Hollywood Attorney Nina Shaw on Being "the Only Black Person in the Room" for 30-Plus Years (Guest Column)

Nina Shaw - POWER LAWYERS 2020 - Publicity -H 2020
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The power lawyer reveals the "deeply troubling" experience of tokenism and recalls the discouraging response to calling for diverse representation in 2016: "That was the embodiment of white privilege."

I have spent my entire 30-plus-year career as a talent lawyer. For most of that time, whenever I attended a team meeting of representatives, I have been the only Black person in the room. It has been lonely, and it has been deeply troubling, but that hasn't been the worst part. The sad revelation has been that none of you seems to notice that I am the only one in the room. When I've brought it to your attention, I received mumbled responses, lots of looking at the floor in shame and platitudes about how you knew your businesses needed to do better. So how did that make me feel? It made me feel that I, and people who look like me, do not matter.

In 2016, I received the Essence Black Woman in Hollywood Power award, an honor rarely given to one who works behind the scenes. I wanted to say something to make a difference.

My remarks were about how talent has to stand up to their agencies, management companies and law firms and say: "Enough is enough. You can't represent me if you will not hire anyone who looks like me."

I wrestled with the speech. I did not want to be a victim blamer. A successful career for most creatives is elusive. Getting good representation often feels impossible, so how could I ask this audience, who might feel that their own existence is tenuous, to make these kinds of demands on the very people for whom they felt grateful? Also, what about my own career? Would there be retribution if I spoke from my heart in this way? I always tell my clients if you win an award, don't thank me. Say something that moves the needle. So I followed my own advice.

In my speech, I said:

Ask yourself … Is it OK that when your representatives, whom you pay very well, put a team in place to guide your career, that the team, no matter its size, might consist of one or maybe two people of color?

Is it OK that, despite their seniority, the women who represent you are almost never owners or partners of the businesses for which they work so very hard?

Is it OK for you to know that this is not OK and to not make your displeasure known?

Then I spoke about the numerous Black agents, managers and lawyers who were struggling to get a seat at the table to represent them in this very closed community:

Your representation options are limited because those who might bring a different perspective often lack access, and when access is granted, lack support, and time and time again, even the most promising careers end prematurely.

The New York Times covered the event, and to my surprise, an article titled, "At Essence Lunch, a Lesson in Diversity Off-Camera," ran shortly thereafter. More importantly, my audience didn't feel victim-blamed. They thanked me for empowering them and for reminding them that they matter.

I was barely back in my office when the first call came. An agent for a notable artist of color, who, in what was intended to be a joking tone, said, "I heard you told our clients to fire all us white guys."

That's not what I said — I asked him why can't agencies hire Black people in any numbers? Why do they leave prematurely? And where are the Black partners? His response was more mumbling and platitudes. What kind of person knows they are in the wrong yet still feels like they have the right to call me, put words in my mouth that they clearly do not understand, and try to put me on the defensive? That is the embodiment of white privilege.

Today I ask myself, "What would I say to an audience of white executives, agents, managers and lawyers?" I would say many things, but chief among them would be: "How are you not mortified when your executive photo directory bears no semblance to the way the world actually looks? Is it OK for you to know this is not OK and to do nothing?"

In the list of priorities that drive the Hollywood representative community, diversity as a goal doesn't rank. Why should it? If you can still sign that A+ star, build affiliated businesses, attract private equity money and have your success confirmed with staggering payouts and year-end bonuses, where is the incentive for change?

Our larger society needed a global pandemic, poor national leadership in the face of that pandemic, protests in spite of the health risks, looting in affluent neighborhoods and the most horrific 8 minutes and 46 seconds of film probably ever widely viewed by the public before deciding maybe it's time for a change.

To quote the great Fannie Lou Hamer, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired," and I am not alone. It is time to do the work to make the changes you know need to be made. Your clients and fellow co-workers won't be so tenuous about making their thoughts known anymore. Retribution is only frightening when people feel they have something to lose.

We know now we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Yes, we matter.

Nina Shaw is a founding partner of Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano.

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.