author – activist – faculty – mom
Recently, comedian Mo’Nique called for a boycott of Netflix, based on the premise that she had been discrimination against as an African American woman. She was outraged that Netflix offered her so much less money than white or male colleagues to do a comedy special. When her demand failed to gain traction, she and others began calling this out as one more example of how the larger society fails to support black women.
I am a black woman artist, and I can certainly testify to the fact that racism and sexism in the arts and entertainment are relentless. Yet something about Mo’Nique’s rallying cry failed to move me to action. My finger hovered over the retweet button on my phone, but then I hit the back button and went into the rest of my twitter feed. Why didn’t I literally lift a finger to support her? Me, a black feminist, who is always making noise about the mistreatment of black women?
In Ijeoma Oluo’s new book So You Want to Talk about Race, she offers several helpful rules about discussing race. Rule #1 is “It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.” So if we take this as gospel—and I wish everyone would—then Monique is right. This is about her mistreatment as a black woman. But her mistreatment by whom? Is Netflix necessarily the party at fault?
In her comments about Netflix, Mo’Nique compared her offer for $500,000 against the alleged financial offers to Amy Schumer of $13 million and Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle of $20 million. “According to Mo’Nique, Netflix said the $500,000 is based on how many people they expected to watch the special,” wrote Vulture.com. At the time, they said they based their estimate for Schumer’s special on her sold out Madison Square Garden show and her upcoming film.
How do you measure influence? I am a twitter person. The way I measure a person’s influence is to look up their twitter followers. This is far from scientific. And many industries don’t use twitter. But it generally gives me some idea. So I looked up the number of twitter followers for all these comedians. Mo’Nique had 152K (a number that I would consider a lifetime achievement). However, Amy Schumer has 4.71M and Chris Rock has 5.34M. Dave Chappelle has a lowly 556K followers, but he was on twitter for only a month in 2012.
Unlike these other comedians, Mo’Nique has won an Oscar (for supporting actress in a drama). She insists that her resume should afford her better compensation. Further, she suggests that Netflix will use her deal as a precedent. “‘I am the most decorated comedian alive,’ she went on. ‘If I accepted $500k, what does Tiffany Haddish have coming[?]'” According to my twitter metrics, this may not be accurate. Younger black comedian Tiffany Haddish (with 205K twitter followers) won’t be judged according to Mo’Nique’s compensation, but rather by her own ability to draw an audience. She recently got a first look deal with HBO.
A number of black women have joined Mo’Nique in identifying the way that white women have spoken out against other pay inequities in Hollywood for white women, but have been silent about Mo’Nique. For example, Debra Mesing and others called out E! on the red carpet for pay inequality. One of E!’s co-hosts, Catt Sadler, quit when she found out that her younger, male colleague Jason Kennedy was getting paid more. By my twitter metrics, this is a clear-cut case of pay inequality, Catt Sadler has 186K followers, and Jason Kennedy has 229K. The gap in followers is minor, but the gap in pay is a slap in the face, particularly when she is more experienced and was there first.
Netflix isn’t a public entity. It’s not their job to make sure funds are distributed equitably. They are a corporate media entity designed to make money. They select entertainers based on the size of the audiences they can draw. Monique clearly doesn’t have the same draw as Schumer or Rock. So that may justify their offer as a business decision. However, I am confident that sexism and racism are still at work here.
Because the bottom line is that so many people just don’t fucking care what black women have to say. I have come to this conclusion after half a century of living as a black woman. Our lives aren’t considered valuable. Our bodies are considered disposable. When we came to this country, our labor was taken from us forcibly—hard field labor, domestic labor in the house, sexual and reproductive labor was brutally extracted via assault and forced breeding. Our caring and emotional labor was also stolen. These patterns persist. At work. At home. In community organizations. In social and political movements. In our relationships. With our children and other people’s children. Our labor is considered an entitlement by everyone around us. Sweet Honey in the Rock (pictured above) put it best: “The fathers, the children, the brothers/Turn to her/And everybody white/Turns to her.”
So, in line with this legacy, our art and intellectual property is consistently devalued. By both the industries that commission, and curate work, and the larger society. There is no way to measure objective merit. In some ways, Mo’Nique is right. Given her level of talent and accomplishment, if she were white or male or certainly both, she might have a much higher profile. She might have those millions of fans. And she might get that much higher offer from Netflix. But she’s not. And she didn’t. So I don’t know that Netflix is the right target, but I certainly understand the predicament.
I am a novelist. In the literary industry, we are struggling with many of the same issues. Unlike Netflix and comedy, the literary industry is understood to be important for the education of young children. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement was focused on children’s literature, and the fact that the statistics about books that feature children of color continue to be abysmal, year after year. The children wanted to read the books. The parents wanted to buy the books. The librarians wanted to acquire the books. The teachers wanted to share the books. But the literary industry was notorious for rejecting books by people of color because they didn’t see them as commercially viable.
