Emmys: The Least and Most Diverse Acting Categories in Awards Show's History

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In the ceremony's seven-decade history, just 10 percent of primetime acting nominees have been people of color.

The 2019 Primetime Emmy Awards take place this weekend. Leading up to the ceremony, nominees have been congratulated and celebrated for their work, and a select few honorees have been additionally applauded for adding to a small but growing group — Emmy nominees of color.

However, this year’s 24 diverse nominations for the Primetime Emmys represented a noticeable drop from 2018, which witnessed a record 38 above-the-line nominations for people of color. There were also three major categories whose nominees were all white — lead actress in a comedy, supporting actress in a drama and supporting actress in a comedy. This represents a stark departure from 2018, when every major acting category except supporting actor in a drama had at least one nonwhite nominee.

Since the Primetime Emmy Awards began in 1949, the ceremony has seen just 10 percent of nominations for major acting categories (lead and supporting roles in comedy, drama and limited series) go to people of color; less than 7 percent of overall winners have been nonwhite. Across those categories, none have seen actors of color represent more than 15 percent of nominees. 

The Emmy Awards' least diverse category is outstanding actress for comedy, with less than 6 percent of nominations going to women of color. Tracee Ellis Ross broke a near-decade monopoly of white actresses in this category with her 2016 nomination for playing Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish. Prior to Ross' nomination, the last Emmy nod for a comedic actress of color went to America Ferrera (won in 2007 for Ugly Betty, nominated again in 2008).

The most diverse category at the Emmys is supporting actor in a limited series, with 14.4 percent of its nominations going to actors of color. Coming closely behind are supporting actor in a drama (14.1 percent), supporting actress in a drama (13.8 percent) and supporting actress in a limited series (12.3 percent).

The Emmy categories with the fewest wins for people of color are lead actress in a drama, supporting actress in a comedy and supporting actor in a comedy. Each of these categories has only seen one actor of color win: Viola Davis in 2015 for How to Get Away With Murder, Jackée Harry in 1987 for 227 and Robert Guillaume in 1979 for Soap.

The categories that have seen the most nonwhite winners are lead actor in a drama, supporting actress in a drama and supporting actress in a limited series — each with seven Emmys previously going to people of color.

At the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards, Davis' historic win came with a moving speech that highlighted why nonwhite actors are seen less on award stages.

Starting her speech with a quote by Harriet Tubman, Davis said, "'In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.'"

"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity," Davis continued. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

Since Davis' speech, the Primetime Emmys have seen a nonwhite actor nominated in most major acting categories. Still, as #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign pointed out last year, the TV Academy could "go further" with inclusion. 

"If you can count on one hand the number of people from a particular marginalized community that were on @TheEmmys stage last night, and still have fingers left over? You're not doing enough. Especially w/ the shows on TV today," Reign shared in a Twitter thread

Tracking awards show success for nonwhite actors helps prove whether speeches like Davis' or social campaigns such as Reign's are gaining traction in the industry. The hoped-for result: more acting opportunities for people of color, and further recognition of their work at award ceremonies.

Note: The Emmy ceremonies began in 1949 but genre-specific acting categories were not introduced until 1966.