diversity

Why The Advertising Industry Still Lacks Diversity

Continuing with the same theme from my article a couple of weeks ago about diversity in the media, this week I wanted to touch on the advertising industry.  Like television shows, the TV commercials during the breaks, as well as ads in print and online media are starting to reflect the changing, diverse American landscape.  Just yesterday, I walked by my local Old Navy store, which featured a black woman and white man in an embrace and a biracial child standing in front of them, implying this was an interracial family enjoying the brand’s new winter clothing line.  Then I went to a bus stop and saw an ad from the Chicago Tourism Bureau featuring what could be implied as two gay men also embracing at a festive occasion.  Yes, this is the new normal.

However, in the last few months, there has been a slew of problematic ads getting media attention.  Even when ad agencies have good intentions in their attempt to be more inclusive, they can fail miserably.

Take this above Dove ad.

If you haven’t heard about it already, it featured a black woman morphing into a white woman who morphs into an Asian woman.  The main problem here is that it implies that somehow the soap cleans so well that it changes black skin to white skin.  While Dove claims it didn’t intend to be racist in the ad, the company has a history of using the same racial tropes in their ads.  Just six years ago, Dove was accused of doing the same exact black to white/dirty to clean ad.

Not to mention that there still product advertising using racial overtones in use today – Aunt Jemima Pancakes, Uncle Ben Rice and Chef Frank White (Rastus) on the Cream of Wheat box just to name a few.

Racist soap ads have a long, unfortunate history in America.  From 1875 to 1921, soap manufacturer N.K. Fairbank used this ad featuring a white child asking a black child, “Why don’t you ask your mamma to wash you with fairy soap.  There were other ads with black children getting washed in the tub and come out with white skin.

Unfortunately, I am not surprised that these subtle racial overtones are still used in advertising.  While it is true that the advertising industry is using more diverse imagery in their ad placement, there is still a serious lack of diverse people working in ad agencies.

According to the 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 582,000 Americans employed in advertising, less than half are women, seven percent are black, six percent are Asian and 10 percent are Hispanic.   Comparatively by 2044 when it becomes a minority-majority country, the United States will be 49.7 percent white  (63 percent today), 25 percent Hispanic (17 percent today), 12.7 percent black, 7.9 percent Asian and 3.7 percent multiracial.  Essentially, the ad world is lagging behind the real world!  Most of the major ad agencies in America are still run by older, privileged white men who attended elite schools and only interact with people who look like them, often reflecting the TV show Mad Men, but taking place in 2017, not the 1950s.

Also, if there were not only more people of color in decision-making positions but also more people in general with different perspectives with an understanding of how cultural sensitivity and awareness combines with trends and branding, this problem would greatly improve.  And when I mean being in a decision-making position, I don’t mean the “Chief of Diversity” or some other BS token minority position with no actual power and never disagree with their white peers within today’s corporate environment.  I mean black, Asian, Hispanic and women executives with knowledge and awareness of history and culture who can say, “We can’t run this ad because it’s racist/sexist/homophobic etc.”

I have done work with some larger ad agencies as a subcontracting web graphics developer and I have encountered these racial dynamics in their workplaces, where their token black employee just goes along to get along and agrees with all the dumb ideas from their white co-workers.

So basically until workforce diversity improves, there will be more similar Dove commercials in the future.

How TV Diversity Has Evolved Recently

I loved watching the TV show Sex and the City back in the day.  I liked the first movie and I could have done without the second movie.  The third SATC movie was about to go into production but was halted suddenly because Kim Cattrall, who played Samantha, didn’t want to be in the movie.  Apparently, Cattrall has had a longstanding beef with Sarah Jessica Parker.  However, the biggest takeaway from Cattrall’s reasoning for not doing the movie, for me at least, is that the storyline lacks relevance towards today’s sensibilities around diverse media images.

“It’s a great part. I played it past the finish line and then some, and I loved it,” she said. “Another actress should play [Samantha] — maybe they could make it an African-American Samantha Jones or a Hispanic Samantha Jones.”

