Diversity is being used as a scapegoat for capitalism, and it’s time to talk about it

On April 6, 2022, Playback published an opinion piece by Jenn Paul, ACTRA National’s Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.

This is the text of that piece:

“In 2020, a rallying cry and renewed movement to end police brutality and fight racism were pushed to the forefront, after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. With the entire world paused due to the impact of COVID-19, this rallying cry was finally heard louder than ever – resulting in one of the largest civil rights movements in modern-day history.

These tragedies served as a catalyst, inspiring people from around the world to examine the systemic factors that have contributed to the over-policing of racialized and Indigenous communities, as well the creation of commitments to dismantle other systems of oppression, with the goal of building a society that is more equitable and just for all.

An important part of challenging historic systems of oppression involves questioning and disrupting economic barriers. In recent years, companies and organizations have begun confronting the systemic issues and biases that have prevented them from tapping into a highly qualified talent pool that has been ignored for too long.

It’s good for business.

In the film, television, digital media, and commercial industry, studios, streamers and broadcasters are now accessing an abundance of riches in untold stories by gifted creators who were not afforded the same opportunities a decade ago. Studies have shown that films featuring characters from diverse backgrounds that are being authentically told make more money at the box office; and that billions of dollars have been left on the table by ignoring this talent and allowing for this market to go underserved for so long.

The past few years have seen a rise in popular content with international appeal by diverse creators, including ACTRA Toronto productions Run the Burbs and Sort Of – which have both been renewed for second seasons.

The decisions that studios, streamers, advertisers and broadcasters – the “gatekeepers” – are making to invest in diversifying their content are ultimately being driven by capitalism. The notion of straight, cis-gender, able-bodied whiteness as the unspoken default that was needed to appeal to a “wide audience” has been dispelled – as the definition of who is included within this “wide audience” has expanded significantly.

Now, audiences are demanding content where they see people who look like them and who don’t look like them. Audiences are interested in hearing stories that resonate with their own lived experiences as well as stories they’ve never even dreamed of. And most importantly, audiences are voting with their wallets – and the industry is finally listening.

A global survey conducted by Adobe found that 34% of respondents said they’ve boycotted a brand, as least temporarily, because they felt it did not represent their identity in its advertising.

An American study published by the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing revealed the immense buying power of “multicultural consumers,” and noted that in some sectors, companies that allocated a greater share of their overall ad spend to specific diverse markets were most likely to attain faster segment and overall consumer growth.

The reality is that diversity on screen is driving international audiences, brand recognition and loyalty, and therefore profits. Of course, this change is going to have an impact on the folks who have previously disproportionately benefitted from “the way things have always been,” which in this industry and this country, has been the over-representation of white, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied creators, showrunners, writers, directors, actors etc.

After a year where one in four arts workers have lost their jobs, the financial strain for many people working in the film and television industry has been severe. It’s never easy to give someone the bad news that they didn’t book the role, or get hired for the position they were interviewing for – but during these especially challenging times, it’s even more difficult.

So when one is tasked with explaining to someone that they didn’t get the role, job or promotion – it can be problematic when the person in the position of power decides to use diversity as a scapegoat to “let the person down easy,” because they aren’t willing to recognize, address and unpack the plethora of reasons that the person may have not been chosen, and how factors completely external to them are causing a shift in the status quo.

Though an uncomfortable reality, in truth, most gatekeepers benefit from capitalism and are therefore in support of (suddenly) investing in diverse stories being told – even if that is not necessarily how they are communicating that sentiment.

In February, during a live webinar hosted by ACTRA Toronto for their Winter Member Conference, a prominent casting director, when providing advice to members about virtual commercial auditions, mentioned that because ethnicity is at the top of client’s minds right now, “a bit of an overcorrection” is happening. And although they noted that it is a “good thing that we are here” – they also asserted that “sometimes the best person does not get the job.”

