Watching A Failure in Real Time
Today the Hollywood Reporter released an article on the ongoing issues surrounding the treatment of Ray Fisher by Warner Brothers during and after filming of the Justice League movie. This entire saga has a lot to unpack, in terms of systemic issues and how investigations of wrongdoing are primarily designed to protect those in power, and we definitely need to center voices of color in that unpacking process. However, I do feel the need to address some of the comments made by PR representatives for one of the executives being called out for his behavior.
Because these comments are both insanely aggravating, and a fascinating real life example of how some people in high positions of power, particularly those who are male and white, are damaging both themselves and their organizations. They are showing a dangerous unwillingness to acknowledge or reckon with their own power and privilege, and a deeply problematic inability to let go of the past to deal with the culture at present.
And I suspect that the glaring failures exemplified in this article are paving the way for some big changes within Warner Brothers. Whether it happens willingly on their part, or not, will be interesting to watch.
We’ve all seen the quote by now, that “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. It’s often used to explain the resistance of those in power to making big changes. But we’re at a point, in terms of cultural awareness and societal conversation, that leaders who continue to double-down on their privilege and claim innocence of ever doing wrong, are no longer just slightly out of date. They are disturbingly naive. And each time it happens, the cost is going to get greater.
So, let’s talk about some of these quotes from the representative for Geoff Johns, who is no longer in his role that affected Fisher, but still holds a great deal of power over a great many people.
And why a real leader knows to never say these things.
“There are always conversations about avoiding any stereotype of race, gender or sexuality.”
This is an example of saying something that looks good, but means nothing. At this point, people have learned the good buzzwords to use when discussing equity. But it doesn’t tell us anything. How did those conversations go? And, more importantly, who was in the room? Because we already know this movie was overwhelmingly white, both in front and behind the camera. If you are discussing the role of a Black superhero without multiple Black voices in the room, you’re not really having the conversation.
“Johns — whose spokesperson requested that he be identified as Lebanese American — “had evolved traditionally all-white DC properties like Shazam, Justice Society of America and others into diverse groups of heroes” in his extensive work as a comic book author.”
Oof. Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of someone’s heritage, and if Johns is deeply connected to his Lebanese roots, that’s a great thing. It sounds like his cultural background has influenced some of his projects in the past, and that’s wonderful. But this is still deeply problematic.
First, making a point of your own heritage when discussing racism, or sexism, or any ism, is not a “get out of jail free” card. Internalized biases are exceedingly common, as are things such as colorism and prejudice between cultures. He wanted to make a point that he doesn’t identify as a white man here, which, fine, but what does that serve? His ethnicity does not pardon him.
Second, the fact that you’ve done things in service of diversity in the past is also insignificant, and an attempt to shift focus. People aren’t broken down into “good” and “bad”. People are complex. Someone can help an old lady across the street one minute, and then catcall a teenager the next. Someone can go to an LGBTQ rally, and then make a racist joke. This is a transparent attempt to reinforce the idea that racists are white hood-wearing evil people, who go around being deliberately horrible all the time. His past actions are insignificant regarding the issue at hand, which is how he treated this one individual Black man.
“What were standard continuity notes for a scene are being spun in a way that are not only personally offensive to Geoff, but to the people that know who he is, know the work he’s done and know the life he lives, as Geoff has personally seen firsthand the painful effects of racial stereotypes concerning hair and other cultural stereotypes, having been married to a Black woman who he was with for a decade and with his second wife, who is Asian American, as well as his son who is mixed race.”
This is the one that made my blood pressure go up. First we have the attempt to flip the script – that Johns is the one being insulted here, by suggesting he could possibly have had any kind of bias at play – even an unconscious one.
And then they go right into the more modern version of the “I have a Black friend” statement, which is the “I married a woman of color” excuse. And it’s right back to promoting the “racists are the folks in the white hood” attitude.
Saying you can’t be racist because you married a person of color is like saying you can’t be sexist because you married a woman. It is done in bad faith, an attempt to call attention to your “wokeness” just because you are willing to wake up next to a woman of color every morning. It says nothing of how you treat her, how much you truly understand of her struggles, or of the greater intersectional issues at play. And women of color are their own agents, not your shield.
To be clear, this kind of language is nothing new, and is still disturbingly common. But it’s also absolutely inexcusable. Leaders have a responsibility – to acknowledge their own biases, to listen when being called to account, to genuinely apologize and make amends.
This, whatever this was, on the part on Warner Brothers, is a perfect example of what not to do. Let’s all learn from that.