She makes an excellent point!  While SATC was groundbreaking 20 years ago, the show seems really outdated today.  When you get down to it, it is a show about four, privileged, heterosexual, white women who seem to only interact with other privileged white people in New York, the most racially diverse city on the planet.  Many TV commentators complained about the lack of diversity on the show at the time.  In later seasons, Blair Underwood joined the show as a brief love interest for Miranda and Samantha also had a short affair with a Latina lesbian, but, again, this was only after complaints from viewers.

Even the revamped Will and Grace is outdated.  This was another groundbreaking show in 1998, but, again, it is a show about four, privileged white people in New York City and their only main “diversity interaction” was with the maid Rosario.

Today, TV viewers expect programs to reflect the current trends and perspectives in America, which includes diverse depictions of characters and relationships.  There is a reason why shows like Insecure and Claws are so popular.  It is not only expected that programs have more characters of color on TV today but also positive depictions of interracial and same-sex relationships.  However, the one perspective that is lacking today on TV is a balanced view of class diversity.  Do you ever notice most sitcoms and dramas today seem to featured upper-middle-class characters?  Roseanne was a great show back in the day because it showed the working class Connors struggling to pay bills just like many other American families.

This also made me think about other shows that were groundbreaking when they first aired, but there would be a question if a show like that would be aired today due to changing sensibilities.  Here are a few that came to my mind.

Benson – RIP Robert Guillaume! This was a really cool show. I loved Benson, but I couldn’t see a show on TV today that would feature a black main character in a subservient role. However, Guillaume did play the role really well and you almost forgot that Benson was a butler!

Soap – Benson was also on this show and was the smartest person among all the crazy white people he was surrounded by. This show wouldn’t be on today mainly because of Billy Crystal’s character, whom by today’s standards, promoted negative stereotypes about gay men and trans women.

Life Goes On – There are not many shows on TV today that even featured characters with disabilities, let alone the main character. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Corky every Sunday night and learning about his challenges with Downs Syndrome. It would be difficult to have a show like this on TV today without some serious thought and sensitivity around how to present characters with disabilities in a balanced manner.

All in the Family – I don’t even think I need to explain why this show couldn’t be on TV today.

Good Times – No, a show about black folks living in the projects wouldn’t be greenlighted today.

Seinfeld – A show about four white people in New York mostly interacting with only other white people in New York.

Friends – A show about six white people in New York mostly interacting with only other white people in New York.  And how were Rachel and Monica able to afford to live in a Greenwich Village apartment on a cafe barista salary?

In Living Color – I was watching reruns the other day of this show on Aspire and realized immediately that almost all of the skits made fun of every possible demographic – homeless people (Anton Jackson), gay men (Men on Film) and even clowns (Homey the Clown).  This show wouldn’t pass muster today.

A Different World – It’s interesting that I include this show. This show would definitely be on TV today, but I think some sensibilities would change.  I was watching a rerun of an episode where Sinbad’s character was making fun of Cree Summer’s character’s natural hair. I remember her natural hair being a running gag on the show. Today, you can’t make fun of natural hair unless you want the whole natural community coming for you.

I am sure there are other shows I don’t remember right now, but you get my point. Maybe 20 years from now, we might be having the same conversation about today’s shows!

Should White People Tell Black Stories?

So I saw the movie Detroit a couple of weeks ago…

It’s not a horrible movie, BUT it was obvious from the very beginning of the film that director Katheryn Bigelow didn’t really have any black consultants in the room to tell her how to best tell this story with sensitivity and empathy.  I can understand the complaints from other black viewers.  This film brings up another conversation about whether white storytellers should tell black stories (or stories of other people of color for that matter).

I am of the belief that it doesn’t really matter what the skin color of the storyteller is; it is more important that the story is told with accuracy and respect.  However, with that said, a black storyteller is going to have a completely different perspective on a historical, racial event than a white storyteller.  This is why I think Bigelow fell short with this film.  Maybe if she consulted with some knowledgeable black folks during the filming process, maybe the film could have been better.

This is not to say that if the film was made by a black director, it would have been automatically much better and on point.  That black director could have been just as tone-deaf with the film.  Nonetheless, more times than not, black directors do black stories better because of the perspective.

Take for instance Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.  There was a similar controversy during pre-production for this film.  Originally, white Canadian director Norman Jewison was to direct the film.  However, Lee and others in the black community protested that it should be made by a black director.  Lee succeeded and took over as director and rewrote the script in his vision with support from black consultants and people who actually knew the slain leader.  Coincidentally, some black leaders like Amiri Baraka were concerned about how Lee would make the film because he was a middle-class black man and Malcolm X represented inner-city, working-class blacks.

