"Ethnic" actors aren't stealing white roles: The racist, clueless backlash to TV's greatest season begins

Nostalgic for the good ol' TV days of "Friends" and "Seinfeld," insiders are whining about "unfair" "ethnic quotas"

Published March 25, 2015 11:00AM (EDT)

  (Fox/Chuck Hodes)
(Fox/Chuck Hodes)

Over at Deadline, Nellie Andreeva has a lengthy piece titled, alarmingly, “Pilots 2015: The Year Of Ethnic Castings—About Time Or Too Much Of Good Thing?” Oddly, that’s a question that has an extremely obvious answer (about time about time about time) but Andreeva devotes some hundreds of words to questioning, you know, diversity:

But, as is the case with any sea change, the pendulum may have swung a bit too far in the opposite direction. Instead of opening the field for actors of any race to compete for any role in a color-blind manner, there has been a significant number of parts designated as ethnic this year, making them off-limits for Caucasian actors, some agents signal. Many pilot characters this year were listed as open to all ethnicities but when reps would call to inquire about an actor submission, they frequently have been told that only non-Caucasian actors would be considered. “Basically 50% of the roles in a pilot have to be ethnic, and the mandate goes all the way down to guest parts,” one talent representative said.

I want to be clear: This article is broken, on levels. As industry insider rags are wont to do, it quotes a whole bunch of privileged people off-the-record. This gives it the protection of writing speculation, drivel, or just untrue statements; the “50%” comment, as Maclean’s Jamie Weinman points out, does not hold water, and as Wikipedia’s community editors would tell you, “some people say” is not a verifiable source.

Then there’s the language of the piece. “Ethnic,” used to encompass any human being that isn’t white-passing? This is the type of bizarre profiling that doesn’t even fit in for the Goya section of the grocery store—how could presumably multiple editors sign off on its usage? Especially when it leads to paragraphs like this (emphasis mine):

This is not to say that there weren’t other hot commodities this pilot season — star names were in demand as usual, as were hot young guys and girls and occasional foreigners with that “sparkle.” But the big trend this pilot casting season was the huge spike in the number and prominence of roles that went to minority actors.

Most alarming is Andreeva’s reductive implication that more roles for “ethnic” actors isn’t “fair” to white actors. Agents and casting directors that have long benefited from the incredible, overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood casting insert sly comments in her piece lamenting unfairness—if roles can’t be designated white (which they usually are, still, despite the existence of “Empire” and “Black-ish” and “Scandal,” because there is a lot of television in Hollywood) then shouldn’t we be “fair” and make them colorblind? I mean, if we’re going to be fair, and promote diversity, then shouldn’t we not ask about race at all?

But replacing one set of rigid rules with another by imposing a quota of ethnic talent on each show may not be the answer.

In case you’re wondering, yes, Deadline really did use the word “quota” about casting, intentionally raising the specter of affirmative action in what is an incredibly white industry run by private corporations with tons and tons of money. The publication then follows this up with a paragraph that desperately tries to argue that black audiences, despite driving TV’s biggest successes this season, aren’t really that big of a deal.

While they are among the most veracious and loyal TV viewers, African Americans still represent only 13% of the U.S. population. They were grossly underserved, but now, between shows like Empire, Black-ish, Scandal and HTGAW on broadcast, Tyler Perry’s fare on OWN and Mara Brock Akil’s series on BET, they have scripted choices, so the growth in that fraction of the TV audience may have reached its peak.

And here’s the kicker, a shrine, of sorts, to false equivalence:

Television has been successful with shows that had both all-white (Friends, Seinfeld) and all-black (The Cosby Show) casts on the strength of their premise, execution and talent performances and chemistry.

Television has been successful with white shows and black shows. How many all-black shows? Um, one. How many all-white shows? Literally hundreds. But sure, let’s definitely undermine a shift that has created some of TV’s most watched, most successful, critically lauded shows—that, indeed, makes TV a home for better and better storytelling, employing more and more talented performers. That definitely sounds like “too much of a good thing.”

By Sonia Saraiya

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