The Spirit of Affirmative Action in Hollywood and Academia

First published March 21 2018 in Anthropology News.

The inclusion rider reveals the informal ways in which academic diversity can be improved.


Frances McDormand finished her acceptance speech for best actress with the phrase, “I have two words to tell you all tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” Within hours the mainstream media clarified the inclusion rider as a contractual clause that actors can use to require diversity standards for the film’s cast and crew. Wide adoption of the inclusion rider would effectively institutionalize the guiding principle that women and people of color have used for decades: pull each other up. In the aftermath of affirmative action, the A-list member can employ their status to pull others up to grow both diversity and business. This begs the question, What can the inclusion rider reveal about academia’s own limitations and possibilities for diversity?

Mark McNestry/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Many may wonder—certainly, I did—how inclusion riders differ from affirmative action policies; will inclusion riders be subject to the same challenges that dismantled most affirmative action policies and procedures? While there are some resonances between the two—both desire the achievement of racial integration—there is a core distinction in terms of how each justify diversity as socially beneficial. Historically, direct efforts to achieve integration involved the use of quotas to assess representation, but these are now illegal. Even “racially sensitive” policies face scrutiny, as in the 2013 Supreme Court case of Abigail Fisher that questioned whether race could even be considered in college admissions. Debates on affirmative action policies often center on the relationship between merit and representation. Affirmative action critics tend to argue that racial integration efforts unfairly discriminate against others and disadvantage the potential of a society to be great. However, diversity debates—of which inclusion riders are one example—bring to the forefront the relationship between representation and profit. In corporate America, who can argue against this?

What the inclusion rider does, however, is provide white allies with a role in promoting diversity, and they distribute responsibility for diversity across race and gender.

A clip of Kumail Nanjiani concluded the montage that played prior to McDormand’s inclusion rider acceptance speech. He said, “There’s so many movies from different points of view that are making a ton of money. Don’t do it because it’s better for society and representation, even though it is. Do it, because you’ll get rich.” The audience laughed. But he wasn’t being ironic. His statement reflects an inescapable truth that the diversity managers in my field research often turned to in order to convince white-men “to challenge a system that benefits them.” That Nanjiani said this at the end of the video montage was no accident; the producers of the montage wanted the audience to remember this message. Investors could either profit or miss out.

The inclusion rider clause relies on A-listers: major actors, film producers, directors, and other celebrities at the peak of the Hollywood industry. As A-listers with the capacity to draw big crowds and quality projects, these celebrities have the power to determine contractual obligations. Very few people outside of the A-list category would be able to assert these contractual ultimatums, as in highly competitive industries most employees are interchangeable. Thus, as work becomes more precarious, diversity’s institutionalization is driven more by authority and command than by the federal government. In diversity management, the strategy has been to focus on obtaining the “buy in” of corporate executives. In academia, the sage advice is that when beginning diversity work, one should have tenure, so that if there is push back, one’s job is protected. But, diversity is more than instituting fair and equitable policies. It is about ensuring that individuals have the opportunities to succeed institutionally, including technically, psychologically, and emotionally.

Despite its gradual and systemic dismantlement, the spirit of affirmative action continues to compel us to find innovative ways to solve these disparities.

This imperative relies on an informal practice that women and people of color have long done or at least have been expected to do, that is, lend a hand to others like them. The logic is that across race and gender we can recognize enough similarities in lived experience to render racial and gender discrimination intelligible, and generate empathy. This logic is not only theoretical. We see this when individuals claim that they are committed to equality, because they want to “pay it forward.” We also see this when students gravitate towards teachers who look like them. Insofar as discrimination is recognized as linked to visible bodies, individuals will continue to reproduce racial economies of solidarity. What the inclusion rider does, however, is provide white allies with a role in promoting diversity, and they distribute responsibility for diversity across race and gender.

In more practical terms, there are various ways in which academics enact inclusion riders. These include partner hires, diversity postdoctoral hires, transferring graduate student privileges across institutions—and, perhaps most glaringly, the hiring of subject-matter experts in race and gender studies. Diversity can enter through the backdoor, but overt intentional actions to increase diversity continue to be reproached. This is not surprising as American cultural reasoning often pits demographics against excellence. Diversity management scholars remind us that the assumption that hiring with diversity in mind is biased is premised on the faulty notion that hiring and promotion decisions are not already biased. In actuality, we often unconsciously favor people who look just like us, if not for the simple reason that this is comfortable. Thus, what we can do in a post-affirmative action era is recognize these informal practices and employ them strategically.

The inclusion rider, we should not forget, works within frameworks that are reasoned to generate profit. But, the inclusion rider also reminds us that we must be attentive to how whiteness is reproduced informally, such as through social networks, wherein mostly white men routinely and informally offer each other opportunities. It is in these kinds of processes that affirmative action aimed to intervene by standardizing job advertisements, employment contracts, and hiring and promotion policies. Despite its gradual and systemic dismantlement, the spirit of affirmative action continues to compel us to find innovative ways to solve these disparities. These economic and moral practices open new possibilities in the informal structures of our institutions, while revealing the limitations for upward mobility. Let’s look for openings in our current structures and continue the struggle for non-profit alternatives to equity.

Published by luzildac

Ph.D. Candidate at UC Irvine, Department of Anthropology