Donald Trump (AP/Jae C. Hong)

America has a white guy problem: From Donald Trump to #OscarsSoWhite, our "diversity problems" are all connected

It's time we stop treating diversity in Hollywood, journalism, politics and education as separate problems


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Paula Young Lee
February 26, 2016 1:33AM (UTC)

“If Hollywood is the standard-bearer for opportunity,” wrote Stereo Williams for the Daily Beast, then we should all be concerned about the state of the film industry, where “there is both a casual ambivalence and quiet hostility towards broadening the range of opportunities for non-white stars to truly thrive in the mainstream.”

We should be concerned, but not because of Hollywood. The monocultural mindset isn’t restricted to the entertainment industry, but extends to higher education and institutions in general, including the political sphere. The Republican party as a whole has long been accused of having a diversity problem, but it’s also true that none of the Democrats running for president this year—including dropouts Lincoln Chafee, Lawrence Lessig, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb--are marginalized people of color. “Both Clintons are white,” H.A. Goodman observes in the manner of declaring “The emperor has no clothes!” But, well, so is Bernie Sanders. (The debate over whether Jews are “white” mostly exposes the fact that whiteness is a cultural construct, which doesn’t mean it’s not real. “Food” is a cultural construct too, which is why Americans don’t consume roasted larvae, but other parts of the world do.)

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White institutionalism is everywhere, including in the liberal bastions of New York City. For Brooklyn magazine, Molly McArdle asked fifty New Yorkers in publishing for their thoughts on systemic racism of the book industry. “Publishing can’t afford to pay people enough to sustain themselves. We eat our young,” noted Kathryn Ratcliffe Lee, senior marketing associate at Harper Perennial. The senior editor at the New York Times Book Review, Parul Sehgal, shared stories of bullying: “I left a job because I had a boss talk me in a fake Indian accent as a joke. [At previous workplaces] I had a colleague call me uppity.” In advance of the Oscars, the New York Times asked Mindy Kaling, Ken Jeong, Jimmy Smits, and 24 others about the realities of working in Hollywood when one is a Not: not white, not male, not straight, not able bodied, not neuro-typical. These stars’ stories of discrimination will make steam come out of your ears. But given that the New York Times routinely gets called out for its own versions of #OscarsSoWhite, methinks the Grey Lady doth protest too much. Instead of criticizing Hollywood for its monocultural ways, that finger should be pointing at itself.

The New York Times has a diversity problem. NPR has a diversity problem. Children’s book publishing has a diversity problem. The arts in New York City have a diversity problem. Again and again, statistics have been trotted out, with the overall conclusion being that the entertainment and news industry remains overwhelmingly homogeneous despite all the public handwringing about it. “The film industry still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club,” concluded the first comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, “in which girls and women make up less than one-third of all speaking characters, and comprise a small percentage of directors and writers of the major studio and art house releases of 2014.” The stats for the small screen weren’t much better. For example, the Annenberg report determined that more women and girls showed up on TV than in films, but they were also far more likely to have misplaced their clothing along the way.

The call, now, is for “equity” in real-world opportunities for all forms of work (as distinct from “equality” of numbers) to steer away from solutions that amount to little more than window-dressing, which promotes the appearance of change even as impenetrable structural barriers remain in place. As Sasheer Zamata explained in Lenny:

"You are not diversifying your cast if the only people of color in your production are service workers or criminals. Unless the project is about service workers and criminals. And if that's the case, make sure the customers or victims aren't all white so it doesn't look like you're using race to make a good-versus-bad or rich-versus-poor comparison."

"Diversity" also rejects monocultures based on class, religious beliefs, and political views, among others factors. But why should Americans care? Won’t more declarations of guilt and flowery platitudes do? It’s because we now live in a mediatic world where “reality” is increasingly synonymous with what appears onscreen. (“It did happen. I saw it,” Trump said regarding a debunked claim about Muslims in New Jersey cheering when the Twin Towers fell. “It was on television. I saw it.”)  The news is entertainment, entertainment is news, and the satirical film, “Idiocracy” has morphed into a documentary.

These developments were totally predictable to anyone paying attention, Charles P. Pierce explains for Esquire. For thirty years, he points out, “the country was encouraged by politicians of both parties to look at the political process as a television show. And now we’re surprised that a guy who made his living at the latter has become successful at promoting the former?”

Reality TV has a diversity problem. So what are the implications, then, if Rolling Stone magazine’s Matt Taibbi is correct, and “the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show?” In Taibbi’s estimation, Trump is winning because he cut his showbiz teeth on the fakery of professional wrestling, and not only likes fame, but craves it.

But Trump has since become a synecdoche and symptom: He is the representative of all those faceless checkbooks powering boardrooms, insisting that we see the world through their straight, white male eyes, as well as the smug actor-performer playing the public role of the fair-haired boy, knowing that he’s fully backed up by the entertainment industry, the news industry, and the educational system, all of which are made in his white male image. In short, Trump has grasped that the American people aren’t racist. Its culture is.

This is precisely why Kamau Bell and Adam Mansbach said, “White people, come get your boy,” –meaning step up and acknowledge that Trump is the “fruit that falls from the tree of whiteness.” The new study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA has shown that Hollywood is potentially losing billions by insisting on white-casting, because the “films and television shows with casts that roughly reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity posted the highest box office and ratings numbers on average.” In this election year, the country stands to lose a lot more than ratings and revenue by refusing to acknowledge the bad actors stealing the show.


Paula Young Lee

Paula Young Lee is the author of "Deer Hunting in Paris," winner of the 2014 Lowell Thomas "Best Book" award of the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently writing outdoor adventure books for middle grade and young adults. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee

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