The uncomfortable exchange that occurred between Matt Damon and movie producer Effie Brown on the season four premiere of HBO’s "Project Greenlight" is indicative of everything that is wrong with current cultural understandings of diversity. The incident went like so: When challenged about her preference for a directing team composed of a Vietnamese man and a white woman, Brown (a respected producer in her own right) defended her choice by asking her white colleagues to consider the optics of a room full of white people choosing a white male director to make a film about a Black female prostitute.
Matt Damon immediately became defensive, cutting Brown off in mid-sentence to tell to her that, “ when you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show.” Brown cocked her head to the side, clearly (and rightfully) offended, saying, “whew, wow, ok,” as she waited for Damon to complete his thought. Damon went on to further chide her, saying, “do you want the best director?” She responded, “I’m not mad. With love in my heart…” as she went on to say more about her choice.
Damon indicated that while he appreciated her “flagging diversity,” ultimately he felt that decision should be based “entirely on merit, leaving all other factors out of it.” To do it any other way, would constitute a changing of the rules.
The entirety of this exchange is one that many professional Black people have experienced, when they find themselves “the only one” in a room full of white colleagues. Many of us have felt the pressure of challenging the ways that whiteness is operating unnoticed, even as we are also saddled with the baggage of representing for our race/gender. When we demand, politely of course, that diversity take place on every level from the boardroom to the stage, frequently we are met with white defensiveness.
Matt Damon’s defensiveness showed up in the way he spoke over Brown as she was speaking, the manner in which he then suggested that the directing team she wanted had no problem with the film script, the condescending way that he explained diversity to Brown as though his (erroneous) view was the only possible one, and then the condescending and dismissive way that he later offered his “appreciation” for Brown “flagging diversity” for her colleagues. To add insult to injury, Brown then felt compelled to quash all perceptions of her as the angry Black woman. Despite Damon’s defensiveness, it is Brown who tells her colleagues that she is not angry, reaffirming the love in her heart. It is Brown who must make her white colleagues not feel guilty or uncomfortable for the ways they are enacting their whiteness.
Unmoved, Damon plays the merit card. The merit card is the white equivalent of a race card – it is the highest trump card, in a game of spades. Merit is the supposedly race neutral rubric that everyone should naturally agree is the best way to judge candidates, all questions of race aside.
The myth of meritocracy is one of the foundational and erroneous ideals of white supremacy. Whether we are speaking about increasing racial access to education or jobs, the term merit is thrown around as though it exists in opposition to diversity. This happens when employers claim that they would like to hire a person of color for a position, but that they simply cannot find any qualified people of color for the position. Just recently one of my best friends, who attended a prestigious liberal arts college told me about the white woman who said to her on her first day of school, “Oh you must be here because of affirmative action?” That she might have been admitted based on her high SAT scores never occurred to her classmate. That affirmative action programs can also aid students of color with high SAT scores (as it did in my case) also never occurs to those who deploy race neutral ideas about merit.
But meritocracy is a myth. The United States was not built on a system of meritocracy. It was built on a system of denied access. Let us not forget that a whole race of people was legal barred from learning to read in this country until 1865. Now we are dismantling public education through a combination of high stakes testing mandates and continual defunding of public schools, such that illiteracy rates in some urban areas remain abysmally high. This is not about merit, this is not about the ability or capacity of these students to read or to be good students. It is about their access to good schools and good teachers.
The same is true in the film industry. For the last five weekends, two African American films – "Straight Outta Compton" and "The Perfect Guy"—have commanded first place ticket sales at the box office. Anytime African American movies perform well at the box office, studio executives express their surprise at how well these films do. There is a perennial forgetting of the fact that Black people go to the movies, too. Yet, many Black directors struggle to have their projects greenlit, because of these persistently false ideas about Black audiences. Notions of merit get tossed around, when really the question is about both access, and an investment in diversity.
