A Guide to Hollywood's Unconscious Bias: 13 All-Too-Common Offenses and How to Do Better

Illustration by: Abbey Lossing

Underrepresented execs and creatives share 13 pieces of advice to avoid missteps and marginalization on set and in meetings: "Everyone is talking a good game, but they still want a white man in charge."

Unconscious bias creeps up. It can accumulate, and do harm years down the line. At times, perpetrators won’t realize — or admit — the bias has even happened. And those on the receiving end will wonder if they are “imagining it,” or if maybe if they “didn’t deserve to be in the room to begin with,” say a number of the scores of industry insiders who have been interviewed for this article. And there is real fear attached to being “the complainer,” says a gay film crew member. “You can’t be outspoken about the mistreatment because you don’t get hired again,” notes an African American comedian and writer. Being higher up on the ladder doesn’t necessarily make people feel safe either. “Anyone who is high-ranking doesn’t want to invite the scrutiny,” says an Asian-American exec. Still, stories of implicit bias abound. One African American producer prefaced her final example with, “I’m not trying to do the oppression Olympics here, but….” Here, some of the most common examples of bias that affect Hollywood and how entertainment product is created and marketed:

1. MIND MY PERSONAL SPACE (LIKE YOU WOULD ANYONE ELSE'S)

In a meeting with several industry movers and shakers, an Oscar winner reached over and touched my hair and said how interesting it is. Do I punch him or keep him as my ally — because I need him to back me up during the meeting? — AWARD-WINNING BLACK FILMMAKER

2. KEEP YOUR FEET ON THE GROUND

I'm annoyed that white older men go into staff or talent meetings and put their feet up on the table for serious conversations. This just happened today and I've seen it 100 times. Our business is casual, but really it’s only for certain privileged people. If a woman, POC or millennial did that, we'd be "unprofessional." — BLACK TV EXEC

3. CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT APPEARANCES

“When I’ve been dressed more casually on sets, I've been asked if I was an extra and steered towards holding, while many male non-POC executives have never had their job or authority questioned. Ever since, I’ve felt like I don’t have the privilege of being too casual in any work setting.” — BLACK NETWORK EXECUTIVE

A financier once told me I should wear makeup. That’s not a priority for me.— LESBIAN FILM AND TV PRODUCER 

On one of my first writing jobs, I got shown around and given a tour of the lot. They introduced me to the digital team, research, accounting, etc. Everyone was so friendly and cheerful. I later found out that almost everyone I was introduced to thought I was there to be a PA. Everybody knew the new writer was coming that day and nobody thought it was me. — CALISE HAWKINS, BLACK COMEDIAN-WRITER

4. NEVER SAY, 'THERE ISN'T AN AUDIENCE FOR THAT'

While pitching Native content, many of us are told this isn't "commercially viable" or "there isn't an audience." One executive actually said to me, "Indians are just too long-winded for TV." — HEATHER RAE, NATIVE AMERICAN PRODUCER (FROZEN RIVER)

When I graduated from Cal Arts, I made a student short that won an Emmy — it was actually the basis for The Book of Life. It was 2000, and my manager sent me to every major studio in L.A. I pitched a Day of the Dead-themed animated feature. I was told, "No one wants to see a movie about Mexicans, let alone dead Mexicans." And look where we are now, in a post-Book of Life and post-Coco world! — JORGE R. GUTIERREZ, DIRECTOR/CREATOR (THE BOOK OF LIFE) 

I’ve heard from executives that the reason they don’t want to make Latino films is because Latinos, unlike African Americans, only want to assimilate. No, we actually don’t want to assimilate, we just want better programing. Hollywood has not taken the time to figure out how to reach our audience with good storytelling — and not just Latino storytelling. — LIGIAH VILLALOBOS, WRITER (LA MISMA LUNA)

5. EDUCATE YOURSELF. DON'T EXPECT ME TO DO ALL THE HEAVY LIFTING

Trans people are often in positions where we have to help people feel less guilty in their ignorance. We graciously educate people even though the questions we are frequently asked are easy to Google. For trans folks who are cast in trans roles, often they’ve been misgendered or confronted by any number of things on their way to set. If there’s been no input from trans people  in the authoring of the material or in educating the crew or cast, a trans actor arrives and they are tasked with rewriting their lines and teaching people how to treat them. — ZACKARY DRUCKER, TRANS PRODUCER-ACTRESS (TRANSPARENT)

6. DON'T PRETEND YOU KNOW ME

When a producer said to me in a heated negotiation, "You will never understand my financial needs as you will never have kids!" I replied, "I have two children with my partner of 15 years, so I do know what you’re talking about. But let me ask you, what exactly are you trying to say to me right now?" He stammered and eventually apologized. I closed his deal, but that moment stuck. I was the "other." He assumed I was not capable of empathizing with him. He basically weaponized his family to try to win a negotiation. — GAY OWNER OF A PRODUCTION-FINANCING- SALES COMPANY

