We’re going to need a bigger table
Racialized celebrities are showing up for their communities in unprecedented ways, but why is that necessary?
Racialized people have been simultaneously demanding room at the table and building our own dining room sets for longer than I can accurately estimate. Since this keeps happening we need to continue asking the question: When it comes to traditional institutions, why do we seem to require the philanthropy of rich racialized celebrities to push the boundaries of diversity and inclusion?
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a critique of how they made their money nor is it a critique of their generosity (because you know, gift horses). It is telling, however, that some of the most culturally-informed, meaningful displays of inclusion and community support are funded, led, and executed by racialized celebrities from their respective communities - and not just any celebrity, those who are at the epitome of success, and whose financial and social clout is unparalleled.
Possibly the most widely-discussed recent example of this is Vogue’s September 2018 issue. In the magazine publisher’s almanac, September is recognized as the biggest and most influential issue because it coincides with the fashion world’s seasonal transition and signals fresh starts and wardrobes for the rest of us. As the cover woman, Beyonce’s relationship with this issue is unorthodox, not only due to the level of control bestowed upon her by Anna Wintour (famous for her tight grip on everything from photos to fonts), but that it took someone with as much capital - culturally and literally - as Beyonce to establish a First.
In addition to having editorial freedom over the cover lines (she wrote her own piece in place of the standard interview or narrative conversation), Beyonce selected 23-year-old photographer Tyler Mitchell to capture her vision for the issue, making him the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue in its 126 years of circulation. When the news first hit social media, reactions were largely positive but undeniably mixed. Among all the praise, people wondered aloud, “why did it take so long for Vogue to hire a Black photographer to shoot their cover?” and more importantly, “why did it take Beyonce for Vogue to hire a Black photographer to shoot their cover?”
Another powerful example is LeBron James’ Promise School. LeBron, known for his ability to speak and dribble a ball at the same time, also heads the LeBron James Family Foundation, a school he funded for at-risk youth in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The specific programs and services offered by the school reflect LeBron’s deep understanding of the experiences of the kids and families they’re serving.
While access to bicycles, job placement programs, and food banks will most definitely benefit the families involved in the Foundation, the thing that sets this school apart (in my eyes) is that it’s a public school. LeBron’s decision to work within Akron’s public school system, rather than privately fund one, will hopefully demonstrate that a strong and innovative public education system, which is crucial for the betterment of society, is not only within reach, but also long overdue. But I still can’t help thinking: “why did it take LeBron James to fund and develop a community-focused public school?” Don’t we elect politicians to create well informed policies that use public funds to improve public education and general well-being of our communities?
The common thread running through both of these examples is that the systems in place, be it Vogue or the public education system, do not take the initiative to change. As heartwarming as it is to see members of our communities make it big and still turn around to reinvest in us, we must hold our institutions to a higher standard. They must be pushed, and increasingly it seems as if the only ones capable of pushing them are wealthy, accomplished individuals with a penchant for giving back to the communities they have a connection with.
If the Google searches done the night of March 4, 2018 were plotted on a graph, there would be an anomalous spike attributed to the last two words of Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech: inclusion rider. In the entertainment world, a rider is a list of stipulations that the talent needs to be able to do their job. The list can range from essential (like specialized equipment) to lavish (Rihanna has said she requires Hot Cheetos). In the same vein, talent with bargaining power can use an inclusion rider to require the production company to hire a diverse cast and crew.
While inclusion riders effectively push the powers that be to prioritise diversity, this entire concept also hinges on the star power of the talent in question. Flashy acts of inclusion—the ones that warm our hearts and reassure us that we’re on a path towards acceptance and social cohesion—get people’s attention, but when we rely on the power of celebrity the moment our eyes turn elsewhere can we expect these institutions to continue prioritising inclusion? As Issa Rae said, “As long as the people who are in charge aren’t us, things will never change.”
The people seated comfortably around the table making decisions on everything from media representation to governmental policy not only need to listen to the needs of marginalized communities, but also must pull up chairs at the table for people from marginalized communities. They must understand that diversity and inclusion require systemic and institutional changes, and then advocate for those changes. Until then, marginalized communities will celebrate the small wins awarded to us by traditional institutions while continuing to build our own tables.