Not only do Matt Damon’s statements reflect a troubling belief in the myth of meritocracy, but they also betray a troubling belief in notions of racial colorblindness. Many White men are taught to believe that they can tell any story well that they choose to tell. Whiteness, particularly white maleness, is situated as marker of universality. The experiences of people of color are marked as too particular to be universal. The idea that our experiences of race and gender shape and inform how we perceive narratives and how we tell stories, makes many, many people uncomfortable.
These notions of universality are the problem, because universal is code word for “white.” I’m not saying that there are not commonalities of human experience in which we can all share. We can. But as a Black person, I have been taught to find myself and my experiences in a range of “classic” stories about white people, whether "Tom Sawyer," or "Of Mice and Men," or "Lord of the Flies." White people are not taught to see themselves or find their human struggles in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" or "Giovanni’s Room" or "A Raisin in the Sun."
The white men sitting on the sofa with Effie Brown, Matt Damon being chief among them, could not stomach the proposition that their whiteness created critical blind spots that would prevent them from telling the story of a Black female prostitute with dignity and care. Yet their whiteness prevented them from treating Effie Brown and her legitimate concerns with dignity and care.
To suggest that Brown did not care about merit is to suggest that she did not care about the quality of the film. But you don’t get to be the singular Black woman sitting in a room full of white men, if your work is not of the highest quality. Effie Brown was a part of the conversation because of her qualifications.
Therein lies the rub in conversations where questions of diversity are constructed as being adjacent to merit. Most of the people of color, in this case a Black woman, raising such questions are frequently among the best achievers in their field. The Obamas are only the most obvious example.
Moreover, in the case of women like Brown, they are brought into these kinds of rooms in order to make the rooms look diverse, but they are not expected to say very much. Demanding diversity beyond one’s own token inclusion frequently makes one the object of white scorn and passive aggressive racism. Damon’s feigned regret about the importance of merit comes to mind.
Watching Brown struggle to get her rightful, righteous anger in check after being politely disrespected and dismissed by Matt Damon reminded me of the recent dustup between Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. After Minaj called attention on twitter to the ways that the VMAs reward white female pop stars for being sexual while ignoring Black pop stars like Minaj who did it first and do it better, Cyrus told the New York Times that Nicki had made the conversation about race, and that she had made it about herself.
Nicki therefore took the very public opportunity offered by an awards acceptance speech to call out “that bitch” Miley and to ask her in classic hip hop parlance, “what’s good?” Miley dismissed Nicki, citing the media’s manipulation of her comments. But then a few moments later, she said to Nicki,\\\ that she too had lost many awards, but she “persevered.”
This notion of white perseverance is connected to notions of white merit. Both are tied to the faulty idea that those who work the hardest get the awards. Thus if you are not given the award, you did not earn it.
Miley chose to misunderstand Nicki’s critique of problematic racial politics as a call to be given awards because she’s Black. But Nicki’s critique makes clear that her colleagues who shake and gyrate in their songs don’t get the awards because they’re the best; they get the awards because they are white. And a white woman doing what Black women have being doing in music for ages makes it seem novel and award worthy, rather than mundane, unsophisticated and uninteresting.
Similarly, Matt Damon chose to misunderstand Effie Brown’s comments as a call to give two directors a shot because of their color and gender. Instead, she was pointing out that the color and gender of white men frequently affords them a shot, even when they have clear blind spots in their artistry that will affect the quality of the work they produce.
Whiteness suggests that you can be both objective in handling a story and universal in your approach to it. Blackness suggests that you are capable neither of objectivity or universality. Whiteness grants the presumption of both qualification and merit.
But Brown’s point, that whiteness can sometimes be a critical blindspot when handling the lives of people of color, is something white people struggle to accept.
Overtures to merit, colorblindness and diversity seem like indicators of racial progress. But in most cases, they merely reinforce old ways of thinking because they allow whiteness to exist unchecked. And if these narratives don’t begin to change, there will be many more instances of Black women wondering aloud to their colleagues, “What’s good?”