On Whitewashing and White Responsibility in Entertainment

So I have a confession to make: I'm a white girl. A very white girl. A Bible Belt raised, Irish Catholic altar girl who has been nicknamed “ghost girl” more than once in her life. When I use the Snapchat lenses, if the command is “raise your eyebrows,” I will fail because my eyebrows are literally invisible. I am so white.

I'm also from New Orleans, which is, in my opinion, the greatest and hardest city on earth (sorry, New York). I grew up in a very diverse environment, and as a result, I respect voodoo as much as I respect good BBQ, I've been to the cookouts, I voted for Obama. I watch Bollywood films, I know where the good charcoal chicken is, I know the sushi chefs’ real names at the places I eat (sorry to break it to you, but his name’s not really Jonathan). I was always infinitely grateful to all the people who chose to share these things with me—to let me experience their relatively secret joys—and they always seemed happy to do it. But in August 2014 I learned a very important lesson about myself, one that I had been pushing to the back of my mind since the murder of Trayvon Martin: I was and am a beneficiary of white supremacy, and despite all my self-satisfied beliefs to the contrary, I also was and am a racist.


"I see racism as I see something like alcoholism. People talk about alcoholism like it’s a permanent thing—once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, because the sickness is still there regardless if you’re feeding it or notObviously, I’m working every day to change those thought and behavior patterns, but that doesn’t negate the sickness."


It’s really tough writing that, especially because I’m writing about inclusion and representation in entertainment, but I see racism as I see something like alcoholism. People talk about alcoholism like it’s a permanent thing—once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, because the sickness is still there regardless if you’re feeding it or not. Obviously, I’m working every day to change those thought and behavior patterns, but that doesn’t negate the sickness. The day after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, I was walking down the street in historic Crown Heights where I live (a place that has its own complicated past and difficult future when it comes to race) when it suddenly slammed into me: everything white people ever told me about people of color was a lie. I started flashing to every stereotype I ever believed, every time someone joked about how crazy black women are, the many years of my life where I told people that I “just don’t find Asian men attractive,” all the hair touching, insensitive questions, the disrespect to my friends’ heritages, and the confederate flags. My god, the confederate flags.

There’s a lot in my past that I’m ashamed of now, and I imagine that’s the same for a lot of white millennials. I remember in the weeks right after the non-indictment how weird my white friends were about talking about it. It wasn’t until Freddie Gray’s murder that I remember a white friend actually holding a conversation about how horrific it is that rough rides are even a thing. Slowly but surely, things started to change. White people started going to protests with me, they started liking my diatribes about why it is imperative we act against racism and brutality, they stopped looking down every time I came to school with a new name we all needed to remember. I started feeling pretty good. I started feeling like I was part of the cause, and I was doing right by all the people of color I care about. I stopped using AAVE, I started calling out my white friends (and they started listening!), and I started consciously uplifting and celebrating the work and voice of artists of color—because I thought I understood what it meant to amplify their voices instead of shouting over them with my own. I started to get comfortable.

Then I made a web series.


"I think a lot of people use what I just wrote as a way to justify not changing their work and not being inclusive because it’s not part of their own truth. Like with dating, it’s just a preference, right? Well."


My web series is called Solid 8, and it’s a semiautobiographical look at the struggle of actors (specifically, women) in NYC. It premiered on February 14th on YouTube, and viewers seem to like it so far. We only produced 3 episodes because that’s what we could afford to make with the $15,000 we raised on Indiegogo, but we have the rest of the season written and we’re ready to shoot as soon as we get more funding. Well okay, that’s only half true, but we’ll get into that later. Personally, I think I gave my best effort in these first 3 episodes, and I am proud of them. Aside from writing and producing this show, I also star in it. So yeah, it’s another story about a white person. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t bother me that I’m putting out a story about a white person when we already have quite the surplus, but it’s my truth and there’s no way around that. As an actor as well as a writer, these are the stories I can tell, and it’s up to the audience to decide if they want to hear them. I can’t twist and turn my voice to suit others.

But here’s where things get weird. I truly believe what I just wrote, and I will absolutely defend it. But where does that leave social responsibility? Where does that leave representation? I think a lot of people use what I just wrote as a way to justify not changing their work and not being inclusive because it’s not part of their own truth. Like with dating, it’s just a preference, right? Well. Before I get into that, I want to state that I hope by now it’s abundantly clear that I’ve been speaking to white artists while I write this. This essay isn’t to convince artists of color that I’m an ally, this isn’t an essay to pat myself on the back like I’ve erroneously done in the past. Artists of color know the ins and outs of representation much better than I do, and if you are looking for an authoritative voice you will not find it here. I would suggest listening to these incredible voices instead, if that’s what you’re looking for. Though reading articles online doesn’t always yield results, does it? 


"In its entirety, the cast (not including bit parts and extras) of season 1 of Solid 8 is 82% white, and that paltry 18% only represents characters who appear in 30% of the episodes. For someone who has been so vocal and aggressive about the need for representation, this is not only astounding but outright shameful."


In February, I had a revelatory day. After reading this fantastic article about diversity and representation in Hollywood, I posted an impassioned plea on my Facebook timeline telling white artists, “Do not be lazy. Do not cast all white actors because it's easier. Do not force artists of color to make everything they create connected to social justice. Do not have a writer's room full of white guys. Ask the tough questions. Lose money, make enemies, pass up opportunities.” Pretty good, right? Yeah, I was proud of it… until I started thinking about my own show. I had always felt weird about how white the first season of Solid 8 is, but I kept pushing it to the back of my mind because I had read a lot of criticism of white/straight/cis people attempting to tell diverse stories and failing miserably. Why would I put myself and the show in that position? We’ll just keep writing our white, white show and eventually we’ll have more authoritative voices in the room who will help us make season 2 better.

