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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

In Living Color

By Belinda Acosta

JANUARY 24, 2000:  First, a warning: I'm going to talk about race. The reason for the warning is that talking about race is something we don't do so well in this country. And here I am, a brown woman and a writer, so I should know how to talk and write about race with clarity, right? The truth of the matter is, I think all folks from all walks of life need a lesson on how to address this troubling, often painful subject. The question is: Where does this lesson come from, and who, or what, is going to lead the discussion?

Some think television is a place to start. Anyone who has followed current events in television knows a welt was raised on the industry following the announcement of fall season schedules by the four major networks. A coalition of groups including the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, and the American Indians in Film and Television threatened boycotts and brown-outs because of the "virtual whitewash" of programming both in front of and behind the camera. A recent deal struck by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume with NBC and ABC earlier this month (talks with the other networks are in the works) did not put the issue to rest. Instead, it ignited fury from other coalition members who felt excluded from negotiations, and as a result, complained that their issues were not addressed.

Setting aside talk of whether Mfume should have or shouldn't have gone solo to strike a deal (he claims to have represented the interests of the coalition), here is what he brokered with NBC: the addition of a minority writer to each new show that goes into a second year of production and the development of job training and internship programs to groom minorities for future roles as creators, producers, and directors of programming; the promise to double the company's purchasing from minority-owned businesses; and finally, to discuss more ways to promote diversity at a brainstorming seminar sometime in February. Talks with ABC resulted in an agreement to create diversity training programs and a mentoring program between network execs and minority hires. A series of ongoing meetings between ABC execs in charge of hiring and the NAACP will keep the discussion on the front burner. It's a great time for an ethnic minority to find work in the television industry, right? I'm not so sure.

I get a sick feeling thinking of that lone black/Latino/Asian/Native American writer joining the ranks of a show going into its sophomore year. I envision two scenarios: One, the writer is considered a token and kept at arm's length, or worse, treated with silent hostility because of the perception of that minority writer as just a quota hire. People complain about the unfairness of quota systems (aka affirmative action) because, it's said, those systems favor race over talent (usually at the expense of always exceptionally talented whites). Somehow, marginally talented minorities manage to pop up at just the right moment to derail some struggling non-minority person out of their due. Somehow, a consciously made minority hire is assumed to be inferior to a non-minority hire -- a grave injustice, the soapbox speech goes. The discussion never confronts the unearned privileges non-minorities in this country not only enjoy, but are widely oblivious to, or how white culture is accepted as the morally normal, average, and ideal culture.

I don't want to be white. I just want to turn on the television and see some culturally specific stories told with artistry, dignity, and humor.

The second scenario makes me crazy. How many times has a person of color been the tacitly understood spokesperson for all things black/Latino/Asian/Native American? Although high-profile figures like Mfume and actor Edward James Olmos savor their roles as minority spokespersons, in smaller, less public circumstances, say, the writers' den of that aforementioned sophomore-year show, being tapped as the spokesperson for a whole race or culture can be downright aggravating. Being deferred to in questions about "your people" is as insulting as assuming that a white child from the South had the same "white" experience as a white child from Seattle, or the Bronx, or Austin, Texas. The flip side is that yes, most people of color do claim to have a cultural and ethnic heritage that informs the way they see the world. To pretend otherwise is ludicrous. But it is one way, one view, one voice of many, many others.

The myth of the melting pot has done much to stanch the ability to talk about race and privilege honestly, perhaps because there is so much pain and fear involved, and perhaps because the language used has been anesthetized. Twenty years ago, melting into society meant you were a "credit to your race." Today, it's called being a "team player."

For all the gnashing of teeth, for all the criticisms fallen upon Mfume, for all the potential land mines that lie ahead in this critical moment in television history, I remain hopeful. I want to see something good come of all this. Television is the most uniformly maligned of all the entertainment media. Yet it cannot be denied that in its pervasiveness, television offers a powerful, even if less than adequate, laboratory for this discussion to begin. The thing is, it's not just people of color "teaching" whites, or white people creating opportunities for them (people of color) to be like us (white folks). The stakes are actually quite a bit higher. It's about the negotiation of power, a public voice, and the shaping of a popular culture that can be as exclusive as it is inclusive. It means rattling the cage. It means questioning old assumptions and comfort levels.

Haggling over the remote control takes on a new meaning. As always, stay tuned.

Earthbound 'Angels'

You know, I wanted to call City of Angels the next jewel in Steven Bochco's crown, joining previous achievements like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue. Unfortunately, I can't. It's not that Angels is terrible; it's just ordinary. And ordinary was not what the doctor ordered in this predominately African-American drama set in a downtrodden hospital in Los Angeles.

Given the recent demand for diversity in the television industry, perhaps too much hype and hope was placed on Bochco, co-producer Paris Barclay (who also directs), and co-creator Nicholas Wootton, who approach their project with the subtlety and nuance of a Times Square marquee. Just in case you didn't notice that most of the people in the hospital are black, someone in the first episode was sure to remind you in a knock-you-upside-the-head kind of way.

Still, I don't want to dismiss Angels outright. It wouldn't be the first new drama that took a few episodes to find its footing -- though for the life of me, I can't think of another one. With CBS committed to 13 episodes, City of Angels will have plenty of time to hit its stride or flicker into oblivion.

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