30 Practical Ways You Can Help Fight Racism (and other -isms) in the Film Industry
I believe whole-heartedly in the healing power of film. More than any other medium, it has the power to inspire action, and create change both on a personal and societal level. However, film has often been responsible for harmful portrayals of marginalized communities. Portraying negative stereotypes and false narratives can inspire fear, misunderstanding, and uphold bias. Even though it’s the year 2020, we’re still fighting for equal representation both on-screen and off. We’re still fighting for fair treatment in fiction, and in our day-to-day realities. For generations, the entertainment industry has simultaneously been a beacon of hope, but also an institution of exclusion. Most people with an ounce of knowledge about film know this. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to provide a history lesson. Luckily, you won’t have to look too hard.
With racial and political tension reaching an all-time high, it’s important moving forward that companies and individuals continue to commit to inclusion and empathy, not just right now, but indefinitely. With the COVID-19 pandemic also affecting the film community, it has left many talented voices unemployed, and unsure of the next steps. This is a pivotal time in our history, and it’s imperative that we make sure that people from all walks of life are treated as if they matter. While many companies may not be hiring, have reduced their budgets, and even shut down, we can’t let any progress in diversity, inclusion, and fair pay be undone. It’s our responsibility to make sure that change keeps its momentum.
When it comes to fighting racism, (and other -isms) there’s more work than not being prejudiced. Smaller actions and inaction contribute to a broken system. The exclusion in the entertainment industry goes back to before film even began, so it won’t be an overnight solution. Fortunately, you can still do something, whether it’s big or small.
For those of you already putting in the work, thank you. For those of you wondering what to do and how to get started, read on. Some of these are obvious, but they are helpful reminders as you move forward in your career and in this crazy, but beautiful industry we all love.
30 WAYS TO FIGHT RACISM (AND OTHER -ISMS) IN THE FILM INDUSTRY
- Get educated. Know the facts, pay attention, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Over the past decade, there has been a plethora of studies about the lack of inclusion both onscreen and off (Feel free to Google). Read some entertainment history books! Watch documentaries! While minorities have openly discussed the lack of inclusion for YEARS, hard data helps to put things in perspective. Being aware of the truth helps you to prevent the spread of lies about diversity in the industry (i.e. People of color are taking jobs from white men). You can also educate yourself by #3, #4, #5, and #8.
- Know the difference between Mentorship, Sponsorship, and Allyship. All three of these concepts are paramount to the future of the entertainment industry. Mentorship often is a mutually beneficial exchange, where people learn from each other. The mentee often goes to the mentor for career guidance and general advice. Sponsorship is actively advocating to get someone in the door. While mentorship is good, it doesn’t always lead to employment opportunities or advancement. Lastly, allyship is supporting and advocating for fair and equal treatment for those different from you.
- Make an effort to know and befriend people outside of your circle. Networking is a massive aspect of moving forward in the entertainment industry. When was the last time you had a one-on-one with someone unlike yourself, if ever? Get “drinks/coffee” with people who don’t look like you or live the same lifestyle, or people who aren’t on the same level. How will you know about what others face if you’re constantly surrounded by people like yourself? It’s also OK to have friends and talk to people outside of the industry.
- Consume more media about, by, and starring diverse individuals. Being more open in the media we watch opens us up to different viewpoints and experiences. It may not be your cup of tea, but you may be surprised if you enjoy it and or learn something new. Additionally, you CAN resonate with others who look different. Minorities have been conditioned to relate with white characters their entire lives. Be adventurous in your movie and TV show choices. Don’t be afraid of the one-inch barrier on the screen.
- If you live in a major entertainment hub, there’s no excuse to not explore other cultures and entertainment. Take some time to go somewhere you’ve never been to before like a festival, a local restaurant, or a historic landmark. Discover another side of town! Mingle with actual natives from your city of residence (Primarily if you live in Los Angeles or New York City). Don’t be that transplant that never exits the entertainment bubble.
- If you find content that you enjoy by and about diverse individuals, share it! Promote it! Talk about it on social media, and discuss it with your friends and family. Some recent films that have exploded on the scene (and won awards) because of word-of-mouth are Parasite, Moonlight, Get Out, The Farewell, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Roma. If you watch something incredible, ensure that a talented voice’s work gets seen and recognized. If more people see these films, it can lead to more work for the creators, which will lead to more art from diverse individuals being green-lit and financed. If you’re a major decision-maker or work for one, mention their work when the opportunity arises!
