Soledad O'Brien on #OscarsSoWhite: Why Did It Take So Long to Have This Discussion?

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Soledad O'Brien

"It's critical to think about whose voice is being heard — and whose voice is never heard," says the award-winning journalist and documentarian.

In my experience, diversity doesn't just "happen." It has to be very intentional. People have to have a genuine desire to make a change. 

It's hard to tell what's going to happen this time around. There are some bright signs, including the fledgling efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And, most importantly, there is an active, honest conversation going on. 

It began with black artists — and lots of people of color — who said “enough.” And that's certainly why AMPAS announced that it will attempt to increase the diversity of Oscar judges, along with changing the rules of how and when they are qualified to vote. But the dialogue has now spread to other people, organizations, others who feel the sting of discrimination, and opponents.

This debate has also had a chance to propel some real change in the broader entertainment industry — and other industries, too. As journalists, for example, our entire job is to inform, uncover, report, add facts to a public conversation about an important topic. We’ve failed to do that when it comes to the topic of diversity in Hollywood. The artistic community is calling attention to it and the media is playing catch-up and talking, albeit fitfully and in small numbers, about why.

What's disappointing is that it's taken this long for the broader public to have this discussion at all. The omission of blacks in Hollywood has been talked about in the black community for decades. So has the lack of Latino actors among Latinos and female directors among women. These communities have become accustomed to not seeing their faces represented, to not having their point of view represented, and they get plenty angry about it in their living rooms and on social media. But the media itself has a very serious diversity problem as well, and they simply don’t cover it unless it explodes in controversy.

I’m big on numbers, so let’s quantify this. In the last 20-some years the number of black journalists working in print has dropped 40 percent. Latinos have increased a mere 1 percent — and remember that there weren’t that many of them to begin with. In broadcast there have been increases on camera, but the decisions on what to air are made mostly off-camera, where our ranks are still very slim. And the coverage reflects that — the stories about blacks and Latinos are still mostly related to crime and race. 

As a producer, I've seen the TV market make some substantial gains, prompted partly by audience response. Shows like Empire and Fresh Off the Boat are giving us diverse voices and faces. On the film side, it still seems hard to sell a story with diverse themes or diverse characters — unless the projects conform to stereotypes or are of a historical nature.

I was raised by a white dad and black mom for whom dating and marriage were legally impossible in Baltimore in 1958 — so they drove to D.C. to get married, then lived in a fairly hostile environment toward mixed-race couples. That sense of isolation never stopped them, and it’s certainly helped me to deal with some very typical racism in my career: being dismissed as the “affirmative action” hire, being left out of opportunities. I'm not complaining. It's the way it is and it was up to me to try to excel anyway. And, later, as a reporter I found it interesting to interview people who felt that way and try to understand their perspective. But that doesn't mean the frustration didn't build, and in my case, as that of many others, it eventually forces you to speak out. It also encourages you to do what you can to make it better.

In my case, I now run a production company called Starfish Media Group that strives to tell the untold stories of people of diverse backgrounds. I have the opportunity to promote diversity by making diverse hires, by giving young people of color opportunities to get experience, so they've got great résumés. In terms of content I think it's critical to not just think about the story you're telling, but also whose voice is being heard and whose voice is never heard. Most of my documentaries — regardless of topic — feature diverse people because that's the American demographic. I'm not alone in doing that to be sure, and it's not only people of color doing it. But there need to be a lot more of us. 

I hope that everyone in the industry now thinks about ways in which they can specifically help move the needle further on diversity in front of the camera and behind it. There are tons of extremely talented and creative people who just need an in and an opportunity.

I'm hoping that's what Hollywood is about to do, now that a bit of pressure has made them aware of how frustrating the problem is and how widespread. All it will take is giving people a chance to prove they can excel — and a conversation that allows people to discuss why it's worth it.

O'Brien is an award-winning journalist and the founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group.