How to Broach Race When You're Not the Most Powerful Person in the Writers Room (Guest Column)

Jerrica Long and Jackie Decembly -Split-Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Subject (2)

Two young Black writers explain why it's frustrating when upper-level white staff are the ones addressing racism in the room and that the best way to kill an offensive joke is “to beat it with something funnier.”

Broaching the subject of race when you’re not the most powerful person in the room is one of the toughest parts of being a Black professional in Hollywood. That’s especially true in the writers room, where stories are told and culture is made. 

As two writers early on in our careers (one of us is a staff writer, the other is still banging at the damn door) we’ve each worked in many different rooms, but have always felt the burden of educating our white co-workers. 

Instead of starting a show with the typical first-day-at-work anxieties like, "Will they like us?" "How long until we can bring a sample to our boss?" or "Will we get to pitch today?" we’re immediately wondering: How racist will the room be? Will we be supported by upper-level writers or the showrunner? Will we have an ally? 

More often than not, Black writers and support staff are tasked with providing resources or recommending ways to support Black Lives Matter or explaining why certain pitches are offensive. While white co-workers struggle with how to address racism in the room, Black co-workers and support staff are left feeling alienated and drained. 

Racism is as common in the writers room as it is to see LaCroix in the fridge. The subject of race is usually broached by an upper-level white writer. Typically, in the form of a joke that is either subtle or blatantly racist. Lately, it’s been subtle, which makes the conversation more difficult. It usually starts with, “I don’t want to be offensive but …” or “I mean you have to agree Black people are …” insert some racist observation they think is OK to say because “everything said in the room stays in the room,” right? 

Wrong. The trauma inflicted by these conversations doesn’t go away, and historically, being at the bottom means we sit there and take it. 

We have found that the best way to combat racism in joke or storyline form, is to beat it — pitch something smarter or funnier. Sure, we probably won’t be credited in the room, but we saved ourselves and the show from backlash. 

There’s a very real fear that if we call out all the racist or harmful pitches or jokes, we’ll be labeled as the “race police.” Since our industry relies heavily on recommendations and referrals to land that next gig, we have to balance that worry with educating the room about racist behavior. 

Many have asked us if our approach in talking about race has changed since the pandemic and the protests. While we want the answer to be yes, it’s still no. As if it wasn’t hard enough to have these discussions in person, most virtual rooms are heavily steered by the showrunner in order to keep their staff focused. This means less open discussion about storylines and, especially, less time to discuss race. 

Throughout these experiences, we might be lucky enough to have another Black person or person of color in the room as allies for strategizing. That’s rarely the case, so we pick our battles. 

If we want to address these blatant inequalities in the room, we need to start with who is in the room. Getting our foot in the door as a Black person is nearly impossible, and it’s time to take a cold, hard look at our broken pipeline. 

We want to make it easier for the entertainment industry to hire Black talent (and pay them above a livable wage) by launching our Hire Black Database, a platform that will help Black assistants looking for work, created in partnership with our 1,000+ assistant group, Entertainment Assistants for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Young Entertainment Activists.  So, showrunners, HR departments, companies, Hollywood, there’s no more room for excuses. We’ve made it simple to enact the change you claim you want to see. It’s time for more Black people to be in positions of power. And they will be if you give them a chance.

Jerrica Long is a queer comedian and aspiring TV writer hoping to remove "aspiring" sometime soon. Jackie Decembly is currently a staffed writer based in Los Angeles.