November 2, 2016

Diversity: Has the Word Lost its Power?

Some industry leaders and cultural experts believe that the word diversity lost its relevance in the struggle for equality in the corporate world and, more specifically, in the entertainment industry. During the spirited newsmakers panel at NAMIC’s 30th Annual Conference, journalist Roland Martin discussed Hollywood director, Ava DuVernay’s, choice to use the word inclusion to describe the ultimate goal of equitable representation by people of color. For decades, the term referred to programs aimed at adding cultural and racial minorities to the workforce. Today, numerous studies show that many of the designated diversity programs have had little effect. In fact, some say that the efforts of the committees or campaigns have had the reverse effect. A recent example of the limited impact of the concept was when a tech industry leader speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt trumpeted that the company’s two new hires. He boasted that the hiring sufficiently satisfied the call for change, adding that “we have two new partners who are so diverse I have a challenge pronouncing their names.’’ Is that what many decision-makers believe to be an answer to the systemic issues of unfair hiring practices and employment bias?

The discussion surrounding the diluted definition of the word is not new, but appears to be gaining traction. In 2010, NPR’s series titled Diversifying the American Workplace offered statistics and anecdotes from company leaders to prove that institutional efforts to diversify the workforce were uneven and often fruitless. “It’s one thing to create diversity, but you need to put as much energy into managing the uniqueness of a diverse environment as you do in creating it in the first place,” says Xerox’s [CEO] Harlow. “What doesn’t work is trying to convince a workforce or the market, in general, that you have a commitment that gets measured by posters and glitzy websites.” In the specific section related to Hollywood, NPR referred to a report titled Inclusion or Invisibility: Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment produced by Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., March Choueiti and Katherine Pieper, Ph.D.

The research team reviewed the industry from the CEO level to every speaking character across television as well as in all roles in digital content. In its suggested list of solutions, the report said:

Fast forward five years to October 2015 when the New York Times published a heavily-debated article which asked “Has diversity lost its meaning?” The article’s author, Anna Holmes, researched the emerging trend toward moving away from the term as a corporate goal. One year later, Oprah Winfrey vowed to eliminate the word from her vocabulary.

In a shared spotlight interview in Rolling Stone© magazine, Winfrey and Ava DuVernay outlined the specifics around the intentional shift from the word diversity to the word inclusion. DuVernay asserts that the word no longer signals an attempt to meet the goal of creating fair, powerful opportunities for people of color in the entertainment industry.

“Now I really eliminated it from my vocabulary because I’ve learned from her that the word that most articulates what we’re looking for is what we want to be: included. It’s to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made,” said Winfrey. Proponents of the shift point to the recent “Project Greenlight” episode in which Matt Damon tells producer Effie Brown that diversity happens in the cast, not in the production or development of a show. That singular moment shocked many people. More importantly, it revealed the block that decision-makers may have when it comes to opening doors for people of color and women behind the scenes.

Has the word diversity lost its relevance in the struggle for equality in the entertainment industry? Jeff Chang, the author of 2014’s ‘‘Who We Be: The Colorization of America,’’ says that the word ‘‘is an empty signifier… though, I still strongly believe in the possibility.’’ Chang prefers to use the word ‘‘equity’’ as he claims that the word diversity has been ‘‘de-radicalized,” no longer representing its roots in civil rights.

There are companies choosing to invest in change, especially following the industry outrage at the lack of representation of people of color in entertainment awards and staffing numbers. Warner Bros. film studio introduced its Emerging Film Directors Workshop, a “talent incubator designed to give access and voice to new and underrepresented talent.” The program is one of several listed by the Writers Guild of America.

Changing the word alone won’t make the difference, but it may be a start. The shift may prompt closer reviews of company programs and initiatives, pulling them back toward the initial goal of creating organizations more reflective of society. Removing bias from hiring and establishing programs such as the upcoming Hollywood Creative Forum are ultimately what’s required to correct the imbalance in the entertainment industry.


“I don’t use it because all of the industries have abandoned diversity. I go back to why it was created. It was created to correct historical wrongs as they related to African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. Now it has been so watered down, so played and so abused, it now is a term that has no meaning.”
Roland Martin, NAMIC 30th Annual Conference, NYC

To Achieve Inclusion

To achieve inclusion, companies need to embrace new approaches. These strategies must involve more than simply “checking a box” when casting a film, series, or episode, or go beyond making a “diversity hire” behind the camera or in the executive suite. We have identified specific actions for television, and streaming companies to counter implicit and explicit biases.
(Annenberg Report)