs less money, and it’s easier to reach someone at Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime or whatever than it is to reach somebody at Universal or 20th Century or Paramount.

So I think those are the changes. You know, as in all things, when we’re talking about systemic change, it almost always happens from the ground up. And then there’s a groundswell. And then people, you know, sitting in those ivory towers, realize, Oh, you know, when we better get on this bandwagon, because at this point, studios — diversity sells. Bottom line. When we’re talking about entertainment, but also in every single industry. The more diverse something is the better it does, whether we’re talking bottom line or box office receipts or whatever the case may be. And so, especially in the entertainment industry, studios and networks who are not actively thinking about being not just more diverse, but more inclusive are literally leaving money on the table at this point.

You know, one quick example is the Fast and Furious franchise, right? They make a bazillion dollars. We’re on like Fast and Furious 42 or something. I think the next one they’re going to Mars. I don’t know. It’s always the same premise. Right? Let’s go blow up a bazillion cars. But, it has one of the most diverse casts of, definitely of any franchise that I can think of. You know, so you’ve got, Vin Diesel, who’s a man of color. You got Tyrese when he’s not messing up. You’ve got women in, you know, real significant lead roles. You have the Rock, who is a man of color. But nobody thinks about that as a diversity film. Right? It’s just a film that everybody loves with, you know, the guys and gals blowing stuff up and driving fast cars. And so that’s an easy, the example of this that, you know, Oh, well, you know, this, this won’t sell well overseas or nobody will come see this. Look at Fast and Furious. And if that is, you know, that should be the metric, right. If we can have people from different communities, and everybody walks still come see that film, then why not make, you know, a quieter film, a smaller film, but include again, people from traditionally underrepresented communities? So that, as we talked about before, everybody has the opportunity to see themselves on screen.

Yeah, no, I think that makes a lot of sense. And you make a strong case for, for why diversity, right? And, and the simple case that diversity, diversity sells, right? It sells films. And at the same time, what I’m hearing you say is, if there’s not structural change within the industry, you won’t have authentic storytelling within the diverse representation, because you’ll have diversity, but you won’t have inclusion. You will have the same folks telling stories of communities they don’t know, and people they don’t know and, and messing it up. Right? And so the danger, I think, the danger you’re describing is one of diversity being commodified, as opposed to being authentically engaged. Right? And that, that to me is the opposite of anti-racism. You’re, you’re at the end of the day, you’re just using people, right? To make more money. And then this is part of what we talk about when we talk about appropriation. So anyway, I’m, I’m totally with you. It’s, it’s really interesting. I’m loving the conversation and I want to go to a question from, from Carole. She’s asking what’s been the most gratifying thing for you through your journey so far.

Hi mom. The, the most gratifying thing I think is that I feel like I’ve made — I don’t like to take credit, because I stand on the shoulders of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte, and so many entertainers who have been screaming about diversity and equity and inclusion for decades even before I was born, using, you know, words that, you know, before diversity equity inclusion, those phrases and words existed. But I feel like we’re at a, it’s a turning point now where my kids will have more opportunities to see themselves accurately and authentically represented on both the big and the small screen due to conversations that have emanated from #OscarsSoWhite and people saying yes, you know, it — we have to somehow take a chance, as if it’s risky, take a chance on people of color, but you know, where we’re going to go in a new direction, which provides more opportunities for people of color, both in front of, and behind the camera.

And you know, this is focused on race, but I just want to make clear that #OscarsSoWhite is about all marginalized communities. So not just race, but also gender and sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and age. You know, we can have, you know, the scruffy James Bond, but God forbid Viola Davis wants to play an action hero — you know, it’s weird. But, so I, I think. That’s what’s most gratifying that it feels like, you know, my kids are going to have it a little easier than I did, even for something like entertainment. And, and I think, you know, for most folks, especially those who are parents, you know, that’s the goal — you know, to make things a little bit easier for the folks coming behind you.

Yeah. Yeah. I love that. And, I’ll say, it’s probably easier for me to, for me to give you credit than for you to take it. But I’ll, I’ll say, you know, you really have made a huge difference in this conversation. And so, to, to speak to that being a gratifying thing for you to see this change and being a part of that, it’s, it’s not unwarranted for sure. Your, your comments about kids, it reminds me of this moment I had with my four-year-old the day before yesterday. I was recording, a video for my, for my new children’s book. And I was just getting ready, actually.