Lee also came up against budget restraints from Warner Bros who refused to increase funding for the film.  Luckily, some very wealthy black folks like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Prince came through with funding so Lee could make the film he envisioned.  When it was time to promote the film, Lee requested to only be interviewed by black journalists.

At the end of the day, Malcolm X was a great film not just because a black director made it, but because it was great storytelling.  Before I first saw the film in the theater as a teenager, I didn’t know who Malcolm X was.  But after seeing it, I was inspired to learn more about his life and other black leaders.  While Norman Jewison did a great job directing In the Heat of the Night, I don’t think he would have been able to do justice to Malcolm X’s life because of the perspective.  Also, black folks are very protective of how our leaders are portrayed in the media, due to the long history of sanitizing and white washing black history in this country.  The black community was especially concerned about Malcolm X’s portrayal on film because of some of the controversial things he said about whites before leaving the Nation of Islam and if Jewison was going to make him look more sinister on film.  It mattered to have the right person who would handle his life story with care and accuracy.  I still catch Malcolm X whenever it comes on TV because it still stands the test of time and quality.

So going back to Bigelow’s Detroit, there was literally a problem with this film at the very beginning with an animated telling of the Great Migration.  I assume this was done to give viewers a background on the history of race in the Motor City.  But when I saw this, I thought it trivialized and diminished the story.  I wasn’t sure if I was about to watch a cartoon about a very serious, hurtful event.  Clearly, Bigelow had no black folks there to tell her “No, don’t do that.”

There was also the problem with John Boyega’s character, Melvin Dismukes, who was a security guard patrolling a supermarket who became like a peace negotiator at the Algiers Motel that night.  If you didn’t know anything about Dismukes or the Algiers Motel incident, you wouldn’t understand why he was even in the film.  But yet all the marketing for the film is focused on John Boyega, which is probably because he is the most well-known person in the film. But it still didn’t make any sense.  It would have been better if Bigelow spent more time explaining Dismukes’s background.

Then there is this whole issue of torture in the film.  Not surprised there was so much violence in it, as Bigelow is known for doing movies with lots of violence.  Some black viewers complained about the excessive, graphic depictions of torture by the white police officers.  However, if that level of violence is accurate to what really happened, then that is fine to show in my opinion.  Again, I’m not for sanitizing history.  Ironically, though, it seemed like the film’s violent treatment of the two white girls was less severe than was depicted in John Hersey’s book, which said that they were stripped completely naked and called n*gger lovers.  It was obvious that the black guys at the motel were not being tortured because of a possible gun or sniper in the building, but rather because they were with white women.  Something about the more violent punishments on black male bodies and no discussion on why one of the white women lied about Dismukes being a perpetrator turned off a lot of black viewers.

Maybe the real conversation we should be having here is how to get more qualified black directors and writers to create these black films. While #OscarSoWhite brought much-needed attention for more people of color in front of the cameras, we need to also focus on increasing diversity behind the cameras as well so there can be more balanced storytelling about us.

The Case For Diverse Literature

We Need Diverse Books

A couple of weeks ago I had a really interesting conversation with my friends Linda and Reginald about the need to have more books in K-12 schools representing diverse authors and perspectives.  This talk was spurred on by a recent article by science fiction writer K. Tempest Bradford who challenged readers to stop reading books written by heterosexual, cisgendered white males for a year.  (FYI – cisgendered means someone who psychologically matches the gender they were assigned to at birth, as opposed to transgendered. It’s a new term to me too!).

Bradford says she grew tired of reading other science fiction in mainstream magazines that were mostly written by straight, white guys.  So she took on the challenge to only read works by women, people of color and LGBT writers for one year.  After the year-long “sabbatical,” Bradford said that “cutting that one demographic out of [her] reading list greatly improved [her] enjoyment of reading short stories” and that she now has “a new understanding of what kind of fiction [she would] enjoy most, what kind of writers are likely to write it, and how different the speculative fiction landscape looks when you adjust the parallax.”

Bradford is not the only one who took on this radical way of reading books.  Australian writer Sunili Govinnage also took the challenge herself to only read books by writers of color, and then realized “just how white [her] reading world was.”

