A friend asked me the other day what I thought about the comments Matt Damon made on Project Greenlight about two weeks ago. As a black woman who wants to make films for a living I’m well aware of the diversity issue in Hollywood—in front of and behind the camera. I understand the role that people like Gina Prince-Blyethwood, Lee Daniels, and Effie Brown play in making our work more respected in the field. What my friend wanted to know of course was if I was mad. And my answer was no, as I think the quarrel was one of professional disagreement, but that comes with a bit of explanation. Here’s six things we should all consider.
- Choosing Someone Based on Merit Doesn’t Mean They’ll Be White
This is a misconception/trope/white privilege idea that we get caught up in all too often. As soon as someone says “we need the BEST baker, singer, camera person, scientist, writer, etc” there’s the automatic assumption that a minority group will be shut out of the running. But everyone has merit. Choosing a person for, let’s say football, based solely on merit certainly wouldn’t shut out minority groups am I right? However, in fields like technology, medicine, even film, “merit” often inadvertently leads to“exclusion” and that should never be the case.
- Discrimination Should Not Rule Our Perceptions
As a person of color or a woman, if someone says we want a person based on merit and nothing else, we automatically think this will be an excuse to “excuse” us from the opportunity because many good, talented people have been discriminated against just because they were black or Asian or a woman, or because they were assumed to carry a stereotypical trait associated with their group of people. While this has often been the case, we have to be careful not to look at merit being a negative attack, because there are far too many creative, intelligent, driven people in underrepresented social groups. Just because someone discriminated against you or someone like you in the past doesn’t mean it’s happening again in your present situation. Look at all angles.
- You Are Not Right Simply Because You’re Outnumbered
We know that often the “merit badge” is thrown at minorities when we are advocating for representation—on the basis of our underrepresented status. Here is the tip of the seesaw—both sides really have valid points, but most importantly, they have their place. Out of two comparable candidates, giving the slight edge to the one with less opportunity is absolutely a good thing and has its place, say a scholarship meant for under served youth that gives the final award to a slightly poorer candidate or one with a slightly lower GPA. This is done to give them opportunity where usually there would be little to none. Other times merit should be the final determination—such as choosing the best surgeon to remove a tumor. You would want the best—which may be a woman or a Latino, or a man. But I don’t think you would say give me the *insert minority here* surgeon even though his/her success rate is a few points lower because we need more *insert minority* surgeons. Am I saying that surgeon shouldn’t be given an opportunity to open doors? No, I am not. But if we are looking for the best surgeon, then we’re going to get the one with the highest survival rate. What is it that makes you choose one black person over ten others? What makes you choose a white person over ten more white people? Use that tactic in a mixed setting too and maybe things will pan out differently. Just because you’re minority doesn’t make your perspective automatically the right one.
- I am More than my Minority Status
I hope to be successful in a lot of areas, and if I do, I absolutely want to be an example to women, for my race, for my faith and my country. All of those identities are important to me. I would appreciate someone fighting for me to give me opportunity when it doesn’t exist. But I do not want you to say I should make a film because I am a woman. Or because I am black. I want you to say I should make the film because I am smart, innovative, empathetic, strong, hard-working, and on and on. Some of those traits may be from my personality, a lot of them may be from my experiences—in working, in being a daughter or mother, a black person, an American, a rich or poor person, etc. Those are to be valued and promoted. When you tell someone to hire me or give me a chance because I am a black female, it appears that you’re advocating for me on a quota basis, that I am there to fill a cutout void that any other decently capable black woman could fill. It will deduce me to my color and form and cause everyone who sees me walk in the door to view me as the token rarity who needed someone to lift her up. I completely understand Effie Brown’s point—they are dealing with a character to be handled with care and those two directors have experiences that MAY lend them to being able to do that. They are in a demographic that is not heavily represented, they deserve opportunity. But although Brown meant well the focus on choosing them for being an Asian and woman duo caused all of their technical skills and attributes to be sideswiped by the fact that they are THE MINORITY. If they were the best for the job I’m sure it’s for reasons way beyond their “Asianess” and femininity. While I appreciate the sentiments, please do not market me as your MINORITY IN NEED OF LIFTING. Tell them why I am good at what I do and what qualities I bring to the table other than some DNA strands I had no hand in creating.
- Let’s Not Jump to Conclusions
A lot of articles summarized the event by saying Damon said diversity wasn’t important behind the camera and that is not true, as the two were discussing a very specific circumstance in a very broad conversation. Yes, the issue is diversity in Hollywood but as Brown was addressing their project and their task of choosing directors for that project in a tv show that rests upon a certain competition, points are being made that don’t necessarily tend to the holistic view of diversity in Hollywood. Brown pointed out that the white woman and Asian male could bring sensitivity needed to protect the character from stereotyping but many people could argue that some white women filmmakers or writers in times past have not been sensitive to some stereotyped characters. But hey, Brown was talking about THIS situation. Damon did not say “diversity behind the camera doesn’t matter,” he said in their diversity discussion he felt it was important to consider when casting the film but not the show—the show being the competition to pick the best filmmakers to make a feature film. Let’s dissect context and statements-not quick conclusions.
- People Misspeak, Generalize—EVERYONE Does
If someone does say something insensitive or false, try to have the capacity to forgive them, which can be hard and takes a whole lot of deep breaths and talks with God. But I guarantee you there is not a person breathing who can say they never misspoke or said something that was misunderstood by the person listening. So the next time we take out the ax to demonize someone for not saying the perfectly correct words in a heated moment, let’s all remember to glance in the mirror, and take a breath.
These are just some thoughts I had but I would love to know what you all think about this topic and diversity as a whole. It’s certainly not a clear-cut issue, but it’s one we get better at addressing the more we can have open discussions about it in public.