7. IF YOU CAN TALK THE TALK, WALK THE WALK

Everyone talks a good game but still wants a white man in charge. I was up for a studio horror film with a black female protagonist and a culturally sensitive story. The director, writer and I had a lovefest. They said, ‘We need a black woman’s perspective in order for this to work, and you are our person!” The studio brought in every white producer to meet the director, but not me. They settled on a white male producer. When I asked what happened, they said the studio was driving the decision and their way around the "black female perspective" question was to hire an "emerging black female producer" to work under the studio producer so she could be the face. I was absolutely deflated and demoralized, but I wished them well — so I would not be deemed difficult — and moved on. I later heard that the two "emerging producers" the studio went out to turned them down because they recognized the game they were running. That made me proud and made me think that the future generation of black female producers is going to do more than survive — they are going to thrive! — AWARD-WINNING BLACK PRODUCER 

8. ... AND WATCH HOW YOU TALK 

In a conversation about improving diversity numbers, it was said that by doing this, "we are lowering our standards." It's such an insult and it's so coded. Do you know how many incompetent people already work in this industry?A lot of people feel that in order to let people of color advance, they have to give something up. How do you explain to the decision-makers that this whole industry is based on the white savior myth? — ASIAN AMERICAN FILM EXEC

I was working on a series with an actor, and he was hemming and hawing about the clothes for a publicity photo shoot because he thought they were not how he saw the character. We were in the middle of the shoot, and he says, “I’m not wearing that — it’s too faggy.” I just looked at him and said, “Really?” He said, “No, I mean too metro. You know what I mean.” A little later, he needed a watch and no one from props was around, so the producer said to me, “What about your watch, Luke?” I took my watch off and held it out to the actor. He said, “That’s nice.” And I said, “You don’t think it’s too faggy do you?” Being able to say that made me able to not carry it around with me.” — LUKE REICHLE, GAY COSTUME DESIGNER (THE FIRM, CASTLE)

9. DON'T TAKE CREDIT FOR MY WORK BECAUSE IT'S RISKER FOR ME TO SPEAK UP

I was an international marketing exec and worked closely with my domestic counterpart, a very charismatic well-liked guy. A filmmaker was in town for a round of meetings, and my counterpart didn’t show up to one, so I ran the meeting solo and gave him a recap afterwards. In the following weekly staff meeting, the studio chief called on my counterpart to get an update on the meeting. Without missing a beat, he downloaded what I had told him, not mentioning that he wasn’t there. Of course, if I had said something then and there, I would have been seen as not a team player. — BLACK MARKETING EXECUTIVE

10. AVOID DE FACTO SEGREGATION AT ANY LEVEL

I was working on a TV show and our white male showrunner basically segregated the writers rooms. There was a first group and a Group B, which was comprised of all the female and people of color writers. On the first day, we gave him the benefit of the doubt, but soon it became apparent that this was the way the rooms would be split for every episode. When someone called him on it, he said, “No, I wanted them in a room where they could really help me to move the story along. It just so happens that that one room is white and male.’ He just wanted people who can think and write like him. At one point, they pulled me into their room, but I knew I’d only be there until I said one uncomfortable thing and then I’d get punted back into the other room. The younger writers in the first room were more supportive. One guy texted us from inside saying, "Jesus, it feels like I'm on a 1940s jury.'' — ADELE LIM, WRITER (CRAZY RICH ASIANS)

I’ve worked on films by Francis Ford Coppola and the Coen brothers, but for the most part, those doing the hiring don’t see a Latin name as a head of a department. They think of us as an affirmative-action quota, an afterthought. When they talk to me, they hear the accent. When they look at my resume, they see "Luis," and immediately attach a stigma. I’ve actually jokingly started using the name "Lou Hill." — LUIS COLINA, EDITOR (THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, THE GODFATHER: PART III) 

11. IF WE HAVE FEEDBACK ABOUT OUR COMMUNITIES, IT'S A GOOD IDEA TO LISTEN

There was a title I was working on and Black Twitter had a very strong opinion about a casting decision. As I gently tried to point out that this was something we should get in front of, I was told it was a small number of loud people and it wouldn’t matter because this filmmaker’s film is so good, people will get over it. I felt invisible. Well, journalists picked up on the issue and it became a bigger story. The film ultimately didn’t open. — BLACK STUDIO EXEC

12. REMEMBER THAT OPTICS MATTER

I've been on sets where they "dirty" me — put dirt on my face and clothes. My character was a warrior. Going into battle, she would have been looking her best. — DELANNA STUDI, NATIVE AMERICAN ACTRESS

We were shooting for a TV show in two apartments. One was for a single, black mother — with stains on the walls, a sink of dirty dishes and bags of trash. The other place, for the white man on the run with no money, was a pristine studio.I made sure the apartment for the single, black mother was cleaned before we shot anything. But imagine how that would have been framed if I, a black woman, had not been on set that day. — BLACK CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER

13. LEARN MY DAMN NAME!

I have been mistaken for another executive of color at a different level within the same conglomerate. People would have long conversations thinking I was the other person. I used to correct them, but it would create a "white fragility" that was worse to deal with, as I had to make them feel better despite their failure. This happens often, and adds an extra burden for POC execs who can feel minimized and like they have to prove they deserve a seat at the table. — BLACK TV EXEC 

This story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.