Craig J. Harris – Actor (2004)

Diversity and Inclusion: We Still Have Farther To Go

The invitation for me to write this opinion piece is rather timely considering what I have been witnessing within the film community.  With respect to diversity and inclusion, we have traveled far, but still have farther to go.  Before I explain the specifics of the previous statement, let me correct a misperception that some people seem to have when it comes to diversity and inclusion.  Inclusion is not a one-way street.  Diversity doesn’t mean entitlement to one group exclusively.  The popular notion that diversity, or inclusion somehow equates to “charity” for minority groups misses the mark entirely.  Diversity and inclusion means to give equal access to ALL (including Caucasians) without regard to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.  Since Caucasians are usually the ones in decision-making roles, the responsibility to encourage inclusion and openness is usually theirs.  With that said, I’ll now qualify my earlier statement regarding diversity and inclusion.

I recently participated in an event, which was to encourage the participation of minority vendors in the Illinois’ film industry.  In addition to being a professional actor and screenwriter, I am also a member of one of the organizations that sponsored the event.  I envisioned that the event would not only provide opportunity to the business people seeking to profit from the production dollars coming to Illinois, but that all gathered would strike a conciliatory tone in reaching a consensus that would disallow the atmosphere which created the exclusionary practices of the past and allow everyone to embrace a changed and better future.  In fact, some of the very unions and organizations that engaged in previous discriminatory practices attended the event, offering apologies for the egregious actions of their past leadership and promising change.  It would appear that it would be an event without controversy.

I was wrong.

What actually happened is that some took the opportunity to rehash the unfair and unjust practices of the past and blast the present union and organizational leadership.  Some of the attendees even labeled the unions as racist.  Whereas I am in total agreement that we should hold the union’s collective feet to the fire and continually monitor them to make sure that they keep their word of better diversity practices, I disagreed with the tone of the overall message.  After all, when someone is waving a banner of truce, the normal response isn’t to open fire on him or her.  I believe that a people who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, but a people who live solely in their past cannot build a future.  Rather than attacking the present union leadership over the actions of their predecessors, I would have liked to have seen cautionary optimism regarding the conciliatory message with the acknowledgement that we would all work together toward assisting the unions in keeping their promise.  Although I felt that the union’s opposition took the wrong tone, what was equally distressing was the position taken by the union’s proponents.

The large number of the union’s proponents not only felt that the racially charged statements were uncalled for, but concluded that race should never be discussed.  Some even suggested that the unjust practices of exclusion were outdated!  I agree that racially charged accusations had no place in this forum, but I disagree strongly that race should never be discussed in a dialogue pertaining to diversity and inclusion.  Decisions of the past based on our differences are the very reason we are stressing diversity and inclusion.  The total absence of race in the diversity dialogue is akin to talking about NASCAR without mentioning the racecars.  It is often painful and embarrassing for some Caucasians to have to answer for the actions of their ancestors, but it is also just as painful and embarrassing for some African-Americans to acknowledge the mistreatment and enslavement of their ancestors.  The practices of exclusion predicated on cultural prejudice and racial bigotry are part of the fabric of the American experience.  To ignore the gravity and impact of past practices, or ignoring the existence of such practices in the present, in an attempt to correct it is as wrong as it is illogical. Anyone involved in diversity and inclusion efforts has to accept that we need to move forward from the injustices of the past, but also embrace the fact that the perception and residue of those past injustices are interwoven and unavoidable in this dialogue.  Denying the existence of present day exclusionary practices will not advance the cause of diversity, but neither will intentionally derailing good faith efforts of individuals working to extinguish those practices.

I started in this industry as an actor, but the lack of positive and authentic roles available to African American actors, inspired me to begin writing.  Some of my own scripts reflect my perspective and experiences as they relate to issues of diversity and inclusion.  One film I wrote entitled, Skin Complex, examines the subject of some blacks and whites who are not content with the color of their skin.  The film was a character study, which featured a successful African American professor, conflicted about his race and heritage.  Central to the plot was the question, “Have all African Americans wondered what it’s like to be white or have all African Americans ever wished they were white?”  In the film, I reveal to viewers that the African American character, Chris, is considering a skin change operation to become white, now made possible by technological advancements. Along his journey, he meets Maurice, who has already had the procedure. Maurice was a white man who is now black.  I felt it important that the film should examine the issues of race and inclusion from not only an African American perspective, but also a Caucasian one.  Rick Bird of the Cincinnati Post called it, “…one of the more provocative and daring ways to deal with race issues… Skin Complex breaks the mold, working on several levels as a bit of science fiction and a search for self-discovery.”  A significant aspect of Chris’ character development was for me to take all of my experiences regarding race, diversity, inclusion, bigotry, prejudice, etc. and pour them into Chris’ perspective as fuel for his internal conflict.  One of the most important messages of Skin Complex is one that I feel is central to the ongoing dialogue of diversity and inclusion:  We must first examine our own attitudes and feelings as they pertain to our tolerance and acceptance of other cultures, races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations.

If we demand inclusion based on our merits, regardless of who we are, we must be open and tolerant of others.  My parents instilled this belief in me during my formative years and I have long been a proponent of diversity and inclusion long before I was aware of the many organizations seeking to foster change.   The inability for others to conduct a personal and truthful examination of their own attitudes and feelings as it pertains to diversity and inclusion is the primary obstacle preventing us from achieving diversity and inclusion.  Until we can have an honest, unvarnished and candid dialogue regarding the history of race relations and issues of diversity, we will remain divided.  With education, cultural awareness programming, mentoring and internships through unions and organizations committed to diversity, we can begin towards a full and complete diversity dialogue.  We should demand commitment from both private and government entities to accomplish this goal.

So, with respect to diversity and inclusion, I believe we have traveled far, but given the current cultural environment, we still have far to go.  I firmly believe that we can accomplish diversity and inclusion if we are indeed committed to our convictions and vision.

Craig J. Harris is a SAG/AFTRA actor and award winning screenwriter.  Craig is a member of National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Diversity Committee Co-Chair of the Illinois Production Alliance.  Contact Craig online at http://www.craigharris.com.

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