You know that feeling when you’ve been called out or you’re really nervous about something, and your first instinct is to laugh? That’s how awarding institutions have been responding to Hollywood’s lack of diversity and a glaring overemphasis on content driven by white people and white voices. The 70th Primetime Emmys did it again, using the same recipe we saw at last year’s ceremony, and even at the Oscars. The show was chock full of jokes about the industry-wide struggle to get diversity right, soliciting chuckles from the audience, and even some viewers. But the dismal number of people of colour who actually won awards during Monday's broadcast is no laughing matter.
If true inclusivity was a matter of visibility alone — to be clear, it’s not — then the 2018 Emmys certainly got it right. In nearly every category, people of colour were included either among the nominees or as presenters of the award. Michael Che, a comedian and writer for Saturday Night Live!, even co-hosted the event. In a satirical opening number called “We Solved It”, entertainers of colour like John Legend, RuPaul, Tituss Burgess, and Ricky Martin — all of the women in the number were white — danced and sang about how TV had figured out the solution to inclusivity. They even had a “one of each” dance ensemble where different identities were presumably represented. They bantered that Sandra Oh’s historic nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series — she’s the first Asian actress to receive the nod — helped them solve their issues because they “got one.” Interestingly enough, “We Solved It” eerily foreshadowed how the rest of the evening would play out.
Taking the stage after a tribute to Betty White, James Corden quipped, “Let's get it trending: #EmmysSoWhite;” a clear play on White’s name that also alluded to the hashtags that are critical of the white privilege at these kinds of events. At this point in the show, nine awards had been given out, all of them to white people. Che later appeared in a comedic segment called the Reparations Emmys, where he sought out and awarded Black actors (The Jeffersons’ Marla Gibbs, Family Matters’ Jaleel White and others) who never received the accolades they deserved in the prime of their careers. This bit, too, was a bittersweet moment, as the time has long passed for the Black shows that Reparation Emmy recipients appeared in to win any actual awards.
Over the course of the telecast where everyone — including a bunch of people of colour — stewed in their awkward laughter about white privilege, only 5 of the 26 awards (Darren Criss, whose mother is Filipino, is included in this number) actually went to people of colour. This dissonant experience could explain the utter disbelief on Regina King’s face when she won Best Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie for her role in Seven Seconds; or Thandie Newton’s emotional surprise when she won for Supporting Actress in a Drama for Westworld. I was shocked, too, as I had already prepared myself for Insecure to be snubbed again even though co-creator and star Issa Rae’s character speaks to a generation of women. Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson left us shook with the divorce story arc on the most recent season of black-ish, but neither of them took home awards, either. After so much buzz pre-ceremony, Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh, the first-ever Asian woman to be nominated for the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, lost to The Queen’s Claire Foy. None of these losses surprised me.
White people and institutions may be the butt of all those jokes about the lack of inclusivity, but the material itself comes at the very real expense of creatives of colour who work just as hard as everyone else. They rarely see the same payoff as their white cohorts. In the case of Emmys, people of colour can show up for appearances, but most of them don’t get to relish in the actual glow of the event that proclaims many, many times over, to celebrate their work. It’s a problematic dynamic that is reflected even in the leadership of the Television Academy itself. Hayma Washington became the first African-American to hold the position of Chairman & CEO of the Television Academy in 2016. He went onstage Monday night to salute the 70th run of the Emmys and commend the Academy for its diversity initiatives. It was disappointing to know that only a couple of the night’s winners looked like him.
Following 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science made a big deal about restructuring their voting body by inviting more people of color to join their governing ranks. Perhaps it’s time for the Television Academy to feel some of that same pressure. Change doesn’t happen overnight. The road to true equality, in any industry, is turbulent and full of detours that take us out of the way and sometimes backwards. People of colour have been on the side of the road for too long, being ogled, addressed, but ultimately passed up. It’s time to wipe the stupid grins off of our faces and do more about it.