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Mellini Kantayya Headshot

The Color of Money: Inclusive Casting Proves Profitable

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Remember college? All those late nights you whiled away debating topics ranging from geopolitics to burrito fillings? If you were lucky, you were that guy or gal who effortlessly won any and every verbal joust, not the one who suffered routine pummeling -- even when you were an expert on the topic de jour.

I was the tongue-tied, babbling latter. Thankfully, pointless argument earns no social currency beyond dorm rooms (cable news being the one jejune exception), but I do relish those rare occasions I am proven right.

About eight years ago I was scheduled to record a commentary for the public radio show Marketplace. I was bumped due to breaking news -- a disappointing yet common occurrence in news programming -- and it never found it's way on air.

It went as follows:

I'm an actor. Not a star -- a bread-and-butter actor. Episodic television is a big employer of actors like me because they're in constant need of doctors, victims, cops, and witnesses.

It's a tough business, and perhaps tougher for actors of color. It's hard to distinguish if we have limited opportunities or just haven't had the right breaks. And we're often auditioning for the same old roles -- African American drug dealer, Korean convenience store owner, South Asian with terrorist ties.

Say there's a role for an Investment Banker. A buttoned-up African American or Asian American actor may never get an audition, though anyone who's been to the corner of Wall and Broad Streets knows it's pretty diverse -- the only color that counts is green.

This is annoying, if not offensive, but I'm not here to complain about inequity. It's not about the principle... well, it's a little about the principle -- losing out on an audition could translate to loss of future opportunities, money in my pocket, not to mention my pension and health benefits.

But don't do it for me. Don't do it for the kids. Do it for corporate America.

That's who benefits from open-minded casting, especially in television. We think of the show as being the product and viewers as consumers, but we're the product -- our eyeballs are sold to advertisers to watch their commercial or product placement. The show is the bait they use to hook us. As mom always said, you catch more flies with honey.

That's why casting in commercials is often more progressive. Smart advertisers know racial stereotypes are insulting and won't help products fly off shelves. Madison Avenue gets it. And the popularity of shows like Grey's Anatomy will hopefully convince the entertainment industry of the profitability of inclusive, non-stereotypical casting.

Add to that the changing demographic of the US population and the colossal amount of our entertainment exported abroad -- it just makes just makes economic sense... for everyone.

Although there has been significant progress since I wrote that piece, television still does not reflect the U.S. population. And the premise of my commentary has been proven right.

On NPR's Code Switch blog, media critic Eric Deggans reported on an UCLA study proving "diversity makes more money and brings in wider audiences". Television shows featuring 41-50 percent non-white characters garnered the highest household ratings. However, non-white minorities filled just 5.1 percent of the lead roles on broadcast TV and 14.7 percent on cable -- hardly matching the 36.3 percent non-white population of the United States.

Hollywood is leaving money on the table.

I hope they will take note. This is an instance where capitalism and the greater good align. Not just because inclusive casting is both moral and profitable, but also because it can potentially be another positive step in healing America's racial divide.

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell discusses the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT was devised by researchers to measure and study attitudes people are unwilling or unable to express. For example, one may believe they are free of racial bias but still have preferences for whites. The IAP measures the type of thinking, Gladwell states, that happens "on an unconscious level -- the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we even have time to think."

Though a subject can't willfully change the results of the IAT, outcomes aren't set in stone. They can be influenced by positive images, even those that come from television. Gladwell quotes Mahzarin Bananji, teacher at Harvard and a leader in IAT research:

"I had a student who used to take the IAT every day... his idea was just to let the data gather as he went. Then this one day, he got a positive association with blacks. And he said, 'That's odd. I've never gotten that before,' because we've all tried to change our IAT score and we couldn't. But he's a track-and-field guy, and what he realized is that he'd spent the morning watching the Olympics."

Perhaps it's a stretch to conclude that inclusive casting will not only line Hollywood's pockets, but also alter America's unconscious thoughts and feelings about race. And perhaps it is overly optimistic to think it will change split-second reactions of police officers facing a future Amadou Diallo or the root beliefs of a potential Michael Dunn.

But I hope time will prove me right.


Take the IAT and read an excerpt from Actor. Writer. Whatever. (essays on my rise to the top of the bottom of the entertainment industry)