Last weekend, "Parks and Recreation" star Aziz Ansari went off the typical press junket script to tackle one of Hollywood's biggest taboos: race.
In a Q&A session to promote his new show "Master of None," the actor and comedian used the opportunity to speak out against racial quotas on TV...
...as reported by Samuel Anderson in Vulture:
"When they cast these shows, they're like, 'We already have our minority guy or our minority girl.' There would never be two Indian people in one show. With Asian people, there can be one, but there can't be two. Black people, there can be two, but there can't be three because then it becomes a black show. Gay people, there can be two; women, there can be two; but Asian people, Indian people, there can be one but there can't be two."
There's lots more in the interview, including thoughts about white actors playing South Asian characters in "brownface," television's history of offering one-dimensional, stereotypical roles to Indian-American actors, and why "Empire" doesn't mean racism is a thing of the past.
You should go read the whole thing.
Ansari isn't the first to speak out about Hollywood's race problem.
TV mega-producer Shonda Rhimes, "Fresh Off the Boat" creator Eddie Huang, "Selma" star David Oyelowo, and many others have recently called out the TV and film industry for selling actors of color short and promoting stereotypes on screen.
The numbers back them up.
A 2014 analysis by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA found that, in 2011, non-white actors were underrepresented on film by a factor of 3:1 when adjusted for their share of the population. The same analysis also found that more than 50% of films that year featured casts that were less than 10% non-white.
Why does it matter?
Representation matters, and it matters from a very early age. When characters of color are either not represented at all or portrayed as sidekicks, buffoons, and assorted other one-dimensional stereotypes, kids internalize those stereotypes — and the notions that "That's how the world I live in sees me" or "I don't count."
It's hard to overstate the value of seeing someone who looks like you realized as a full human being on-screen. And right now, for people of color in America, that's not happening nearly enough.
What can be done?
Thankfully, the landscape is changing — thanks in large part to shows like Ansari's, "The Mindy Project," "Fresh Off The Boat," and "Empire," which feature characters of color who are front and center rather than tokens in the background, and three-dimensional people rather than stereotypes.
Giving creators who are people of color a chance to make entertainment is the quickest way to make the industry more inclusive. Hopefully, the success of those shows will help convince Hollywood that doing so can be a winning bet.
As for shows that aren't built from the ground up by people of color...
Inclusion should be the goal, not a byproduct of the process.
Earlier this month, in an interview with NPR, Lorne Michaels was discussing diversity on "Saturday Night Live" when he said something extremely revealing:
"Chris Rock called me about Leslie [Jones] ... said, 'She's the funniest person, or one of the funniest people I know, and she's either going to end up working for you or working for AT&T, so.' And Leslie was 46 and was not in any way what I was looking for, but when I saw her and she just destroyed — and she's, aside from being incredibly funny, she's a wonderful person, and lovely — and you go, 'Right, OK, you join.'"
Here's the thing. It's not like no one knew about Leslie Jones.
Lots of people knew about her, in fact. She had been doing stand-up since 1987. She toured with Katt Williams. She was good enough that Chris freaking Rock knew about her.
But Michaels didn't.
He didn't know about her because he scouts talent from a few well-worn comedy establishment theaters — many of which predominately attract white (and male) performers. If Chris Rock hadn't gotten in his face about it, Michaels never would have known. And crucially, "Saturday Night Live" would have been not just less diverse, but more importantly, less funny as a result.
For Lorne Michaels, the moral of the story seems to be that talent is talent no matter where it comes from. And that's true! But that's not the real lesson here.
The actual moral of the story?
Look harder. There's lots of talent out there. It just might not be in the places you always look.
And if you don't snatch them up, they might just leave you behind.