- If you find content that is harmful and portrays diverse individuals in a negative way, speak up. On the other side of the coin, film can perpetuate negative stereotypes and harmful imagery. It’s up to you to speak up when you recognize that. Help prevent these films from continuing to get made by not amplifying them on social media, giving press coverage, or paying to see the films. This goes double if the media comes from a known problematic individual. It’s 2020. “Genius” shouldn’t be an excuse for repulsive behavior, and there’s too much talent to continue to reward awful people.
- If your peers talk about problematic media, take the time to listen to why the media is offensive to them, even if you don’t agree or understand. Art is subjective, so audiences are bound to see something differently than you. Respect other’s opinions, and lend an ear. Whether you work in publicity, as an agent or manager, in development, as a showrunner, director, set or office PA, this applies. If you had a hand in making something, it’s not up to you to change someone’s opinion about your project. You may have had a certain message to portray, but not everyone will see it the way you intended. With any art comes criticism (professional or not). If you create something about another community, and it was not done well or without consultation (or even a team) from that community, prepare for feedback.
- If you know an excellent diverse individual for a job, refer them. Be a sponsor and give a good word for them if you know their abilities and work quality. This is one of the best things you can do, as it leads to improved financial status and mobility. You can’t even get interviews at most desirable companies without a connection, so if you are the link, reach out. So many positions aren’t posted online, and if you know of something, spread the word.
- If an opportunity doesn’t work out, but you still feel they would be a great employee, share alternatives and/or offer to keep in touch. If you’re a hiring authority, and the person is amazing, but not a fit (or the final decision was left to someone else), it’s OK to guide them to other roles and companies that would be beneficial. If you would love to keep in touch, offer to do so. Give positive feedback if you’re allowed to share your thoughts on the candidate. Professional praise can really boost morale.
- If someone has given their services underpaid/free to your project/workplace/organization (and performed well), the next course of action is to advocate for them to be paid appropriately. You can do this by referring them to people and companies that do pay. Don’t contribute to the loop of underpaid work. When many individuals start out in the industry, they often work for next to nothing, if nothing at all. In other instances, passionate individuals offer their services for free because they care about an organization or cause, or are looking for experience. While the person’s goal may be to gain knowledge or give back, don’t take advantage of someone’s hard work, especially by promising pay you can’t deliver. If they’re seeking paid opportunities, make sure you point them in the right direction.
- Donate to advocacy organizations. Some of the organizations doing some of the best work are the least funded. Did you know that non-profits centering girls and women of color only receive 2% of grant funds? Meanwhile, white-led organizations receive the majority of funding from top companies and patrons. These organizations can do good work too, but they aren’t always led by people who represent the communities they serve. Take time to learn about other organizations that are making a difference.
- Donate to talented individuals and their artistic projects. This is pretty self-explanatory. Most film projects can’t be made without some sort of money. If you recognize talent, open your purse- if you can.
- If you don’t have money to give, offer other resources. Meeting and filming spaces, signal-boosting work, crowdfunds, and causes, and volunteering are all ways you can support.
- Contribute to creating a safe and welcoming space at your workplace/organization. Don’t allow your job (especially at the entry-level) to be a hazing ritual. If you’re a leader, can you organize events for people to get to know each other? How do you onboard new members/employees? How do you retain underrepresented talents? If you’re an employee, how can you reach out to your colleagues? Let them know they are valued. Also…this is extremely important: Respect your colleague’s need for space. If someone isn’t comfortable with socializing outside of work or needs personal time during work hours, don’t force them to hang out if they don’t want to. Allow them to fellowship on their own accord. Extend the offer, but don’t pressure them to take it.
- Allow your peers, employees, etc. space to process and grieve when personal and national events have impacted them. As the rise of FASCISM, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia are affecting our society, show compassion to your peers who may be feeling overwhelmed. As an individual and organization, it’s important to recognize the vulnerability of those that work alongside you. Don’t act as if it isn’t happening, but don’t force the subject if your colleague isn’t ready to talk. If they are willing to talk, be willing to listen. This is something that should be seen more at the corporate level as well. Company’s with vast staff and financial resources should keep this in mind.
- Know that microaggressions are still aggressions and that it’s never OK to participate in them. Not sure of what a microaggression is? Here are some examples, the first three of which I’ve also experienced: Touching a Black woman’s hair without her permission, automatically asking someone to teach you a language (Really embarrassing if they don’t actually speak it), asking “Where are you really from?” saying “I don’t see color,” and the most infamous, “The most qualified person should get the job.”- which you know in Hollywood, doesn’t always happen. If you’re unsure whether it’s appropriate, don’t say it- or do it. Once you build a strong rapport, it can be OK to ask if you’re unsure.
