In the past few years, the TV industry has undergone a revolution in diversity: From Orange is the New Black to The Carmichael Show to Jane the Virgin to Empire to Master of None, there’s been a noticeable uptick in racial and sexual diversity on the small screen, both behind and in front of the camera.
But for Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, “diversity” has become a distraction from the show’s stellar cast and writing. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, during a panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour on Thursday, Barris did not take kindly to a reporter’s question about what percentage of the show’s audience is African-American.
“I will be so happy when diversity is not a word,” Barris said. “I have the best job in the world and I am constantly having to talk about diversity. I have the best actors. It’s ridiculous.” The inevitable “diversity” question during panels and interviews, he continued, is “clouding the conversation.”
Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross asked the reporter if he would pose a question about race to a creator whose show did not feature a predominantly black cast (“Not necessarily,” he responded), and diplomatically suggested, “I think sometimes that those questions continue the conversation in a direction that does not help the conversation.”
It’s true the conversation around diversity in television — not to mention the conversation around race in America — has become much louder in the past few years. But it’s understandably frustrating for creators and performers of color to constantly have to speak to this one aspect of their work. During the audience question portion of the Master of None panel at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival, creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang mostly fielded questions about the Netflix series’ much-lauded diversity; the Q&A basically became a series of demands that the creators feature more and different kinds of diversity on the show. Ansari and Yang answered the questions graciously, but frankly seemed a little worn out by them.
Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher’s new series Take My Wife is basically a three-hour answer to the question, “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy?,” a frustrating query that the couple said every woman in comedy is inevitably asked. Comedian Phoebe Robinson created a whole podcast, “Sooo Many White Guys,” dedicated to avoiding such reductive questions: In an interview with Flavorwire, Robinson said of her executive producer Ilana Glazer, “Ilana does interviews all the time and nine times out of ten there’s a question like, ‘How does it feel to be a woman in comedy?’ It’s just such a way to make her the other. There are so many other interesting things about her that I want to talk about as opposed to her gender.”
As a journalist, I’m sure this barrage of inquiries about gender, sexuality, and diversity comes from a good place. The “diversity” cat is out of the bag, and no one wants to come off as unaware or insensitive to such questions. But for creators like Barris, those questions suggest that when some people look at a show like Black-ish, they see a symbol of diversity rather than a funny, well-written, and excellently cast network sitcom that’s managed to stand out in a very crowded field. “Isn’t it just a good family show?” Barris said. “It’s specifically about a black family, but don’t you see yourself in it? Don’t you see your family reflected in it? Why is that important who watches the show? Why does it matter? Why do we have to keep having these conversations? Why can’t we just look at the show for what it is and celebrate these actors?”