Racial Diversity and the Lack Thereof in Entertainment Discussed at Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo
“Race and Diversity in Entertainment” was the topic of a panel yesterday at the Los Angeles Convention Center that featured a lot of great conversation in a little bit of time. The panel, which took place at the fifth annual Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo, was ably moderated by Jordan B. Gorfinkel, and featured Joyce Chin, Aly Mawji, Leo Partible, Abdul Rashid, Ashley A. Woods, Rafael Navarro, Barry Deutsch, and Phil Lamarr.
There seemed to be a mixed sense of how to deal with race and diversity in entertainment, with some seeing the lack of racial diversity as an issue and some saying that it need not be stressed as an issue. Lamarr stated that, “As a comic book reader, as a consumer of television, and movies, I’ve searched”, continuing, “I’m 48, there was nothing that mirrored me growing up.” And, even to this day, Lamarr observed that “I think it’s true of most entertainment avenues,” when one looks at them, “why is diversity a problem?” However, Rashid noted that “the reason we’re making race an issue is because we’re identifying it as such, but if we don’t talk about it as an issue, it won’t be an issue.” The problem is that it is an issue “because we’re stressing it as such.”
This led Gorfinkel to ask the panel: “Do we want to make diversity something we’re pursuing in 2015 because it reflects the real world, because it’s better for business, or is it because we’re post-racial?” Mawji related a story about how the name for his “Silicon Valley” character came about and that he greatly appreciated how much Mike Judge actually cared about the name and Mawji picking it. Partible said that one way to deal with the issue is that “something we’re looking for diversity is don’t draw attention to it”; to make it something that is simply normal to have racially diverse characters. Woods said, that even though she is African-American, she will create whichever characters she wants to create and that does not necessarily mean African-American characters: “Let me be an artist; let me be expressive.”
Lamarr observed that “The people in this room have progressed with diversity, but,” he pointed out with frustration, “the people in the top floors making the decisions have not.” As Navarro pointed out that “it becomes a cycle where every single gatekeeper says they want to publish it, but the other gatekeepers won’t let them”, such as an agent will like it, but say that the publishers won’t like it; the publishers will say that they would love to publish it, but librarians won’t go for it; and librarians say they would love to have such material, but why aren’t publishers publishing it? This observation got a lot of heads to nod and whispers of agreement, not to mention frustration.
Gorfinkel also asked a question to the panel about “reverse diversity”, wherein the person “actually does diversity a disservice.” Woods said that, “Sometimes, people mean well and they try too hard and then alienate people.” However, she said that she will create characters of whichever race, whether they are the same race as she is or not. Rashid said that “creating characters as they are is something I wanted to do with my studio.” He provided an example of the protagonist being an Asian character, although he wasn’t specifically trying to make an Asian character, it’s just that they’re an underrepresented demographic in entertainment, so he chose that.
Explaining not necessarily choosing to create characters of his own race, Rashid said that “Just because I’m an African–American doesn’t mean I’m going to make all of my characters African-American.” When he creates his characters, “I’m reflecting what society is” and “the second we start pigeon-holing people,” it’s not going to be good for the characters or the stories. Deutsch said that “I think it’s helped me in that” he set his own tagline. Also, he pointed out that amongst the books out there about Judaism for teenagers tend to be sad or about the Holocaust and/or anti-Semitism. However, as he insightfully pointed out, “There’s more to Judaism than getting killed by Germans.” So, he wanted to get out of the typical tropes of sad books for teenagers about Judaism.
While there was a lot of positive vibing amongst the panel and agreement upon race and diversity, Chin pointed out that an “Asian in comics is not different, although gender is.” Chin elaborated on this point later, saying that there are a lot of guys involved in comics and one avenue of diversity she thinks needs to be broadened is that for women.
For a 50-minute panel, Gorfinkel did a great job prodding the panelists and discussion along. However, as he ruefully noted at the closing of the panel, that “we should have a conference all day long just about this issue.” Indeed, it seemed as if there were a lot of great opportunities and discussion threads that could be followed from this panel, but it certainly seemed like a great starter to a much larger conversation and perhaps further opportunities for such discussions.