- If you hear negative talk to and about your peers or groups of people as a whole, don’t be afraid to diffuse the conversation, whether they’re in the room with you or not. Part of inclusion is not allowing others to speak negatively about your colleagues, especially if they’re not around. If you stay silent, you’re just as guilty- even if you don’t contribute to the conversation.
- Be a good listener when concerns are voiced about the lack of inclusion at your workplace/organization. If someone is brave enough to mention that your organization can do better, don’t take it personally or be argumentative. Your organization may seem inclusive to you, but what’s acceptable to you may not be acceptable to someone else. Instead, take the time to listen and ask what you can do to make improvements. This applies whether you’re at the assistant level or a CEO.
- Be open to new ideas and feedback. Going with the above point, create a space where people are free to bring ideas. Make sure other voices are heard. If you have a leadership board at your organization, make sure members/employees feel welcomed to share feedback and ideas. What would this look like? Conduct regular surveys, host town halls, and make yourselves available to speak after events. It’s even better if you incorporate ideas and let people know when they’re successful.
- Ask, “Who is the right person to tell this story?” It’s OK to take a backseat in order to elevate other voices, especially if you’re not from that community. If you really want to tell a story, especially one from a marginalized perspective, make sure you have a good answer as to why. You may not always be able to back away from a project (especially if you were hired by someone else), so what are you going to do to make sure the project is authentic? It’s not enough to just have minorities on screen. Make sure they are in roles in all aspects of the creative process…and not just as consultants.
- Realize that just because you “don’t get” someone else’s work, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or a not a story worthy of being told. This is a major reason why so many projects aren’t green-lit. You may not understand or resonate with something, but that doesn’t mean that someone else won’t. This is another reason why diversity at the executive level is important.
- When it comes to organizations of all kinds, realize that without a mix of diverse individuals in leadership positions, you will not progress. Don’t just bring on someone with an impressive resume, bring on someone who’s lived the life and done the work. If you utter the phrases “diversity,” “inclusion,” “the future of entertainment,” “next generation,” “parity,” “We like individuals who have faced adversity,” you need to ensure that you actually deliver. It’s not a good look if you talk about these things, then lack minorities in decision-making roles, or in roles behind the scenes. It’s not enough to have a diverse talent roster and content lineup, but diverse support staff and executives too.
- Bring diverse individuals to speak at educational events and panels, especially those highlighting the next generation of entertainment. You can’t discuss the future of the industry without recognizing marginalized individuals who are working to shape a better future not just for themselves, but for everyone. If you don’t know someone, find someone who does, and make an effort to know more people. A side note: this isn’t just for diversity panels, but any kind of panel with movers and shakers.
- Know that due to systematic barriers, cultural differences, and often the lack of resources, diverse individuals may have professional experiences that may not follow a more traditional trajectory, or may not have the most recognizable companies on their resumes. That doesn’t mean their experience is worth less. If you’re in a position to fill a role, keep this in mind. Don’t always focus on where someone worked, or who someone worked for. Also focus on the quality of their experience, their abilities, and their passion.
- Having a certain set of privileges isn’t bad, and it is OK to admit when it has helped you advance. Be honest about how you got where you are. Sure, you may have done your fair share of hard work and paid your dues. However, did someone help pay your bills while you were making pennies as an intern or an assistant? Did a family friend refer you for a job? Were you part of a homogenous workplace where you never felt like an outsider? Did you ever have to worry about how “authentic” you’re allowed to be in order to seem palatable? Just know that your advice is not going to apply equally to everyone (see above and below).
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice if you cannot relate with the individual(s), especially when it comes to being a minority. Don’t offer advice on their appearance, what kind of employment they should pursue (i.e. “We need more people of color in ____”), how they should be, etc. Don’t do it, especially if they didn’t ask for your input.
- It is absolutely OK to admit when you’re not knowledgable about a subject. You can help by pointing out other resources or people who are knowledgable. If you don’t have the answers, don’t pretend as if you do.
- If you have the power to speak up about inequality without major repercussions, DO SO. In writing this, I realize that not everyone has the ability to openly challenge their organizations, bosses, or colleagues to do better. I get it. We all need to be paid and put food on the table. However, if you reach a certain status where you can speak freely, put your voice to good use. But remember the rest of this list. There are other things you can do.
- PAY UNDERRERPRESENTED INDIVIDUALS EQUALLY AND FAIRLY. The greatest barrier to inclusion in the entertainment industry is the lack of fair pay at the intern and assistant level. Pay for talent. Show your appreciation with MONEY. When people make more money, they have more resources to spread around, which helps others to move upward.