WGA Strike Roundtable: BIPOC Writers Say Getting Ahead Often Requires Being ‘Palatable’ to White People | Video

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“We all had to pass the white bar,” “iCarly” scribe Nasser Samara said during TheWrap’s panel discussion

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In the journey to reach professional success in Hollywood, people of color are often forced to conform to whiteness and navigate racial inequities created by white power structures. For BIPOC and AAPI TV writers, being “palatable” to white people and/or whiteness is required of them.

“I don’t think there are enough people of color making decisions,” “iCarly” and “Love, Victor” writer Nasser Samara said during TheWrap’s recent Writers Guild Association strike roundtable. “We’ve made it in our careers, but it comes with the acknowledgement that I had to be palatable to white people at some point to get this job, to get this opportunity to get ahead. We all had to pass the white bar.”          

The panel, which was titled “The Writers Room in Color: A Conversation With BIPOC TV Writers,” was centered on the experiences of writers of color in the TV and film industry and the unique challenges POC writers face in and outside of the writers room. In addition to Samara (who’s Mexican and Palestinian), the panel included Lauren Goodman (Black/African American), Lucas Brown Eyes (Native American, Oglala Lakota tribe), Allison Lee (Korean American) and Joel Boyd (Black/African American). 

The group opened up about a myriad of subjects including the key tasks in the WGA strike that disproportionally impact BIPOC writers, like the racial wage gap and the mini-room model, the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood’s writers rooms and that POC writers have to repeat positions more frequently than their white counterparts. And a reoccurring, relative item that appeared in each topic was how BIPOC writers often have to be appealing to the white perspective or fit into Hollywood’s traditionally white spaces in order to make it in the already tough industry. This often means people of color have to work harder to be given the same opportunities, resources and payment. 

“There’s a level of excellence that we have to present,” Lee, who wrote for “Etheria” and “Frankly in Love,” said. “Whereas other people might get more leeway, and it’s unfair. At the same time, all those rejections, being fired, or whatever it is, just gives you the grit and you win by attrition as a person of color, practically. ‘Can you hang in there and beat out the rest and be excellent?’ But at the same time, that’s been required of everyone here, and that’s the manner by which we function.”

The panel also discussed their experiences with sometimes being the only person of color in a writers room, saying it can be a balancing act of wanting to show up authentically as themselves, being confident enough to speak up against racial stereotyping and microaggressions while trying to evade any backlash for doing either of the two. 

“It’s psychological warfare,” Samara said. “I would probably say 99% of writers of color in a room don’t get to be entirely themselves in a room because we are constantly thinking about, ‘Will this affect my career?’ or ‘will this affect my community?’”

Goodman, who served as a writer for the hit FX series “Snowfall,” agreed. 

“A lot of times you have to run the risk of wondering about being perceived as someone who is, you know, as a person, particularly as a Black woman, ‘Are you aggressive? Are you combative?’ There’s always this burden,” Goodman said. “It’s the Du Bois thing of double consciousness that doesn’t go away in the writers room. And I think that’s just indicative of the experience of people of color that move in spaces where we are often not the majority.”

On top of having to conform to white spaces, writers of color are also not given the same room to make the same amount of mistakes or any mistakes at all. And Brown Eyes (“Spirit Rangers”) says Hollywood makes that very clear. 

“It’s all about risk and who gets that. Like, who gets the risk?” Brown Eyes said. “Who gets their pilot remade after a $30 million pilot. That always happens to the same type of white dude. Let’s be honest.”

Throughout Hollywood’s history, white writers have been given the green light to write and direct TV shows and films centered on POC stories, though the same right has not been given to POC creatives. Some writers have even shared that some TV executives will not hire a person of color if there isn’t a character of color featured in the show they’re running. Boyd, who wrote on the series “History of Swear Words” and wrote and directed the short film “High Power,” expressed his astonishment for the reality that white Hollywood seemingly doesn’t have faith that writers of color can give their stories the same treatment. 

“How does [white Hollywood] not think we could do that?” Boyd questioned. “We always have to watch their stories. We’ve grown up watching ‘Friends’ because [they] made us. How do [they] think we can’t turn around and write [their stories]? And then they sit there and tell us [they’re] gonna write ours? That is so weird to me. It’s wild.”

As the conversation came to a close the group shared their best advice for the any incoming writers of color. Brown Eyes said surviving in Hollywood as a person of color means mastering your craft and showing up despite the specific hardships you will more than likely face.

“When the powers that be want you dead, survival is resistance,” Brown Eyes said. “I think some of that is rolling with the punches and taking care of yourself… learning to love writing. I think we all love writing, but like, really love it. Really focus on it because that’s what you can control. In this industry, there’s so much you can’t control. Really, really hone your craft and get really good at it in the sense not to prove to others, but because the more you love what you can do, the more you will be happy. That’s kind of how you survive. Just being in the room is an act of resistance and protest.”

For all of TheWrap’s WGA strike coverage, click here. Watch the full roundtable discussion above.