And so I was tying my turban and she was just talking to me about why I was getting ready because she, you know, she was interested. And, and I asked her, you know, I’m doing this book reading and I talk about the book and she likes the book and I asked her, how does it make you feel to have a book with a character, with a turban on it? And she didn’t really say anything. And then I asked her again and like, then I started prompting her because she’s four. Maybe she doesn’t know how to articulate her feelings. And I was like, are you, does it make you happy? Does it make you sad? Does it make you excited? Does it make you angry? And she was like, You know what, dad, I don’t, I don’t think it makes me feel anything.

And so I asked her, I was not expecting that response. I said, What, why doesn’t it make you feel anything? And she said, Well, I have so many books on my shelf with people with turbans. Like, it’s just, I like all those books, but it doesn’t make me feel anyway. And to me it was, it was kind of this unexpected moment of, of what that normalization looks like. Like we’ve, we’ve been very intentional about curating a bookshelf where we have these diverse representations of all communities, but especially our own, but I guess that’s what normal looks like. And when you’re talking about creating this difference for your kids, when they’re seeing films with, you know, Black protagonists and not thinking twice about it being some special moment, like that’s yeah, I had that conversation with my daughter and it was totally — it totally threw me off because I wanted her to be more excited about my book, I guess.

And you’re just one of many now. She doesn’t really care about your book ’cause she’s got seven, seven others that look just like it. But that’s the thing, that’s normalizing inclusion. You know, I think about, the, the importance of having Coco, you know, as a film for little Latinx kids. You know, because when have we ever seen a little Latino and Latina as the star of the show in a film that way? Especially a young person.

You know, the, the Emmys just came, the Emmy nominations just came out and, you know, although we can celebrate the nominations for Black folks, there were no Latino or Latino actors or actresses nominated yesterday. You know, there were, you know, Pose received several nominations, and yet none of the actresses, the trans actresses were nominated. The only person nominated was a cis man. You know, so, you know, Ramy, what is it? Ramy, was nominated and he is the first, that is the first Muslim American show, in 2020, to ever be nominated in that category. So we still have a lot of work to do, but you know, it’s great that, you know, the train is slowly moving forward.

Yeah. Totally. And before you go, I want, I want us to just, you just — tell us what’s next for you? What do you have? What do you have cooking? I know you’re you were working with Ensemble to get it off the ground. What does that look like? And how does it fit into your politics?

So there are two things that I’m working on. The first is Ensemble, which is a digital content studio focused on producing industry work by and for and about people of color and people from marginalized communities. So this is the same thing we were talking about earlier, you know — making the content that you want to see. And so, you know, we’re hoping to provide the resources to make it easier for creatives and artists to do just that. And so that is just kicked off. The other thing that I’m working on, which is news to you, so you started with a surprise and I’m ending with one, is a campaign called She Will Rise, and we will be discussing the need for a Black female Supreme Court justice nominee. Democratic presidential nominee Biden has committed to nominating a Black woman to the Supreme court. And so, the campaign will be dropping shortly, so that we can build a grassroots movement to support that idea. And in fact, ask why it hasn’t happened so far.

Awesome. Oh, that sounds amazing. Oh yeah. That’s, that’s a great surprise to end on. So thank you. Thanks for the, thanks for the surprise. And thanks for all the time. I know it’s a busy season for you. And again, I just want to, from the bottom of my heart, I feel like you’ve had such an impact on my own understanding and knowledge of, of what racism looks like in our society and what we can do about it, so thank you. Thank you for everything you’ve done.

Thank you so much for that. And this was lovely. I enjoy talking to you in person, you know, when the pandemic lifts again and, and online and here as well. So I thank you for providing this forum in this space for people to talk honestly, about issues of race and anti-racism.

Of course, no, it’s my pleasure. And for all of you who have joined today, I’m grateful to you as well. I love being on this journey together to become less racist. This is the last episode of our first season, so just a real sincere thank you to all of you keep moving towards anti-racism. I’ll do so as well. And, and we’ll see you in the next season, of “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting the Path to Anti-Racism.” Thank you all and take care.

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