I've been a career actor since 1984. That's almost 36 years of constant employment in the career I chose. I've been able to make a comfortable living, with a guaranteed pension, and health coverage with the grace of God. Entering my fourth decade of professional work, I have the luxury to pick and choose which auditions to accept or decline. Notice I said auditions, and not jobs. That is a significant difference.
Many are shocked when they learn that an actor of my experience and recognizability, still auditions for the majority of jobs I book. I'm represented by a wonderful manager, and incredible agents. I've been represented by the same terrific publicist for over 25 years. I have all the tools, including talent, needed to have a career in this unforgiving, and relentlessly cruel business. But everyone in my circle of friends has asked that question: "Would the trajectory of your career, considering your education, talent, and determination have been different if you were white?" I've asked myself the same thing. My answer: more than likely, yes. But I've never been distracted by that possibility. If anything, it has motivated me.
My life is bigger than my career. I'm a sister-in-law, an aunt, a friend to many, and most importantly, a wife. But what has shaped my life, besides being raised by the best parents a child could have, is my advocacy and activism for those who have been denied and/or have yet to find their voice in this country.
I spent over 15 years as a Screen Actors Guild board member. Four of those years spent as the union's first African American national vice president in the union's 80+ year history. I am the only African American recipient of the union's highest honor, The Ralph Morgan Award. My years spent on the board, advocating for performers of color, disability, gender identity, and age were incredible. I spent years on contract negotiating teams, fighting for better terms, wages, and working conditions. Those were some of the most gratifying years in my career.
The entertainment industry is not, nor has it ever been, "woke." There is as much racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny in "Hollywood" as in any other profit-driven industry. On the surface we may appear all-welcoming, but peel away the layers, and it won't take long to have discrimination hit you right in the face. It usually takes an epoch socio/political event or a lawsuit, to force networks, academies, studios, ad agencies, talent agencies, unions, guilds, and production companies to create paths to diversity. The current atmosphere may feel new and fresh for those under the age of 40, but we've been down this road more times than I'd like to count. From the boycott against Procter and Gamble in the '80s, to the L.A. Times scathing indictment, "The White White Season" in the late '90s, to the Black Lives Matter movement of the moment, this is nothing new. And the not-too-well-thought-out-quick-fix reaction by the industry is also not new. And unfortunately, not organic enough to be sustainable.
Real change takes real commitment. It doesn't happen overnight. And it takes a hell of a lot more elbow grease than just firing people and cancelling shows. It takes true commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Not lip service. But that can't happen until the decision makers in this industry, who are overwhelmingly white and male, take a long hard look in the mirror and own up to their own responsibility for the perpetuation of myriad discrimination problems this industry is being forced to acknowledge.
The Television Academy should create a symposium/panel series, moderated by race relation experts not affiliated with the industry, to start the conversation. Artists of color should be invited to speak truthfully, without fear of judgement or retaliation. It's time for our white entertainment partners to sit silently and listen. Regardless of how uncomfortable, painful, accusatory, or infuriating it may be. Those of us who experience blatant and/or silent systemic racism, on a regular basis, need to be heard. And to be believed. This crap is real. And has been real for centuries. Just because Barack Obama was elected twice, to the most powerful position in the world, doesn't mean that we are allowed to pretend all is well, and ignore centuries of pain. It takes much more than buying a "BLM" t-shirt to fix this.
Anne-Marie Johnson is an actress and the Vice President of The Man/Kind Project, an organization that fights against religious intolerance, racism, and cultural isolationism.
The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.