Kerry Washington: We’re still centering whiteness as the most important thing

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Kerry Washington called in to the podcast Hollywood the Sequel and discussed how the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests and awareness might affect the entertainment industry. Kerry talked about the impact actions like the We See You, White American Theater letter and diversifying hiring practices might have. Kerry’s response was thoughtful and enlightening. Although she acknowledged that this “feels for me like something is different,” she pointed out that until we address the root of the problem, that we must stop assuming whiteness, there will be little change.

When it comes to enacting real change in Hollywood, Kerry Washington believes society should dissect the “language” of inclusivity and diversity.

“We look at ourselves to get better and do better,” the mother of two said when asked what she hopes will come out of the most recent movement We See You, White American Theater, which calls out racism in the arts. “When we say we’re committed to diversity — it’s diverse from what? We’re still centering whiteness as the most important thing and inviting diversity around that.”

“Or when we talk about inclusivity, there’s still an in and an out. So, we’re still centering certain kinds of people and maybe in tiny fractions allowing other people to the table. There’s just so much of it that needs to reexamined. The simple answer is … I hope a lot of good [comes out of it] and that we can see each other, and have courage to make room for each other.”

Washington shared that although the world has seemingly been awakened by protests against systematic racism, “not much has changed for black people in the last couple of weeks.”

“There’s a different response to it,” Washington continued. “The sentiments of the moment that feel revelatory — I don’t feel like those feelings belong to me.”
“This is not a moment of revelation, but I’m watching the revelation around me for people, and I’m grateful that the world is showing up for black lives in a different way, but this is what has been the reality — this level of danger and anger and fear. Maybe trauma and lack of safety — this has been the reality of Black Americans since there were Black Americans.”

[From People]

Sometimes I hear the same thing from five different people but the way the fifth person said it finally makes me understand. I feel like Kerry’s been that person for me a lot of late. Her comment tjht “We’re still centering whiteness as the most important thing and inviting diversity around that,” is like turning on a light switch for me. I was actually trying to have a similar argument with a writer the other day but I really needed Kerry’s phrasing to make my point. My example of Kerry’s argument is: remember when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child production? The outcry was that the character waswhite, when that had never actually been written. People just assumed it because it had not been stated that she wasn’t white.

Just as important is Kerry’s point about allowing diversity a seat at the table. Writer’s rooms, casting agencies, film crews, etc., have all been scanned for diversity, many coming up short. The reaction is for the powers that be to hire a BIPOC to join the team and then they all clap each other’s backs and celebrate how enlightened they are. But they are still only offering a singular seat at their big, blindingly white table. Like Kerry, I hope the result of what’s going on right now does make a change. I hope space is made and that paradigms shift.

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Photo credit: WENN/Avalon and Backgrid

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25 Responses to “Kerry Washington: We’re still centering whiteness as the most important thing”

  1. Slowdown says:

    And even if a character is written as white it is not the end of the world if it is played by a black/Latino/Asian actor. It might even be the beginning of a new world.

    On a side note: so disappointed with Little Fires Everywhere. Bad writing and bad acting. It could have been the textbook example of casting for the sake of the actor and not the ethnicity. I mean, it still is, but I am not convinced by Washington’s acting chops. Regina King would have been fab and Constance Wu as the preppy mum as well.

    • Alissa says:

      yeah, Kerry Washington seems like a great person, but I don’t think she’s a particularly good actor. I gave up on little fires everywhere because I couldn’t stand to watch her make that same grimace face every episode.

    • Celebitchy says:

      I really liked Little Fires Everywhere I think it just took a couple of episodes to get going. My friend vouched for it and told me to give it a chance and I ended up really enjoying it. Kerry didn’t distract me, her character was going through a lot. It comes out toward the end episodes!

      • Slowdown says:

        I’ll give it a try again but honestly the one-tone acting made me really uncomfortable. No one would try to approach a person who looks nauseated to even be speaking to any human.

      • Celebitchy says:

        @Slowdown It pays off in how bonkers it gets! I started binging it after about 3 episodes.

      • Slowdown says:

        Oh… that’s about when I stopped.
        Thanks!

      • Lucy2 says:

        I enjoyed it too, I’ve binged the whole thing in about two or three days, so that may have made the difference.

    • Case says:

      I just assumed Kerry Washington was a good actress because I’ve heard so many good things about her, and I thought she was awful in Little Fires Everywhere. Then again, I didn’t finish it either. Maybe I should give it another chance.

    • Grant says:

      I agree regarding Kerry Washington. She doesn’t have a lot of range. I totally agree about the grimace face.

