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raceAhead: Riz Ahmed on Representation

June 5, 2018, 5:44 PM UTC
Riz Ahmed poses at the Emmy Awards. he wears a bowtie and a blue ribbon.
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Actor Riz Ahmed poses in the press room at the 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic

I’m headed down to Washington, D.C. to the Nielsen Consumer 360 conference, tagline: Confronting What’s Next.

In my case, what’s next will be a short on-stage conversation with Riz Ahmed, the British Pakistani actor, rapper and activist who will share his insights on representation in the entertainment industry and why it matters.

You may know (and love) him from his star turn as pilot Bodhi Rook in Rogue One, and for his Emmy-award winning performance in HBO’s The Night Of, but he’s got a serious take on diversity and inclusion – and what it’s like to break the “terrorist” stereotype at work but not at the airport– that should not be missed.

Last year, he delivered an annual lecture on diversity to Parliament, sponsored by the U.K.’s Channel 4, in which he shares his personal story, presses for support for the arts, and recommends busting unconscious bias by using public money to incentivize representation quotas in business and government.

He also draws a bright line between the lack of representation in front of and behind the camera and national security:

If we don’t step up and tell a representative story, we are going to start losing people. We are going to start losing people to other stories. We are going to start losing British teenagers to the story that the next chapter in their lives is written with Isis in Syria. We are going to see the murder of more MPs like Jo Cox because we’ve been mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be.

In the mind of the Isis recruit, he’s the next James Bond right? Have you seen some of those Isis propaganda videos, they are cut like action movies. Where is the counter narrative? Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories, that they valued?

Should be an important conversation. Want something you’d like me to ask him? Hit me back on email, Twitter or LinkedIn, and I’ll see what I can do.

On Point

Supreme Court rules in favor of wedding cake baker v same-sex couple in a closely watched decisionLegal experts are calling it a narrow decision, meaning that it is specific to the case, and doesn’t set broad precedent. But it feels like a setback to the LGBTQ and ally community who had hoped that the Supreme Court would put the issue to rest. The Court dodged it instead, saying that the Colorado baker who objected to serving a same-sex couple on religious grounds did not get a fair hearing on his complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Justice Anthony Kennedy said that Colorado law "can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions that are offered to other members of the public, [but] the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion."Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. NPR

Puerto Ricans pay tribute to their lost loved ones
A new installation in front of the capital building in San Juan, Puerto Rico functions as a memorial of the loss of life in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and a request to the world to bear witness. Hundreds of pairs of shoes were placed in tribute to the more than 4,000 people who died from the storm and due to delayed and inadequate care, as estimated by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.“It is the time for sorrow, it is the time to hug each other, it's the time to really say goodbye in honor and in dignity,” said the installation organizer, Gloribel Delgado. “GENOCIDIO,” said a hand-written sign placed amid the neat row of empty shoes.
ABC News

Have we reached peak diversity?
The tech sector, in particular, has taken on diversity in a very public way. First by leading the way in publishing their diversity stats, then by making public declarations to fix what was clearly broken. Now, some five years and three Congressional visits later, it seems that momentum has slowed. Not only are the numbers not budging, a new survey of 1,900 tech workers finds that people are discouraged. “I’m calling it the Venn diagram of exhaustion,” said Aubrey Blanche, head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian, the software firm that created the now-annual survey. The exhaustion is different wherever you are in the conversation, but Joelle Emerson founder of diversity consultant firm Paradigm, says it’s partly because people focusing on the negative. “We’re mostly having a conversation about all the things going wrong, which is important,” she said, “but can feel paralyzing for some people.”
Los Angeles Times

What the hottest television showrunners are up to…with Colin Kaepernick?
Vanity Fair recently checked in with some of television hottest show-runners, Sam Ismail of Mr. Robot and Marta Kauffman of Grace and Frankie among them, to see what’s next for them. All of it is interesting and paints an entertainment world populated by increasingly diverse – and aware – power players. But buried in this fascinating snapshot of Ava DuVernay’s busy life was this juicy tidbit: She’s working on TV comedy series with Colin Kaepernick that centers on his high-school life. “It’s Friday Night Lights meets Everybody Hates Chris,” says DuVernay. “What’s not to love?” What indeed? No other details are provided, please provide some when you know something.
Vanity Fair


The Woke Leader

An icon for Japanese working women announces she’s gay
Kazuyo Katsuma has been such an inspiring figure that aspirational women have come to call themselves “Katsumers,” in hopes of harnessing some of her Japanese Girl Magic. It makes her coming out story even more important. She tells Buzzfeed Japan that she had feelings for both men and women back in school, but was clear that same sex attractions were seen as a “bad thing.” But recently, the divorced economics commentator and McKinsey, Arthur Andersen, and JP Morgan alum decided to share her feelings with her old high school friend Hiroko Masuhara, who has become a well-known LGBT rights activist in Japan. The two have been together since 2016, though they only became public a few days ago. There has been a slow acceptance of same sex relationships in the country and Masuhara’s former partner graciously hopes that the announcement will make the pair the “first power lesbians” in Japan.  

More multi-racial families in commercials: Sign of the times or cynical marketing move?
RaceAhead readers tend to have mixed feelings on the subject. The New York Times sees a trend in marketing as JPMorgan Chase, Humira, State Farm, Smile Direct Club, Coors Light, Macy’s, Tide, and Cadillac have all featured mixed race or otherwise multi-cultural or LGBTQ families in their advertising, nearly double that from five years ago. “I think there’s an ever-increasing demand from customers to understand not just what products and services you provide but also to understand who you are as a company, what your values are,” says Fiona Carter, the chief brand officer of AT&T. Hey, I’m old enough to remember when the first black Mr. Goodwrench came along. It felt like we’d arrived somehow. Sadly, the only evidence I could find of him was this guy. But still, it meant something back in the day.
New York Times

A daily dose of empathy
Corey Ponder, a tech professional and a raceAhead regular reader, weighs in with a rallying cry of corporate culture that emphasizes shared responsibility: Nothing else here is someone else’s problem. The willingness to tackle issues outside of your job description institutionalizes empathy, he says. It came in handy for him back in 2016, when the spate of police shootings left him shook. “I tried to conduct myself with a ‘business as usual’ attitude, leaving that part of myself to be sorted out off the clock,” he says. But his manager did something unusual. She asked him how he was, and then she checked back, and listened. “In that very moment, she created an opportunity for processing, reflecting, and empathizing,” and that they did it together made a lasting impression. He goes on to offer some advice for making empathy in action a part of your daily life. “Set aside an intentional 5 minutes each day, grab a coffee, or grab lunch with someone,” he says. “Make space.”


I’m not here to talk about black people; I’m here to talk about diversity. Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour – it’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought. Because if you have genuine diversity of thought among people making TV & film, then you won’t accidentally shut out any of the groups I just mentioned. Anyway, on the whole, I don’t think of myself as just a ‘black actor’. I’m an actor, not a number. Just like anyone else.
Idris Elba