About five years have passed since I attended the Television Critics Association press tour for the first time, but I still remember how anxious I was entering the stately and opulent Huntington hotel in Pasadena that first January morning. By that point in my career, I’d covered countless events and conferences as a general assignment reporter, and even been backstage with dozens of stars during my years covering the music industry for magazines. As a journalist, you’re trained to be plopped into any environment and find the story, checking your fears and biases at the door. But the moment I entered the hotel lobby for this conference, where all the major networks present their new programs to the press, I felt a sense of unease wash over me. Nearly everyone there was white.
A lot has been written, rightfully, about the television industry’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity on screen and behind the cameras too. We know that progress is happening, even if change at the most impactful levels – network chiefs, studio heads and the like – remains slow, if nonexistent. And while those are important conversions to be had, we must also pay attention to the makeup of people writing about television, as well as the publicity teams who promote these shows. Both help viewers discover and anticipate these programs, which is a crucial part of their success, and it should go without saying that having Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) write thoughtful and critical stories about work from BIPOC is a good thing. But in my five years taking part in the TCA press tours, the makeup of press and publicity representatives at the event remains as white as it was when I first started, making me wonder how much talk about diversity and inclusion is just lip service.
One of the simplest ways I can put it is to just look around the room any given press day and see 150-200 people and marvel at how I’m one of two or the only Black man in the room — even counting security or service staff. In fact, the diversity is very minimal in general. (A long-running bleak joke among Black professionals is how we can realize that the only other Black person in a room is a janitor or waiter, but at TCA, that service person is more likely to be Latino.) Once, when Henry Louis Gates was giving a speech from the lectern during a PBS presentation, I had the distinct feeling he was looking directly at me and smiling; slowly and inconspicuously, I swiveled my head around and realized that he was. Later, he stopped me in the hall and shook my hand and I realized what a comfort it must have been for him to see another Black person in the room.
On the most recent press tour, I took a long, hard stare at the makeup of the publicity teams from the networks. While some do better than others, a few networks – Hulu and CBS stood out in the moment – had teams that were so overwhelmingly white, I was actually stunned. How was it that in Los Angeles, a city whose populationis almost half Hispanic/Latino and nearly 12 percent Asian, a group of 100 people had only one or two Asians and no non-white Hispanic people visibly represented, and only one or zero Black team members? It doesn’t make sense, and amid all this conversation about diversity, inclusion, and representation on TV, it’s hard for me to read this spooky whiteness as unintentional. It is a choice. And beyond the optics, the skeletal representation unequivocally plays a part in the microaggressions I’ve experienced while at this event doing my job.
Every Black person has experienced hearing, “May I help you?” loaded with double meaning. I’ve heard it in high-end department stores, spas, meditation groups, and other environments where white people don’t expect people of color to show up. “Can I help you?” is said with a hint of concern (as if I’m lost) or outright hostility and actually means, “What are you doing here?” or “How can I get you out of here quickly?” And until I became a regular presence at the event, I heard that frigid “May I help you?” almost every time I showed up, usually from some network representative apparently shocked to discover a young Black man in this space.
One time, after I’d dragged myself to the Beverly Hilton for the summer TCA after eight or so consecutive grueling days, I walked in behind a white woman. I was exhausted, as most of us are after a few days of the tour, and barely thinking straight. She held the door for me, and I walked in.
“You’re welcome,” she spat.
I ignored her for two reasons: I was cranky and knew that if I said anything, it would be something like, “Go fuck yourself,” thus arming her with the ammunition she needed to play the aggrieved white woman victim threatened by the uncivilized Black man. Secondly, I had no idea if she worked for a network and could turn her damsel in distress schtick into something that would cause more trouble than it was worth. So I just rolled my eyes at her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of it.
“When somebody does something nice for you, you’re supposed to say thank you,” she said in a tone that sounded like a lecture you’d give to a five year old who had never left the house.
“Calm down,” I told her. “It’s not like you gave me a kidney.”
She doubled down. “Somebody needs to teach you some manners,” she said, oblivious to the irony that she was demanding that I thank her for an act of politeness so basic most of us do it without even thinking — let alone a request for some acknowledgement. The whole exchange was loaded with such privilege and assumed superiority, such assumption of my savagery and my debt to her. I knew if I really let her have it, her toxic white tears could’ve changed the whole course of my day or worse. So I paid it, and kept it moving. When I saw her greet her colleagues from FX, I knew I’d done exactly the right thing to avoid what could’ve been a diplomatic disaster for my organization.
These are the kinds of hoops BIPOC jump through, particularly in situations like the TCA press tours where we are outnumbered. It’s not always the network people either. In 2016, when Ryan Murphy’s The People v O.J. Simpson was debuting, a reporter stopped me in the hall to ask me what it was like to play O.J. I had been sitting in the same room with this person all day, and several days before that, so I corrected her by telling her I wasn’t Cuba Gooding Jr. Later that day, she asked me for a quote again.
This wasn’t the first time where I’ve been in the room and experienced reporters mistaking one Black person for another Black person, despite having a list of the talent, on paper, in front of them. While none of these instances are outright hate-filled, racist aggressions, they’re examples of how thoroughly and fundamentally white the industry remains on both the press and publicity sides, and how much more work there is to be done.
Now, five years after my first TCA press tour, I’m much more comfortable showing up, and I realize how important my presence is. The questions I ask in the open forum, the interviews I do, the stories I write – they have an impact. If I don’t, nobody else will. And I am taking action to make a change. When a veteran Black publicist asked me about a year ago if I knew some Black reporters she could reach out to to help her promote a show, I was hit with a startling insight: not only are there not many of us, we don’t all know each other either.
That’s what led me to create Black in Bloom, an event that initially aimed to connect Black press and Black publicists. The first gathering, in March of 2019, had an invite list of 30 people; 150 people showed up from almost every major network and every entertainment publication in LA. The second drew nearly 300 RSVPs.
While the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has put the event on pause for now, I’m taking this moment to also consider how to make the name of the event more inclusive for Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other underrepresented groups. My hope is that it help foster a sense of community, so that when another person of color shows up to a TCA press tour for the first time, they won’t feel as anxious and alone as I did. We may not be able to control how many of us are in the room, but we can absolutely stick together and support each other once we’re there.
Speak the truth!
I’ve also experienced this sort of thing at TCA. One year, Fox had all Latin media in a hotel room far from the official press room. Most publicists skipped the room all together so reporters left after a full day of attendance with not many interviews or without the interviews their editors hired them to get. Literal othering. So disrespectful.