But after reading that article, my entire delusion fell apart. I wrote down on a piece of paper each episode and listed out the characters in all of them. Turns out in a 10 episode season, we only have 3 episodes that include people of color, and in one of those 3, the white person to person of color ratio is 6 to 1. In its entirety, the cast (not including bit parts and extras) of season 1 of Solid 8 is 82% white, and that paltry 18% only represents characters who appear in 30% of the episodes. For someone who has been so vocal and aggressive about the need for representation, this is not only astounding but outright shameful. I’m resisting the urge to explain the context and reasons this happened because you’ve heard them all before. It really came down to the fact that I was too comfortable—I thought I could be a good ally later because I was a good ally in the past, but that’s not reality.


"It's really easy for me to be like, 'As a white person, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing," and honestly, that may have been the case prior to August 2014, but it's just not true now."


So I’m going to fix it. I’m going to listen to myself and make the tough decisions. We’re very lucky we’ve only made the first 3 episodes because I still have time to revisit the rest of season 1. It won’t be easy, and it’ll upset a lot of people because I’m going to have to break some commitments. It also means I’m going to create more work for myself, and my writers. I feel terrible that I’m putting them in this position, but what’s the alternative? Live my life as a hypocrite? Pretend that I care about the artists of color in my community and then not actually give them space to be visible? 

My co-creator Taylor Williams is already stressing over the major rewrites I’ve asked of him on two of his episodes, but he agrees that the series as it is now is a failure. We failed our own principles and, more importantly, we failed our community. As of right now, I’ve developed a plan that with make our cast go from 82% white to 65%- it’s still a majority but it’s 17% closer to reality.  In order to start making amends, I’m recasting multiple parts, having a new episode written, and ordering major overhauls on two other episodes. As we do this, we’ll be combing through each episode to see if we can make these numbers even better. For a long time, I refused to think about this because it felt weird to think about it in terms of ratios and percentages, but if I had never done it, I would never have seen how bad the problem is on my show.


"You could be afraid for many reasons—maybe it’s because you don’t know a lot of people of color, maybe it’s because you don’t want to seem stupid or be yelled at, maybe just because it seems hard. Or maybe you’re like me and think you’re already doing enough. Maybe you’re getting comfortable."


It's really easy for me to be like, "As a white person, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing," and honestly, that may have been the case prior to August 2014, but it's just not true now. For me to throw my hands up and say, "I'm not going to tell any story because I don't know how to do it right" spits directly in the face of all the incredible artists of color who've been patient with me, who've worked to create visibility in our community, who answer questions, stay steadfast yet gentle and never give up on creating real, true representation in the performing arts. 

Make no mistake, what they've done for me and other white artists in our community is not their responsibility. It's a courtesy. A taxing, difficult, emotional courtesy that they owe to no one, and yet they continue. They gave me the tools, and they laid out the game plan. For me to ignore that and make a show with an 82% white cast would not only make me a hypocrite, but it would alienate my own community. If you've seen the show, you know that it's very much about the acting scene in New York City. How could I do a show like that without respecting the truth of the environment? The truth of my colleagues and friends?


"So, Progressive, Socially Conscious White Artist, I have a bit of advice for you: If any of this resonated with you, if any of it put a little fear in the back of your head about your own project, run straight toward that fear and fix it. I did, and I’m still alive."


As I stated before, this essay is meant to speak to white artists. Specifically, white artists who see themselves as liberal, progressive and even woke (though remember that part when I said I stopped using AAVE? Just sayin.), because I don’t need to speak to the outright racists—they know and we know where they stand. So, Progressive, Socially Conscious White Artist, I am talking to you, and now I’m going to address you directly. Ready?

Using your truth as an excuse to have an all white cast/white director/white writers is bullshit, and you and I both know it. You and I both know that the reason you defend your whitewashed project is not because you genuinely have never been influenced or interacted with a person of color in your life, and therefore could never truthfully depict them in your work (which, honestly, is the only situation where you could make that case). It’s because you’re afraid of doing something different. You could be afraid for many reasons—maybe it’s because you don’t know a lot of people of color, maybe it’s because you don’t want to seem stupid or be yelled at, maybe just because it seems hard. Or maybe you’re like me and think you’re already doing enough. Maybe you’re getting comfortable.

It’s amazing how much work we have to do to achieve a lousy 17% change, but that’s the price of this mistake. I’m sure some of you are worried we’re shoehorning in characters of color who will be talking boxes for social justice. They won’t be; they’ll be normal people. I promise. Next season, we’ll do better. In the meantime, I’m going to change as much as I can. So, Progressive, Socially Conscious White Artist, I have a bit of advice for you: If any of this resonated with you, if any of it put a little fear in the back of your head about your own project, run straight toward that fear and fix it. It’s way easier to be mindful from the beginning, to put your pride and fear aside and be willing to fail. I did, and I’m still alive. Solid 8 is still alive. And I’m so excited to see how these changes enrich the show. Though, I do want to point out that what I’m doing here isn’t admirable. It was a shitty mistake and I’m scrambling to fix it because that is the bare minimum of decency required of an artist in this community. I’m not giving a gift; I am righting a wrong. These two things are very different.

And to all the artists of color who have been such positive and inspiring figures in my life, I deeply apologize for temporarily breaking our social contract. I’ll probably accidentally break it again someday, but I promise to apologize and remedy it as quickly as I can. Your visibility is not optional, and I won’t forget that again. 

Navigating these waters is hard and painful for all parties involved, but the result can be so transcendent, so beautiful that it makes all the discomfort and tears worth it. Isn’t that what what we all want?