Casting directors are independent contractors who are hired by the producer on a per-project basis. They are provided with character breakdowns and script excerpts and are tasked with publishing casting calls to find the right person for each role. After releasing a casting call, they look through all of the submissions before passing along a small selection of impressive auditions to the production for further consideration.

Determining who the “best person” is for a role is highly subjective. I recently was told a story about someone not getting a role because the performer reminded the producer of their brother-in-law – something the performer had zero control over, even if they did give the “best” performance in that audition.

This industry is highly competitive, with a massive talent pool vying for a finite number of principal actor roles. The competitive nature of this field makes it difficult for everyone to catch a break. It’s just that up until recent years – the majority of roles were being written for white, cis-gender, able-bodied folks, which meant more work opportunities for this one specific group of people, and therefore a greater chance at success.

There are a million factors that go into why someone is chosen for a particular role. Development executives, funders, advertisers, producers, directors, writers, the broadcaster, the distributor in addition to casting directors all feed into these decisions – and it is difficult to imagine that a large group of decision-makers like this is always in agreement about who is “best.”

Despite the subjectivity of the screen-based medium, the lucrative business potential ensures that many of the decisions that are being made are done so with the best financial interests of the project in mind, with the factors that feed into this decision constantly evolving.

This narrative of someone from one community “stealing the job” of someone from another community is not unfamiliar. The rationale for forwarding a narrative such as this is to distract the general public from holding people who are in positions of power accountable for the decisions that are being driven by capitalist interests. Instead, it shifts the blame from them onto those from historically excluded communities by implying that an increased focus on diversity is costing certain privileged groups potential work opportunities.

Let’s be clear. Making “diversity” a scapegoat for business decisions is lazy, reductionist, irresponsible and dangerous.

In 2021, ACTRA Toronto had its busiest year ever. Sure, many productions were bouncing back from a pandemic-related hiatus, but ACTRA Toronto also had a record number of diverse stories being produced under its various collective agreements. I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

As reported by the Black Screen Office, diverse and authentic storytelling benefits everyone and championing a more equitable distribution of the available opportunities means that we are keeping our word to challenge historic systems of oppression.

Dear Gatekeepers: It’s time to stop using the excuse of “diversity” as your scapegoat when letting people down for an opportunity. We know that it’s easier to give people someone other than yourself to be mad at – but this isn’t fair to anyone. And it’s especially unfair to the people who have earned their spot at the table after years of fighting to even be let into the room. We’re asking you to instead sit with the discomfort and be honest about the merit of someone’s work, who may or may not look or sound like you, and the accompanying factors of rejection, instead of shifting the blame.

Dear People Who Have Historically Benefited From the Status Quo of an Overly Racist, Homophobic, Sexist, and Ableist Society: We recognize that the majority of you did not necessarily create or help to create these systems. However, it’s important for you to recognize that BIPOC folks, people living with disabilities, and people from the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities are not stealing your jobs and that you dispel any sort of notion of this if and when you hear it.

And finally…

Dear Everybody Working in Every Industry: Please stop acting as though people from historically excluded communities should “feel lucky” that diversity is being prioritized right now. This undermines the YEARS of training that they’ve undergone to get to where they are today. Assuming that they are only getting hired because of the community with which they identify implies that tokenism is the only reason for their career successes. It’s like saying that some people have only had success in their careers because they’re straight, white and able-bodied. Imagine that!

Self-reflection combined with concrete action are the only ways to address unconscious (and sometimes conscious) biases and end the enablement of systemic racism in a world where not everyone has been set up for success.”

Jenn Paul (she/her) is the Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at ACTRA National, where she leads the development and implementation of proactive initiatives to support ACTRA’s strategic goals and ensure the long-term sustainability of DEIB efforts on behalf of ACTRA members. Previous to her role at ACTRA National, Jenn held the position of Industry Relations Specialist: Anti-Black Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at ACTRA Toronto.