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Why It’s Important to Have Diverse Characters on TV

If there has been one, consistent bright spot on the diversity landscape, it’s been television.

There’s been an embarrassment of riches lately. From Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, to Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar, to Donald Glover’s Atlanta, to Jill Soloway’s Transparent, audiences are finding sophisticated, fully human characters who present specific identities without apology or outside interpretation.

Consider HBO’s Insecure, the remarkable comedy series created by Issa Rae. The show follows Rae as she navigates love, life and, most cringingly, her job at a mostly-white nonprofit benefiting “underserved” youth. The show springs directly from Rae’s revolutionary web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which had a two-season run from 2011-2013. Fans of Awkward were worried about the jump to HBO, yet Rae has successfully expanded her vision into mainstream television without losing her unique voice. Insecure’s second season is currently underway.

Culture writer Rebecca Carroll has a wonderful review in Esquire, explaining why Insecure—and so many shows like it—are so valuable now:

I found myself from one episode to the next thinking, “Please let her keep making this show, please let her keep making this show.” Because we need it, so much, every bit of it. As we face four years with a President-elect who lacks a clear moral compass and openly advocates for white supremacist values, and after eight years with the country’s first black president, it has never been more urgent for black media makers to create content on mainstream platforms that complicates notions of race and the racism upon which those notions thrive.

This kind of courage is showing up all sorts of places. I’ve fallen in love with Amazon Studio’s Mozart in the Jungle, a ridiculously stylized romp into the competitive world of classical music in New York. It would be a stretch to call it a diversity play; even if you squint and look at it sideways, there’s not much there beyond the flamboyant delights of the emotional centerpiece of the show, a Mexican conductor played by Gael Garcia Bernal.

But there is one episode, however, that does something remarkable and deserves special mention, specifically for its ability to “complicate notions of race.” Without giving too much away: It involves taking a formerly warring symphony (there’s been some drama) to perform a concert on Riker’s Island. It’s styled as a faux documentary about the trip, so it’s easy to dip into this one episode. Everything in it is transcendent, from the music to the setting—including the responses of the real incarcerated men who were temporarily “set free,” as we were temporarily imprisoned.

It’s a master class for storytellers on authenticity and risk-taking. For the rest of us, it’s a surprising look into worlds not our own.

We often ask artists to do the impossible, to offer us painless, fast-food diversions in exchange for a quick escape. Yet, art should also make us do a little work.

So when we give “diverse” creators real access to an audience—which, in television’s case, involves serious money and institutional support—we shouldn’t be surprised by the different worlds they create. But we should be delighted that we can, in theory, safely explore those worlds and the complexity they render and return home more open-hearted than we were before.

Only time will tell if the return on those investments of our attention will yield more than entertainment value. But I’m going to keep watching anyway.

Have a transcendent weekend, everyone.

 

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Programming note: This week, Fortune says good-bye to Pamela Kruger, who, in addition to her other duties, began editing raceAhead when the newsletter was still on shaky foal legs. Her keen judgment always made everything better; in several cases, she saved me from myself. But best of all, she always believed. Pamela is off to be the Digital Director at Columbia Law School, managing video, podcasts, social media, websites and other digital goodies. Follow her at @pamkrugerwriter. Good luck, Pam! And thanks for everything.

 

On Point

Pinterest shows progress and commitment in their latest diversity reportGood job, pinners. After publicly sharing their diversity hiring goals last year, the company just reported that they increased the number of women in technical roles from 21% to 26% and more than doubled the number of people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds to 7%. There’s other good news in the report, but I want to draw your attention to two of their five “lessons learned” from the exercise: That focusing on diversity improved their entire talent process, and that more talk is better. “[W]e would’ve made faster progress if we made sure every hiring manager understood how a diverse company advances our goal of building world class products,” they write.Pinterest Blog

How one venture capitalist is planning for a majority/minority future
As the US moves toward a population when the majority will be people of color, “who by the way spend 30% more of their income on tech and consumer goods than people of other ethnicities,” notes venture investor Marlon Nichols, and “there are unaddressed challenges in their communities—challenges that represent billions of dollars—it makes good financial sense to go after those opportunities.” Nichols is the co-founder and managing partner of Cross Culture Ventures which looks to leverage emerging global trends and invest in promising entrepreneurs of color. One partner is entertainment mogul Troy Carter.
Fortune

Princeton men’s swim and dive team suspended over racist, misogynist materials
The materials in question were “vulgar and offensive as well as misogynistic and racist,” said the university, adding little else, other than to note that the comments were directed at the women’s swim and dive team. Some were found on the team’s listserv. (Stop doing this on listservs. Also stop doing this altogether.) This is the third Ivy League team to be suspended for similar offenses. The 38-member Princeton swim and dive team will learn in the next few days whether the rest of their season will be canceled.
New York Times

Civil rights lawyer: The government doesn’t document hate crimes and it needs to
Arjun Singh Sethi, a civil rights writer, teacher, and lawyer reminds us that although the FBI maintains a database of hate crimes, and encourages local law enforcement to report them, there is no penalty for failing to do so. As a result, hate crimes are consistently under-reported in the US, making it harder for communities to deal with the issue. “Police officers’ lack of knowledge about and contact with certain communities impacted by hate violence compounds the problem,” says Sethi. “Police officers can’t accurately report hate crimes if they don’t know who’s being attacked and why.”
CNN

Latinos support strong environmental laws, putting them at odds with the current administration
A new report by Latino Decisions reviewed a variety of surveys and found about 70% of American Hispanics want the government to take a proactive role on climate change and combating global warming. The findings are supported by other organizations, like Pew Hispanic, who report that the same number believe that climate change is human-caused, a larger number than both white and African American voters.
NBC News

The Woke Leader

Family income, not naughtiness, determines Santa’s route on Christmas
The cheekiness behind the framing of this study is both artful and alarming. A team of public health researchers in the U.K. and the U.S. found that Santa visits to pediatric hospitals dropped precipitously in poor neighborhoods with high unemployment, even if “naughtiness” variables associated with kids—like truancy or criminal activity—were eliminated. But Santa visited every single sick ward in posh neighborhoods. “What made the difference was how socially and economically disadvantaged the neighborhoods were,” they discovered. A brilliant analysis, beautifully presented, and sure to break your heart.
Pacific Standard

Is Dungeons and Dragons racist? Well, it’s complicated
If you’re thinking of gifting your kid Dungeons and Dragons this holiday because the hyper-vigilant son of the only black family on the Netflix series Stranger Things enjoyed it, great idea! But hold up: Some players say the game can take racist turns if you’re not careful. Experts say D&D can be colonialist, with civilized forces vanquishing lesser non-white “savages,” while emphasizing racial loyalty and ethnic supremacy. And we know where that thinking leads. Good news, there’s plenty you can do to customize gameplay. Matthew Colville is a truly charming expert, who tackles these issues and much, much, much more on every possible platform. (D&D’s not racist you say? Don’t @ me, bro. Work it out in the forums.)
YouTube

Three women who are part of the changing ratio of contemporary art
Art Basel, the international juggernaut of art world power and criticism has long been a white man’s domain. But that’s been changing, says art reviewer Lindsay Peoples. She’s identified three up-and-coming artists, Tschabalala Self, Ayana Evans, and Chloe Wise, who are part of reversing that trend. Self and Evans are making art that manages to touch on the experience of being a woman of color without falling into convenient tropes. And says Wise, “In this predominantly male art world, to be able to claim space as a female is something that you have to be really forceful and adamant about.”
New York Magazine

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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
—Francis Pharcellus Church