Now back to my discussion, my friend Linda is a half-white, half-Puerto Rican high school English teacher and a mother of a nine-year-old daughter, and my other friend Reginald is a gay, black man from Trinidad who works in the adolescent book publishing industry.  As you already know, I am a writer who runs a digital imprint, do advocacy for my local public library and has worked in a multicultural bookstore before.  The three of us are in total agreement that schools should have reading lists that represent diverse writers.  Linda likes the position Bradford and Govinnage take on multicultural school reading and would like to see more books by writers of many marginalized backgrounds in high schools.  She says she also encourages her daughter to read diverse literature.

“I think my school district does an so-so job with multicultural writers, but their ideas of ‘multicultural’ is reading Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes during black history month,” Linda said.  “I am tired of teaching mostly about white guy writers.  Everyone knows who Mark Twain and Shakespeare are, but Esmeralda Santiago, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Octavia Butler are great writers too who need more attention and are more contemporary.  I would like my school to have more required reading lists to include other people of color, even lesser known writers, and writers with disabilities.”

Based on his 12 years in the publishing industry, Reginald said that it is still hard to increase the number of diverse writers in schools and in bookstores in general.  He said many schools have reading curricula that are decades old and don’t reflect the changing racial demographics in America today.  This has mostly to do with the lack of people representing marginalized groups in positions of power in both school districts and publishing houses to make decisions about making more diverse literature available to students and readers of all ages for that matter.  He also said that some school districts find it easier to stick to “tried and tested” known authors, which are usually dead white guys and occasionally diverse writers like Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison, because it is easier to teach and cheaper to buy mass market copies of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby than a lesser known book, which is usually written by a marginalized writer.

However, Reginald had an even more radical take on diverse reading that even Linda and I were thinking: “Schools should put a moratorium on dead, straight, white guys, at least at the high school level.  High school is great time to expose students to diverse ideas and views, since teenagers are beginning to develop their own identities and perspectives.”

As for his own reading habits:  “I don’t read books by white guys anymore. Those books don’t reflect my life, my color, my culture, my masculinity or my sexuality.”

Reginald said he likes reading James Baldwin, Thomas Glave and E. Lynn Harris.  Linda said she had similar reading habits.  “I only seek out books by black, Asian and Latino writers.  Their experiences reflect my own experiences as a person of color.”

I understood where they were both coming from, but I was actually kind of shocked by the fact that a school teacher and a book publishing executive would take such an extreme, and possibly narrow-minded view on literature.

So what do I think about this matter?

I like reading books by all kinds of authors – black, Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern, LGBT, disabled, women, men, political, apolitical, religious, atheist, and, yeah, even some dead, straight, cisgendered white guys!  While I enjoy reading books by people who I have a shared background with, reading to me for the most part is more about learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives.  In order to be a well-rounded person in today’s society, you have to understand everyone’s perspective, even if it offends or scares you sometimes.  That is how we evolve as a people.

If you have been following my writings for a while, you know that I like to read biographies and books about politics and history, and I write long, exhaustive essays about them.  I like learning about how other people think and how their thinking shapes society.  Two of my favorite writers are Upton Sinclair and Ernest Hemingway – two dead, straight, cisgendered, white guys.  I am also a big fan of Richard Wright not just because he is black, but also because he is a great storyteller.  Although he is best known for his racially-charged fiction work, I actually prefer his non-fiction travel writing like Pagan Spain, Black Power and The Color Curtain, which I wrote about last week.

Currently, I am rereading (yeah, because rereading is fundamental) The Politics of Change by Michael Manley, the charismatic former prime minister of Jamaica.  Obama’s recent trip to the Caribbean to meet with CARICOM sparked my interest in reading Manley’s most influential work again.  I didn’t read it just because he is black and Jamaican like me; I read it because he has interesting views on development economics and social policy.

As far as schools are concerned, yes, more diverse authors and perspectives need to be added to reading lists, but don’t cut out the white dudes.  Everyone’s perspective should be welcomed at the table of ideas.

But maybe I’m wrong here.

If Linda and Reginald feel this way, there must be others.  Please leave a comment below or email me about your reading habits.  Does the author’s background influence if you will read their book? What are you reading now and why?