America Ferrera On Diversity In Film & TV: Guest Column


It only occurred to me in retrospect, but when I signed on to play Amy in Justin Spitzer’s Superstore, it was the first part I’d ever been offered that hadn’t been written as Latina. I never think of myself as a Latino person; I’m simply a person. And as an actor, I feel capable of inhabiting all kinds of roles and telling all kinds of stories. When I read scripts, I can imagine playing many different kinds of roles. And when this script came to me, they’d already begun casting a lot of the roles, including Colton Dunn as Garrett and Nico Santos as Mateo. Suddenly it occurred to me: none of the roles in the script had specified ethnicities, they were simply casting all kinds of people.

Nico Santos and Colton Dunn co-star as box store employees in NBC’s Superstore.

It thrilled me that it was being done in a way that wasn’t in any way token. It wasn’t about inserting the black character, or the sassy Latina chick, or the one-joke Asian dude. They went out and found funny people and cast them regardless of their skin color. But this is really rare. The debate that threatened to swallow this year’s Oscars continues to dominate—as it should—but the tricky thing with casting diversely is avoiding the kind of tokenism that only pays lip service to the issue. The characters in Superstore, I felt, were real people, written with intelligence, humor and depth. And of course, when I stepped into the role of Amy, she became Latina because I’m Latina… It just wasn’t her only point of definition.

We’re all the sum of our experiences. I don’t know any people of color who go around thinking, “I’m going grocery shopping as a Latina,” or, “I’m going to read this book as an Asian person.” My experience of growing up in America was in the San Fernando Valley, with mostly Jewish friends. It took me a very long time indeed to even start relating to what it meant to be Latino in America. It just wasn’t something I grew up thinking about.

America Ferrera
“When I stepped into the role of Amy, she became Latina because I’m Latina… It just wasn’t her only point of definition,” says Ferrera.

Tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to; true diversity means writing characters that aren’t just defined by the color of their skin, and casting the right actor for the role. Diversity is on everyone’s agenda today, but it’s something I’ve had to think about my entire career, because, in a way, it’s like the tax you pay for being a person of color in this industry. You don’t get to avoid these questions. It’d be great to go and audition for roles that don’t have to be representative of every Latino person on the planet, but we aren’t always given that freedom. I can’t just play a housekeeper or a drug dealer, no matter how interesting the character might be, because I always have to think about whether I want to play a role that’s perpetuating the same old stereotypes.

I do believe that the widely accepted narratives about audiences’ lack of interest in films and shows starring people of color are lies. Under the veil of making business decisions, we allow the conversations about the relative worth of female-led films, or the importance of beefing up the guys’ parts, to go unchallenged, and when we don’t call out those narratives, we become complicit in things staying the same. It’s not true, either, that it’s just white men propagating those narratives: we’re all complicit to a smaller or greater degree. The bar that we expect women and people of color to clear is often just higher.

It also isn’t about shaming people into doing the right thing. It’s really about all of those people in positions of power—and they’re usually good people—asking themselves what they’re doing to change those narratives. I get the hesitation: everyone wants to get their stuff made, and you will always go down the path of least resistance in this business. But there is a middle ground to find, where you can tell your story without that kind of compromise.

When I look at the faces on television and compare them with film, I realize how far we’ve come on the small screen. It’s important to celebrate the success that’s been made even as we acknowledge there’s further still to travel. All audiences want to see the world they live in reflected on screens big and small. At a certain point, it becomes unavoidable to notice that we’re being ignored. Young people are turning to YouTube, Snapchat and Vine to find the content that speaks to them, and you have to wonder why. Viewers don’t want to be pandered to; they just want genuine, authentic storytelling experiences. That was what first drew me to Superstore.

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