    • emu says:

      The Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 was a great example of a diverse cast playing white aristocratic Russians – it did not take away from the story as aristocratic Russians is such a world away anyways.
      Although the play was shut down for replacing a black actor with a white one…. womp womp

  2. Becks1 says:

    I think that’s a good way of putting it. Discussions about diversity are still centered on the idea of being white as the norm, and then diversifying from there. If there is a workplace with one white woman and the rest are black, no one is going to refer to that white woman as the “diversity hire” or anything like that. There needs to be a reset in how we look at everyday situations.

    • Otaku fairy says:

      It even spills over into how people look at sexual orientation and gender. Many people in the LGBT community are also BIPOC, just like many women are BIPOC- and a lot of BIPOC are in both groups. But one of the frustrating and dangerous results of the tendency to default to whiteness is that issues like homophobia and misogyny are assumed to be ‘white’ concerns. BIPOC are assumed to not mind these things so much and get erased from these issues. You really have to put forth a lot of effort to show that that’s not the case.

  3. R. says:

    From what I understand about the Black Hermione is that a lot of woc fans, especially black women claimed Hermione as theirs, knowing fully well that with J Karen Rowling track record, she is most likely white in the books. It didn’t matter. Black fans claimed Hermione as black and most fans were okay with that. The Harry Potter fandom declared Hermione black. Then the play actually cast a black actress and J Karen Rowling took all the credit for Hermione being black, vaguely declaring that Hermione could be of any ethnicity and that she never specifically said she was white (same withe the whole Dumbledore Is Gay situation). Black Hermione is created by the black Harry Potter fandom, yet JKR being JKR she HAD to take credit for that.

    • Megan H says:

      Iirc, I think some people were upset because there was one line in one of the books about “Hermione’s white face”

      But I completely agree with JK trying to claim it as her own. She’s infuriating

  4. Janet says:

    It’s insidious. I’m not a POC, but every time I hear that term I wonder to myself why using white as a yardstick to describe the skin colour of someone is even remotely ok. Has anyone ever heard a white person describe themselves as a person of “no colour”?

    Basic bottom line on the colour of someone’s skin, taking religion, history etc out of it is this, in my personal, having lived on 5 continents, often in the tropics :

    We are all the perfect expression of the best survival genes that came into play where our ancestors evolved. You take Eric Northman (non-vampire version) and dump him on the savanna with the Massai (with no hat or sunscreen) and he’d probably be dead within a few days. You take a Massai and dump him into a West African forest, and he’d be significantly disadvantaged compared to the Pygmies, because it’s hard to be a fast and agile hunter in a forest environment when you’re 6 feet tall and there are low hanging branches. You take a Pygmy and dump him into Scandinavia, he wouldn’t last through the first month of winter. Deep snow, skin/snow contrast issues that would make hunting difficult. This is a glaringly obvious fact. So redneck Jim-Bob should go spend a week roughing it in Africa without all of the modern conveniences designed to shield us from our environmental geneti cshortcomings. And then, let’s see how he talks, if he makes it.

    And what she’s talking about here is the modern and real-time version of how the victors get to write the history. Or the present, in this case. Instead of inclusiveness, this should be framed as “non-exclusiveness”.

    There is a very big difference between “inviting someone in” (Old Boy’s Club talk) or changing the policy to eliminate the need for an invitation in the first place.

  5. Lucy2 says:

    Kerry is making some excellent points here.

    Assuming whiteness is something I am guilty of, especially when reading a book or imagining someone in my head. It’s probably a little bit nature, and a lot of societal conditioning, but it’s definitely something I must work on. When that’s the default in the minds of people who are in charge of hiring, casting, creating, etc, it’s a big problem, and well beyond Hollywood.

  6. Case says:

    This is a genuine question for fellow Americans and I mean absolutely no offense or disrespect here — since white people make up more than 75 percent of the country, isn’t it appropriate to speak in terms of diversity as in, diverse from white? Isn’t it the job of the most commonly-found race in a country to make sure they don’t dominate everything and make room for other voices and experiences? I know that is white-centered, but the fact is that America is quite a white country, and that, as white people, we need to be inclusive to other voices and perspectives that we haven’t personally experienced. I COMPLETELY understand it’s inappropriate to consider white the norm, or straight the norm, etc. But this is separate from that.

    This isn’t the same, but I have a physical disability. I realize a small portion of the population has a disability like I do. So I look to able-bodied people — people who are much more “common,” for lack of a better term, than I am — to make sure I’m included, I’m represented, that I’m given a seat at the table, and that able-bodied perspectives aren’t the only perspective considered in society.

    Don’t get me wrong — everyone SHOULD have a seat at the table regardless of who they are, and it shouldn’t be a “thing” where people get a pat on the back for letting them in. But I feel like it is innately the job of the people who have the most power/are most commonly found in a population to make this happen? I feel like diversity when it comes to race, or sexuality, or physical/mental abilities, is a different conversation than say, gender equality. Because women actually do make up slightly more of the population than men and are grossly underrepresented, but in these other categories, there are larger gaps.