Critics pointed to the fact that the editors in the literary industry were overwhelmingly white. The industry is setup for editors to acquire because a book really “speaks to them,” and white editors’ hearts were getting captivated by books about…white people.
The industry is also designed with an entry point of internship, meaning that not only are editors overwhelmingly white, but overwhelmingly middle class and above. Because who else can afford to begin their post-college career with years of free labor? Certainly not most people of color or even working class white people.
But on top of the challenges of personnel, there are further challenges of audience development. Most presses and imprints in the industry have historically published titles of interest to white audiences, so in order to reach out to people of color, they need to develop new strategies and approaches. It’s cheaper and easier to do the thing your industry is wired to do. In this case, it’s wired to publish books about white people and market them to white people.
Also, racism and sexism teach us that white men are the universal protagonists. Women and people of color generally go see blockbuster films with white guys. We read about white guys. But white guys don’t return the favor. They don’t go consume media about women and people of color. And least of all about women of color.
In recent years, I was on the faculty at a writer’s conference. In the Q&A session, someone asked a predominantly white panel of editors about diversity. Predictably, the white editors got defensive and acted rather helpless. I spoke up. Basically, I explained that in a world where we have a movement demanding that Black Lives Matter, we have to ask ourselves if black stories matter. If the racism in the society means that this nation doesn’t care about our actual lives, how can we expect the society to care about the stories of our lives? And editors are tasked with making money, knowing that books about white people sell better, they are set up to skew toward white books. So are the editors racist? Is the industry racist? Or is the audience racist? I would argue that racism is operating at all three levels.
Most successful writers of color have stories about how no one in the industry would take on their [insert prize]-winning book for years. They couldn’t get an agent. When they finally got an agent, it took forever to sell the book. Who would read it? editors wondered. Editors who were out of touch with communities of color, or just didn’t really believe that we read.
I write books with women of the African Diaspora at the center, Not only women of color, but women of color who are raised poor and working class, who are sex workers, who are immigrants.
I wrote a hell of a debut novel, Uptown Thief, got a great profile in the Washington Post, by Jessica Langlois, and won a couple of smaller literary prizes. I’ve developed my own literary genre, Feminist Heist. But I couldn’t sell the novel to any of the big five publishing houses. Instead, my series landed at an African American imprint of Kensington Books, the largest independent publisher of hardcover, trade paperback and mass-market paperback books in the US. Kensington is best known for romance, and my imprint—Dafina—is best known for urban fiction. While this has turned out to be a blessing in so many ways, romance and street lit are genres are heavily stigmatized. My second book, The Boss, got great reviews, as well in The Establishment, Romance Novels For Feminists, and Tits & Sass. My third book The Accidental Mistress comes out this year, and has two Caribbean immigrant sisters as protagonists. Violet is documented and upwardly mobile, Lily is not. In fact, if Lily were a real person, the Trump administration would be trying to deport her right now.
I write character-driven books that tackle serious issues. I have an MFA. I teach creative writing at a leading university. But many booksellers haven’t heard of my publisher. Many gatekeepers take one look at the cover of my book and pass (the cover follows the conventions of street lit and romance, while the content plays with and disrupts those conventions). Many female authors, particularly Jennifer Weiner, have pointed out how much the stigma against romance and “chick lit” is about the dismissal of women, and the VIDA count shows how women are sidelined in the literary industry overall. Yes, there is drivel in romance and street lit. There is also drivel in literary fiction. But the stigma of being a girl book and a black hood book has been quite the double-bind. I believe that my work is truly innovative. If I were a man or a white woman writing about the same material, or even if I simply had men of color or white women as my protagonists, I suspect my work would be better received. However, I am black and Latinx, and so are the women I write about. In this economic climate, I’m grateful to have any book deal. I love my editor and publisher. The genre clock of Kensington has been incredible in pushing my productivity. In addition, I have what many writers of color at larger houses don’t have: a press that knows how to reach communities of color. And I still wish I had more money, more prestige, and more opportunities.
Which brings me back to Mo’Nique. I’m mad about the same thing she’s mad about. But I’m not convinced that a Netflix boycott is the answer. While it’s true overall that black women don’t get supported, I feel disloyal when I don’t stand up for her cause, since I don’t fully agree with the target she’s chosen. I appreciated comedian Wanda Sykes (twitter followers 318K) who explained that Netflix offered her half as much as Monique. Sykes turned it down and is putting her work out on Epix network. She’s one of their biggest stars.
I guess I’m also taking the Sykes approach. In this racist and sexist world, black women need to find the spaces that support our work. Even if these spaces don’t offer the same resources that our white or male peers get. I suspect Mo’Nique and I want the same thing: crossover success, where your audience expands beyond the ghettoized black and female demographic. My approach: I don’t compromise, but I just keep hustling for the breakout hit that will cross into the mainstream.