My affirmative action fail

I'm half-black, and I'm opposed to race-based hiring. But after years of struggling in Hollywood, I gave it a try


Loni Steele Sosthand
August 7, 2011 12:01AM (UTC)

I do not look black. I know this to be true not just because I own a mirror, but also because others often tell me when I reveal my mixed race heritage. People seem compelled to comment as if blackness, were it real, would have left a more visible mark.

I am a television writer in Hollywood, and when I told my agent that my father is black and my mother is Jewish, he said, "You mean the man you call your father."

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"Yes, well, I call him my father because he is my father."

"Your biological father?"

"Yes. As far as I know."

But it wasn't long before my agent saw this autobiographical detail as a possible opportunity. "How do you feel about me using that when I pitch you?"

I recalled this conversation as we were coming up on staffing season, the few months each spring when writers are hired to work on TV shows for the fall. It's always been a cutthroat time, but particularly so these days, with staffs on scripted shows smaller since the writer's strike three years ago, and the boom in reality TV continuing unabated. With experienced staff writers flooding the market, there's only a few coveted slots for newbie writers to catch a break -- and often those are diversity positions.

For those unfamiliar with TV staffing, the networks have initiatives that require most shows to set aside one staff position for a writer of diverse descent. The diversity hire is often the only writer on staff whose salary does not come out of the show's budget, but is paid by the network (provided for by the diversity program itself). Producers are more likely to take a chance on an untested writer when it's not on their dime.

So: Did I mind my agent using my race to get me in the door? This was a more loaded question than he could have realized.

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My black father, my genetic claim to any diversity-related loot, is a conservative writer who has written many polemics against race-based preferences. Though his politics may seem unconventional for a black man these days, he sees himself as loyal to the founding principles of the civil rights movement that fought for individuals and against the evils of racism. He sees affirmative action policies that value race above individual achievement, no matter how well-meaning, as dehumanizing to the very people they are meant to help.

I agree with him.

Furthermore, the sheer fact that I look white highlights an underlying absurdity of affirmative action. Yes, people on both sides of my family have been oppressed (my mother's parents were Holocaust survivors), but I have never experienced oppression. So I don't feel entitled to any reparation. No box accurately addresses my identity anyhow.

My ideals were so puritanical that, just out of college, I proudly turned down a diversity-based writing job on a TV game show. But that was before the years I spent waitressing and part-time teaching while laboring away on a now aborted autobiographical novel. This and other career setbacks humbled me to the point where my modest writing goal is simply to finish what I start.

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There is a saying that the hardest work you'll do in Hollywood is to get the job. After years of writing scripts on spec, I didn't want to stand in my own way.

But I also wondered if I'd been too quick to receive my father's wisdom. My dad's views against race-based preferences were so firmly established and so eloquently articulated that I agreed long before I had any personal experience to reference. Now I wanted to know for myself.

So, in response to my agent's request, I agreed to let him use my race as a selling point. Well, actually I said, "You can try, but I'm not sure it's going to work."

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Because I have lived with this disconnect between my looks and my racial heritage all of my life, I foresaw trouble. I was right to worry. Here is what mostly happened: My agent pitched me on the phone as a diversity candidate, but once at the meetings my appearance confused people.

"Your father must be very light-skinned," one executive said.

When I told another that my paternal grandparents were interracially married in the 1940s, having met as founding members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), she said, "So really, you are only a quarter black. You have more white blood than black blood."

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Talk of black blood and skin color in a job interview for a sitcom?

Given the fact that I look white, I am not used to my race taking precedence over my individuality. But it seems that by opting to be a diversity candidate, I had signed up to experience just this sort of absurdity. I felt invisible, and in that way I was initiated into a common black American experience.

Was this the sort of dehumanization my father didn't want me to know firsthand?

In Hollywood everyone "loves" you. Then there is a "but." After meetings these "buts" came back to me through my agent. "He loved you. But he said you were different than he expected." "They loved you. But they decided to go with another diversity candidate." "She loved you. But she didn't think you seemed like a comedy writer."

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Likely I hadn't seemed like a comedy writer in that particular meeting because I was so set on arguing my racial authenticity that I had waded into a morass of family history involving both the civil rights movement and the Holocaust -- not typical sitcom material.

But my agent didn't know that, and he offered me some tips. Wear jeans, he said, an ironic T-shirt, and buy some stylish frames. No matter that I don't need glasses. "You have to make them see you as the stereotype of a comedy writer," he said. We both laughed.

But his use of the word "stereotype" jarred me. Did I have to be a stereotype in order to get hired?

I thought there must be a way to be a diversity candidate while still holding onto my individual integrity. After all, with grandparents who were Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Poland who had narrowly escaped Hitler's concentrations camps only to end up in Stalin's labor camps in Siberia; grandparents who were civil rights workers interracially married when such marriages were rare and illegal; parents who had an interracial and interfaith marriage; and a black father with conservative politics, diversity was an integral part of my individuality. I had been formed in its crucible. Though I'm sure my grandparents would have used the word "integration" to describe my fate.

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Television executives would be hard-pressed to find a more culturally complex writer. To forge ahead, I reasoned that in a creative business like television there was also an artistic rationale for diversity. Perhaps they were really looking for a writer fluent in a variety of cultures.

I could boast familial ease with characters from various ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the character mixes in my writing samples demonstrate a cultural mélange that comes naturally given my upbringing. My main characters are minorities who cut against stereotype. Such characters are easy to imagine when your father is a cultural oxymoron: black conservative.

So I altered my shtick. I talked about family members as a source of inspiration for diverse characters. I gave examples of how my mixed heritage gives me a strong sense of irony, particularly when it comes to race. I mentioned that the family I grew up in not only had racial, but religious and political diversity as well. Furthermore, the man I married, in a reformed Jewish ceremony, is black, from Texas, and comes from a line of Christian, gun-toting, self-described Cajun cowboys. If the word "diversity" holds any meaning, I presented my writing and myself as its embodiment.

But it didn't work.

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Race is not a talent. Race is not a skill. Race is not an insight. Likely this is why I couldn't successfully pitch it as such.

As I was leaving my house to meet with a V.P. of diversity for one of the major networks, my husband joked with me. "Here, try this," he said, and tossed me a jar of black shoe polish.

Of course I would never, but his joke about blackface seemed to echo the fake glasses my agent suggested -- a way to pass for a stereotype.

TV scripts are driven by a main character who wants something specific that she can’t get. All of her failed attempts to get this something make up the plot of the episode. When her failed attempts are sad, it makes for tragedy. When her failed attempts are really sad, it makes for comedy.

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When I look back, I have to laugh at my failed attempts to be hired as a diversity writer.

Sour grapes? Perhaps, a little. But the process confirmed my suspicions about the dehumanizing aspects of affirmative action. Even if I had gotten hired, would it have been OK for somebody to inquire about the color of my father's skin in an interview for a sitcom, or to point out the ratio of white blood to black blood coursing through my veins?

As diverse as I am, I couldn't seem to make myself over as a diversity candidate. I couldn't be the stereotype they wanted.

But I'm still out here in the fight. I'm still writing scripts with characters from all kinds of racial backgrounds. Call it diversity, if you like. But I'm just writing what I know. 

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Loni Steele Sosthand

Loni Steele Sosthand has written and produced a half hour TV pilot, "Katrina," for The-N. She has gone on to write several original spec scripts and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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