“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” -Viola Davis, 2015 Emmys.
This is an oft quoted portion of Davis’s acceptance speech when she made history by becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama. In the loudly heard cry for diversity, creating more roles for people of color has been the main idea. Davis herself followed up that memorable line with, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” She’s right. Since then, we’ve expanded conversations about diversity to include women of color behind the scenes as well, calling for more representation among writers, producers, directors, and even editors. But to Davis’ point, I’ve been thinking specifically about the parameters of opportunity. If an availability of roles for women of color is a must, under what conditions? The battle for equality and inclusivity is not won with visibility alone.
For example, what if Google or Bank of America decided to meet their diversity quotas by only offering women and people of color unpaid internships or entry level positions? Opportunity also comes in the form of financial compensation. Something I had to consider when I moved to New York to advance my career as a writer was: am I going to be able to pay my bills? If the answer was no, then it would have turned out that I didn’t have an opportunity after all.
Last year, the entire country cheered for Emmy Rossum when she fought for salary parity with William H. Macy and even went so far as to demand back pay for all of the years that she was paid less than him. Jennifer Lawrence has gone on the record to talk about how she overcame her insecurities to ask for more money in her career as well. Patricia Arquette drew praise from the entire industry when she demanded that women be paid on par with men, even if she was tone deaf on the role she thought Black and LGBTQ people should play in it. Their issues are founded in the reality that across the country, women* make around 80 cents for every dollar a man* makes (*white).
There is no award that magically eradicates a culture of ambivalence.
For Black women, however, that number is 64 cents to the dollar. If the gender pay gap is manifesting itself in Hollywood for the likes of J. Law, it only makes sense that actresses of color, are feeling it even worse. Here are some numbers from 2016.
— The 2016 Forbes list of the world’s 10 highest paid actresses included no Black women and only two women of color (both of whom made the list because of their work internationally).
— Variety posted more comprehensive lists of the highest paid actors and and actresses in television, categorized by genre, and the results were similarly grim.
— Of the 33 actors included in the comedy genre, only 5 women of color made the list and Tracee Ellis Ross was the only Black woman. She is estimated to make $80,000 per episode of black-ish while Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco, and Johnny Galecki all topped out at $1 million per episode of Big Bang Theory.
— In drama, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, and Taraji P. Henson were the only women of color to make the list. The former two are estimated to be making $250,000 per episode of their ABC hit series while Henson makes around $175,000 for Empire. Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel made $750,000 per episode of the short Gilmore Girls reboot. But Mark Harmon came in at $525,000 per episode of NCIS.
— There were no women of color on the hosting/news/reality list
As you can see, even the Black women who have been bestowed opportunities in acting aren’t making as much as their white counterparts. I wanted to do a deeper dive on this unfortunate phenomenon. I had hoped to get direct quotes from at least a couple of Black women in the industry on how this has affected them personally. But pretty early on I ran into a problem.
I encountered a barrier of silence that felt heavy, even from the other side of my laptop screen. I get it, talking about money is weird. It’s still not considered “polite” conversation in every circle. And when being asked about your own salary in comparison to a colleague’s, it could be conceived as downright rude. But there is also much more at stake for women of color.
Taraji P. Henson offered some insight into this in her memoir Around the Way Girl where she described being paid in the low six figures (and was forced to pay for her own hotel costs) for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt received payouts in the millions. She said that she didn’t put up a fight because she knew that “there are way more talented black actresses than there are intelligent, meaningful roles for them, and we’re consistently charged with diving for the crumbs of the scraps, lest we starve.” She added, “I knew the stakes: no matter how talented, no matter how many accolades my prior work had received, if I pushed for more money, I’d be replaced and no one would so much as a blink.”
Not only are Black women in Hollywood viewed as replaceable, but there doesn’t seem to be a strong investment in defending them with the same tenacity that was there when people rallied around Rossum and Arquette. When actresses like Mo’nique are blackballed for not being polite and gracious enough to producers and executives; when the press is largely silent about Jessica Williams being talked down to by Selma Hayek for when speaking up about her unique experience as a Black woman; or when ant Black actress is reluctant to speak up about how Black women are treated in the industry, is telling.
There are layers of issues here that keep women of color lagging behind in Hollywood. It’s bigger than Viola’s historic win, or the fact that we’re finally seeing women of color representation in an institution that is a century old. Intersectionality is about more than recognizing multiple identities at once, it’s about acknowledging how multiple systems of oppression are working simultaneously to disenfranchise certain groups. It does little good to keep a meticulous tally of how many awards and roles Black women have acquired in the last decade, hoping to finally reach a number where we no longer have to think about it.
There is no award that magically eradicates a culture of ambivalence. And there certainly isn’t one that will act as a stand in for the bills that are due each month. Until said award exists, we need to learn how to proverbially walk and chew bubblegum. We can’t talk about gender equity, diversity, or inclusivity without also considering who comes in last even under the best circumstances. Sure you might finally be able to see us, but can you hear what we're saying?