    • Slowdown says:

      I am not American but you are making me think of the disabled parking car slots. They infuriate people because there aren’t so many disabled people and they’re always empty. First of all, disabled people weren’t given the conditions to be out there driving so those spots stayed empty for a while but it’s not always the case. And for myself, I like seeing them there because they are a reminder that we have different needs. It’s not about equality, or percentual balance, it’s about ethos and equity. It’s like saying certain Black people / gay jokes when there are no black people or gay people present. To me everyone is always present. And respected. And I am not the norm, ever (as white abled woman in a straight relationship). Or try not to be.

      • Case says:

        This is a good point, Slowdown. And I want to be clear, I am 100% saying that people who are marginalized SHOULD have equity within their communities, should be represented, should be heard. My argument is more around the idea of “diversity and inclusion” — yes, it is white-centered, it is straight-centered, it is able-body-centered. I can understand how that can make those things seem like the “norm” which is wrong, but I also wonder if it does in a way make sense because these are the people who have more visibility in society at the moment. This is just from my perspective as a person with a disability, but I like the terms “diversity and inclusion” because it indicates people are listening to other voices and experiences other than their own — something that is absolutely necessary when you’re in a group that is NOT as visible in the community. I do indeed see Kerry Washington’s point as well, though.

    • lucy2 says:

      There’s a pbs.org article about the demographics of the US, and in 2020 they’re estimating about 60% of the population is white (non-Hispanic white is how they categorize) now. But yes, still the majority, which is why it’s on white people to contribute to this fight for rights and reform and change, and be good allies.

      White men are probably around 30% of the population now then, but still hold most of the seats of power – politics, business, etc.

    • KL says:

      Completely genuine answer: I understand your sentiments as expressed, but I’m not sure how they relate to the article? What Washington is saying, is: the effect of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few weeks is being praised for its effect on white people’s perceptions and evaluations. And it’s true, there does seem to have been a sea change in the general white consciousness; if not radically than at least performatively. Her concern, as far as I can tell, is that white people are saying “wow, so much has been accomplished!” because their worldview has been altered and things they took for granted are suddenly called into question… But Black people already had this worldview, have had it for generations. For them, mentally, emotionally, and practically, the situation has not yet truly CHANGED. So she appears to be stressing the idea that, while it’s great to see the general shift in white and even non-Black consciousness, it is important to not let it distract from the LACK of a similar shift in the lived Black experience.

      Which, actually, answers some of the questions you posed! (I did not expect to get there, but here we are.) Yes, dominant forces and cultures have the onus of self-education and actively working to dismantle their privilege. But if we place the onus of starting or leading the necessary wider activism on them, that same privilege can lead to VASTLY over-estimate the effect of their efforts. Not even maliciously. But because that central, necessary shift of “this is not about you” can be so easily undermined if we ask them to then lead the necessary work.

      Now, would it be NICE if the majority/dominant culture could be trusted to understand what is needed and put it into place? Absolutely, and in a perfect world yes, that would be their burden. But history — long, long history — has shown that even the best of intentions from allies does not always, or often, translate to the work getting done. And when the work is left undone at the cost of human lives, it becomes necessary for those who wish to be allies to realize that, sometimes, the best way to help is to provide access to the work and support as dictated. Instead of leading the way, they need to get OUT of it. In the most helpful manner possible! But still.

      • SomeChick says:

        White people (aka people of no color) should absolutely not be asked to lead. Nor should they attempt it – that’s just more centering of whiteness.

        White people should listen, learn, follow, and support the necessary work.

        Let us hope that the energy behind BLM never goes away. Some day (some sweet day) it might not be necessary to constantly be pointing it out. But for now, it is absolutely necessary that the energy, activism, and focus remain strong.

  7. adastraperaspera says:

    The “melting pot” model of assimilation is a myth that has confused conversations on this in the U.S. for over a hundred years. Add to that a historiography that features European males as heroes in a divinely ordained manifest destiny ideology, and you have a society based on false narratives. Our country is actually multicultural (and always has been), but men who identify as white have refused to share wealth, influence, business leadership, governance and land. They enforce their power with violence. These facts have brought us to this moment. White supremacy is suffocating the democratic experiment.

  8. emu says:

    Yes. Or I saw something when people say “we need to bring [diversity] to the table” it’s implying the table is the white man’s table and they are allowing others in their space.

    • anon says:

      A bit like putting multiflavoured sprinkles on a gigantic bowl of vanilla ice cream: the core remains vanilla and the sprinkles can be pushed aside with the spoon.

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