With 29 nominations for people of colour this year in the major front-of-camera categories, and five people taking home wins during Sunday night’s live broadcast, the 69th Emmy Awards proved to be one of the most diverse awards shows in history. Donald Glover made Emmy history when he became the first black person to take home the award for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. Lena Waithe was the first black woman to win the award for best comedy writing. Riz Ahmed was the first person of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy in the history of the awards. Beyond the actual wins, the telecast also saw RuPaul portraying the Emmy statue in a sketch with host Stephen Colbert, as well as Chance the Rapper in an opening number with a commitment to inclusion. That commitment was the theme of the night, and Emmy producers wanted to make sure that everyone knew about it.
It’s one thing to make an effort to include people of colour in the programme. It’s another to constantly congratulate yourself for doing so. I think it’s safe to say that the Emmys got a little carried away, taking advantage of every opportunity to highlight its acknowledgement of the contributions made by people of colour in television. It came off as… less than subtle.
The diversity campaign started off fair enough. Host Stephen Colbert opened the show with a musical about television being the perfect distraction from the actual issues affecting our country. It started with “Anthony Anderson from ABC’s black-ish" criticising HBO’s upcoming series Confederate. This bit also included cameos from Sterling K. Brown (who would take home a statue for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) with his This Is Us siblings. Later on in the number, Chance raised the question, “If Hawkeye could be a soldier, why not Laverne Cox?” in reference to Trump’s “transgender ban” in the armed forces. It was funny and light, but on-point.
During his monologue, Colbert specifically mentioned that for the third year in a row, we were looking at the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history. The audience responded with rousing cheers, and Colbert added, “I did not know you could applaud while patting yourself on the back at the same time.” This — balancing self-awareness with shameless plugging of their merits — would have been a good place to chill on the diversity campaign. They could have let the nominees and winners speak for themselves and continue on. They did not.
Later in the telecast, Hayma Washington, the chairman of the Television Academy, delivered his own speech about the many strides the Academy has made towards diversity. Then they launched into a video montage that focused mainly on women behind the scenes as the gold standard of inclusivity. It was a reach. The Emmys had officially overdone it.
Here’s the thing: Including and acknowledging people of colour isn’t something that should be rewarded. It’s just the right thing to do. The days of singing mainstream institutions' praises for doing the things they should have done years ago are over. They never should have started.
I’m way more interested in learning more about what initiatives and programmes the Academy is setting up to fund the creative interests of people of colour and minorities to break into the industry. How are they creating pipelines for these stories to be told? Let’s work to decentre whiteness as the standard for beauty, perspective, and human experience in television, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about making history. And even then, let’s not expend our energy celebrating our own accomplishments when there is still so much work to be done.