Ethnic Diversity Within Digital Media
In the past several weeks, the lack of a single Academy Awards nomination for a person of color, for the second year in a row, has been a hot topic. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in "Concussion," have said they will boycott this year's Oscars Ceremony.
Last year's omissions prompted BroadwayBlack.com managing editor, April Reign to create the Twitter hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. She revived the hashtag after this year's nominations were announced and Twitter blew up. Celebrities including Mark Ruffalo, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney and even President Obama, have joined the public outcry.
Over the past 6 years, I've worked, full-time, as a film editor. I've done a fair amount of work in broadcast television and feature films, but for the most part, my jobs have been in the digital realm, aka "new media," primarily YouTube.
As someone who works in the industry, I was left wondering if digital media has the same issues regarding ethnic diversity. Do platforms like YouTube feature and acknowledge people of color in equal proportion to their white counterparts?
I've worked with a talented and diverse array of artists and creators, including King Bach, Jacob Soboroff, DeStorm Power, Ingrid Nilsen, Amanda Steele, Mysteryguitarman (Joe Penna), Mike Diva, and Jimmy Wong.
I've noted that each of these artists are uniquely talented and highly respected by their peers. But, since I am male and Caucasian, I decided to take a closer look at diversity in digital media from the perspective of artists of other ethnicity.
I checked www.socialblade.com, which tracks the top performing channels on YouTube.* Leading the pack as the most subscribed to channel, is famed Swedish gamer, PewDiePie with over 41 million subscribers. The channel in second place is Chilean, Holasoygerman, with over 26 million subscribers. The following top eight channels consist of three channels starring people of color and five that feature white artists.
It's notable that the stars of three of these four channels are Hispanic and one is Asian. There isn't a single black or African-American artist starring in the top 50 channels.
Even after looking at the numbers, I felt like the evidence wasn't strong enough for me to come to a definitive conclusion about the current state of ethnic diversity within digital media. So, I reached out to several YouTube content creators to see what their personal experiences have been like.
First I spoke with YouTube star Jimmy Wong. Some of you might know Jimmy from his many acting, producing, and writing roles with the very popular "Rocket Jump" YouTube channel. He also hosts his own cooking show called Feast of Fiction. Jimmy is a first generation Chinese-American.
When I asked him what his feelings were regarding diversity within YouTube, he was quick to say that things are pretty good. "Asians are fairly well represented on YouTube. It's been fairly known that it's a very welcoming platform for Asian Americans so far, thanks to some of the original biggest stars of the platform, like Ryan Higa, KevJumba, and Wong Fu Productions, alongside many, many more." But, when I followed up by asking his opinion on main stream vs. digital media, his reply was very straight and to the point, "Certainly discouraging. I've found much more success doing projects where you don't need anyone's "permission" to start. TV and Film is prohibitive in that there is always a barrier to entry, and often times you can perform perfectly and still be denied the role because of extenuating circumstances."
I asked if he ever felt passed over for any jobs due to race. "I've been passed over plenty of times in mainstream Hollywood productions, potentially due to ethnicity. It's hard to say 100% whether or not you didn't get a role because of something like ethnicity, as it's something that casting would never admit to (unless they want a gigantic PR disaster on their hands). I haven't felt discriminated against or passed over because of my ethnicity on YouTube thus far, since you are in charge of the majority of content creation. As brand deals become more and more prominent with online content creators, I'm sure this issue will eventually arise, but since the focus is so much on the creator and their connection to their audience, it seems like we're already off on a better foot than mainstream casting."
Next, I had the chance to speak with one of the original creators in the digital space, Zadi Diaz. Zadi has been producing and directing digital content for over ten years. She was the executive producer of YouTube Nation as well as the producer/director of the web series Epic Fu. She is currently the founder of Major Digital Studios, which focuses on diverse stories that inspire conscious change. Zadi was born in New York and both her parents are from the Dominican Republic - which is an ethnic mixture of African, Spanish, and Taino Indians. I asked Zadi to share her view on the current lack of diversity in the film industry and if it discourages her from seeking work in the field.
"It fuels a fire in me. There is so much to do! We need everyone working right now. In this current world of media saturation, unique stories and perspectives stand out. It’s fertile ground for “others." I found her positive perspective encouraging, but knowing Zadi, and her unique drive and optimism, I wasn't surprised.
When I asked her about the current Academy Awards nominees, she was characteristically outspoken. "The Academy Awards is the outcome of something that is systemic. In order to change things we need to start at the front of the line - be more inclusive when we’re hiring and with the stories we think are a valuable contribution to our society. Literally put a map up on the wall and start pinning. Not every story has been told. If aliens were to use mainstream films as a guide to the human race, then we have a lot of work to do to convince them that women actually speak and people of color exist."
Finally, I spoke with Joe Penna (aka, MysteryGuitarMan), about his experience as a Brazilian YouTube content creator and director. Given his level of success within the digital field (over 2.8 million YT subscribers, 250,000+ Twitter followers and over 350,000 fans on Facebook), I was curious to get his take on what impact, if any, his ethnicity has had on his career. "I've had great opportunities come to me because of my ethnicity. As one of the top Brazilian creators, I've been able to work with several brands trying to reach that audience. For example, when Kit Kat moved production of their product into Brazil, they asked me to create a video for them. This is what I did: Clone Orchestra ".
When I asked Joe if he feels there is a lack of diversity and opportunity in mainstream media, he replied "There can always be more diversity. I feel like the outward-facing perception is that it's starting to even out. You see more diversity in projects and roles. However, that doesn't seem to be the same "behind the scenes", as evidences (sic) by the Oscar nominations this year. Anecdotally, on the many meetings I've taken with studios and production companies, there's a true lack of diversity behind the scenes. That's the next step."
While Jimmy, Zadi and Joe's answers reinforced my own view that new media and Youtube is a somewhat more accepting, and lucrative platform for a wide range of races and ethnicities, they all admit, that so far, the film industry has yet to catch up and provide the same level of opportunities and accolades to the diverse artists that more closely represent the fans and the viewing public.
What do you think? Is the film industry failing, when it comes to diversity? Is digital media doing a better job at spotlighting diversity? Share the article with your thoughts on the issue.
*These do not include music channels and network channels like YouTube Spotlight or JustinBieberVEVO.