Dear White Actors

Dear White Actors

By Steve Braun

Power structures seem to be shifting in our Industry. A by-product of that shift is that a wider spectrum of the population is being represented in film and TV roles. More women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, differently abled people and others are getting opportunities that they historically have never gotten. We think that’s great, long overdue and a change that’s good for everyone. When a wider spectrum of the population is creating and presenting work that goes through the filter of their own unique emotional experience, we’re all gifted with an expanded notion of our own humanity, we get to deepen our empathy for other people, we get to understand them and ourselves- the beautiful differences and the endless similarities- better.

But in the course of this change I’ve heard from a number of white actors who feel affected by the increase in opportunities for non-white actors, in particular. In describing their career or the amount of opportunity they’re getting they’ll refer to “diversity” as a reason they’re not working or auditioning as much as they’d like. “My agent said no one wants to audition a white woman in her 40’s right now.” “Auditions are slow for me because they’re only casting diverse.” “You can’t get an agent unless you’re diverse.” I’ve never felt any animosity towards non-white actors coming from these white actors. But there is a prevailing feeling that their opportunities are decreasing because there are more people of color at the table. I think it’s important for everyone to examine that feeling and what to do with it.

First I’ll say this. In my two and change decades in the business, there has always been a reason why an actor doesn’t work. Unemployment is the norm and there always seems to be a cause. From the shift over to the talkies, to the world wars, to Reality TV to the writer’s strike, actors who want so badly to work have always looked for and found reasons why the unemployment rate is high for actors. Even when I pursued an acting career years ago, there was always some sort of narrative that explained why this pilot season probably wasn’t your pilot season. They only want teens this year. It’s all about 30 somethings this year. They’re only hiring Brits or Australians. That right now, the prevailing notion is that the Industry isn’t looking for white actors, should be taken in the context of a long line of reasons designed to explain a wildly competitive Industry where SAG suggests 3-6% of actors are working at any given time. And again, historically that 3-6% has excluded people of color. So, my first thought is that it’s really important not to buy into a convenient or simple narrative because it wraps things up in a bow and makes the Industry make sense.

“But, this is different”, you might say. “This isn’t a seasonal Industry trend. The demographics are changing and there really are fewer opportunities for white actors.” Well, I think a clearer understanding about the change itself will be helpful here. A 5 year, UCLA study, The Hollywood Diversity Report 2018 offers us the clearest picture of what’s happening. The study shows that women and people of color are being represented significantly more than they have been in the past. That said, the numbers are still very low and the disparity is still large. For instance, the study says that in the 2017-2018 season, actors of color claimed 28% of the lead roles for the new scripted shows across all platforms. In all categories- throughout the Industry White men (people like me) are represented in numbers that are far and above any other demographic. Just like they always have been. But there is a change. White actors’ share of broadcast scripted roles generally- not just lead roles- decreased from 76% in 2015 to 66% in 2016. In Cable scripted roles white representation went from 79% in 2015 to 74.6% in 2016. Still well over half the roles are going to white actors.

Here’s where white actors’ feelings meet the statistics. And that intersection of feelings and statistics might be jarring because the numbers can be seen as undermining the feeling some white actors have that opportunities have been taken away from them. And while you may happen to be that white actor who feels the actual, direct effect of a 10 percent decrease in the hiring of white actors, I suspect there have always been variables in hiring that account for 10, even 15, percent shifts in hiring trends (again, Reality TV, comedy vs drama, trends in casting a certain age, etc). Point is, the narrative and the feeling it brings may not feel like a 10-15% decrease. It may feel bigger than that. The big feeling or the weight that an actor places on the narrative may not align with the actual percentage change in hiring practices.

And this is White privilege. Ok, so as soon as I said White privilege it’s possible that some of you got defensive. As if I’m calling you a racist for feeling like your opportunities have dwindled because of the inclusion of people of color in the process. I’m not. But it is the case that to people who are used to having access to 80% or more of the jobs, a 10% decrease feels really jarring.

Many years ago when I was pursuing an acting career I booked a role on a movie called Blade Trinity. It was three months of work and I was coming off a good run of consistent work so I was really excited about the project and the momentum. They flew me up to Vancouver where I hung out for a few days and then, the day before I started shooting- 45 minutes before my wardrobe fitting- I got a call from my agent telling me that when Wesley Snipes- one of the stars of the show and a producer- got to Vancouver and saw all the cast headshots, he insisted that three of the roles that were already given to white actors be given to actors of color. I was fired. I was disappointed. The credit was already on IMDb, I was already planning what to do with the money, everyone I knew was under the impression that I’d be in Vancouver for three months. It stung.

But in hindsight, I realize that it stung in large part because I was used to working. I was used to auditioning. Being excluded from the Industry wasn’t normal for me. Hell, even though I wasn’t a US citizen- I was a Canadian citizen with just a work permit to audition in the US at the time- I would consistently audition for roles described as “All-American.” I, who was not a citizen of the United States, was given those opportunities over, say, any Latinx actors whose family had been in the US for generations. Why? Because I’m white. That’s what I was used to. So, exclusion, even though it meant that I was paid for three months of work that I didn’t do- felt jarring.

Look, none of this should make you defensive. None of this should make you feel like I’m pointing my finger at you and screaming, “Racist!” As Guante said, racism isn’t the shark, it’s the water. Understanding unconscious biases- or stuff your agent tells you to explain why you haven’t booked in a year- will help you get past some things that are holding you back. This narrative, that you haven’t worked in a year because the Industry isn’t looking for white actors is holding you back from being an artist. It’s another in a long line of reasons- both real and imagined- that the Industry won’t see to your needs.

Yes, the Industry has changed. The platforms, the technology, the audiences. But it’s always been in flux. And will always be in flux. And it’s always the job of the artist to push past narratives so that they can create. No matter what is happening, you must find a way to create. Spending time lamenting the changes is time wasted. You must embrace every change, embrace the inclusion of people who have historically been excluded, let your work grow and change as a result, and always, always always make your own work. Keep writing, filming and producing, collaborate with people of color and others who are interested. Be part of the work, wherever it manifests itself.

A quick look at the history of African American people reveals the myriad ways in which African Americans made world-changing art while being enslaved, oppressed, excluded, working twice as hard for half as much. It’s one incredible example of creativity after another.

White actors. This is the time to take a deep, honest look at our privilege and the narratives we hang onto to explain it. When we approach change as a creator does, we don’t think that inclusion will create scarcity. We know that there’s enough to go around, because we are all sources of creation. Does it mean that you’ll have to dump old narratives about what the business owes you? Yes. But, the truth is, it never really did owe that to you in the first place. And at some point, the business always goes away. It’s fickle and fleeting. You’ll always be left with you- the artist- making your own artistic way.

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