Esther Cepeda: Minorities and token recognition

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Esther Cepeda
October 1, 2014

CHICAGO -- The inevitable result of affirmative action is contempt for those it is supposed to benefit.

After institutions have been begged, cajoled or scolded into diversifying their ranks, minorities who get the opportunity to bring their unique views to a previously homogenous organization are immediately seen as tokens—not good enough to get in on merit alone.

This situation awaits the next minority journalist to be hired as an arts or culture critic at The New York Times or the next Hispanic to be a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

But first, a primer on last week’s Shonda Rhimes controversy.

New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote a long article about Rhimes, the screenwriter, director and producer of hit TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” in which Stanley made a few noteworthy points that made my heart sing.

“Even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about,” Stanley wrote. “And what is most admirable about Ms. Rhimes’ achievement is that in a business that is still run by note-giving, nit-picking, compromise-seeking network executives, her work is mercifully free of uplifting role models, parables and moral teachings.”

I love this because it stands for everything I hope and wish for minorities in this country—both on small and big screens and in very real offices, boardrooms, classrooms and laboratories: multicultural diversity based on merit, creativity, intelligence and hard work rather than on optics, politically correct expectations or quotas.

But though Stanley’s article was supposed to be an admiring review of Rhimes’ impact on Hollywood and how her trailblazing may change how we view minority women in society, it was couched in a veritable hall of shame of offensive stereotypes about black women.

To give you a flavor, the article’s lead paragraph was this chestnut: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’”

Based on the enormous outcry and subsequent ongoing media attention that followed publication of the article, it’s clear that Rhimes has not succeeded in single-handedly eliminating stereotypically racialized perceptions of black women.

And reactions to the Stanley article have spotlighted the uncomfortable realities of how some whites view the struggle for parity.

My favorite takedown came from Margaret Lyons on Vulture.com.

Regarding Stanley’s mention of a new black cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” Lyons noted: “‘A diversity jag’ is one person? Michael Che was not hired because ‘SNL’ is ‘on a diversity jag,’ and suggestions like that help perpetuate the damaging, unfair idea that the only people who get hired in a normal, ordinary, talent-driven ways are white—and if people of color get hired, it’s for special reasons.”


In the aftermath of Shonda-gate, it has come out that among the Times’ 20 cultural critics, there are only two persons of color and no black critics. Perhaps even worse, the diversity of the corps of editors is in question since the Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, is the only person of color on the news-side masthead.

So the assumption becomes that if minority hires are made, they will forever be seen as tokens who were hired for “diversity’s sake,” not because they’re awesome journalists. Even if they are awesome journalists.

The same reaction could happen in the arts.

After years of being criticized for not including more Hispanics for the Kennedy Center Honors, the cultural center in Washington revised its selection process and honored Carlos Santana and opera singer Martina Arroyo in 2013.

This year brought more outcry because no 2014 honorees are Hispanic.

But is this the worst thing in the world? Should there really be a designated Hispanic honoree each year?

Some might say yes. But others might get the idea that the artist was an appeasement who might not have made it otherwise, unfairly denigrating the honoree.

Those of us who care greatly about diversity must continue to insist on it—and hardily strenuously advocate for it to be based on merit and talent above all else.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is es[email protected]. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.


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