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The Emmys Were a Win for Diversity, Decades Too Late

As we're celebrating a number of historic wins, we shouldn't forget how long it took to get here.
Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

During last night's Emmy Awards, two words kept popping up on television and my Twitter feed: "diversity" and "historic." And for good reason, because the 69th annual ceremony featured a handful of history-making wins involving women and people of color.

Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim and the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy, for his riveting performance in the limited series The Night Of. Sterling K. Brown won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series—the first black man to win since 1998's Andre Braugher, whom Brown mentioned in his speech (along with a reference to Martin, a wonderfully black moment that made me throw up my hands in celebration). The win was for This Is Us, NBC's tearjerker drama where Brown's character grapples with his entire childhood of being a racial outlier, adoptive brother to his white twin siblings, and how that experience follows him throughout adulthood.


Donald Glover became the first black person ever to win Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series, for "B.A.N.," a truly remarkable and inventive episode of Atlanta—and later took home a statue for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, becoming only the second black man to win the award. Black Mirror's "San Junipero" episode, which centered a story on two queer women (one, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a woman of color) took home two awards. Lena Waithe's win for Master of None's outstanding "Thanksgiving" episode, which she co-wrote with Aziz Ansari, marked the first time a black woman has won for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series.

The wins felt cathartic—especially Waithe's, who shouted out her LGBTQIA family and her girlfriend—the first time I can recall I saw a black, openly queer woman explicitly mention her girlfriend at an awards show. Seeing these talented people rewarded with accolades they deserve was cause for celebration—especially against the backdrop of our current administration, which seems to be further hurting and marginalizing these groups. Still, I found these "historic" moments bittersweet to watch. Once the initial elation subsided, there was that reminder: It took until 2017 for this to happen.

In other words, it took until the 69th ceremony to reward a black comedy director and a black woman comedy writer. These recognitions are so far overdue that it becomes depressing to think about how long we've come without being recognized. And while it's true that the Emmys felt more diverse and inclusive than years past, it speaks to how starved for representation we are that Twitter exploded upon seeing black and brown presenters—not just because the pairing of Issa Rae and Riz Ahmed is like, devastatingly attractive, but because it's the exception to the rule instead of the norm.

The other problem is that the industry—the white-dominated industry—doesn't seem to know this. Even as Stephen Colbert took aim at Tump & Co., his critiques were undercut by the gross appearance of Sean Spicer, hamming it up in an attempt at a redemption story. This ignorance was most apparent during one of the strangest moments of the ceremony: the "salute to diversity" sizzle reel that highlighted recent programming. While watching, it was clear the producers wanted to celebrate the great strides they perceived the TV industry to be making, but it felt like a minute-long pat on the back. It seemed to be saying: "Hey, we did this, we're diverse now, we're done." But it mostly did the opposite, highlighting how few diverse shows we still have, and it amplified the idea that we've been waiting decades to get some black wins.

Two women-dominated series were also big winners. HBO's Big Little Lies and Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale each won eight Emmys this year, including Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Drama, respectively. Each also took home the award for Outstanding Actress within their categories, as well as Outstanding Supporting Actress; for BLL, Nicole Kidman even used her speech to talk about domestic violence. But even as women-focused shows won big, black women were left behind: Tracee Ellis Ross lost to Julia Louis-Dreyfus's sixth consecutive win, Viola Davis lost to Elisabeth Moss, and there were no black women at all nominated for Limited Series. It also doesn't help that the Emmys were broadcast on CBS, a network that proudly announced a new fall lineup featuring entirely male leads—and all but one male lead of color, Shemar Moore from CBS's Criminal Minds.

So while it was nice to see these wins—especially as a queer, black person in a woman's body, and as a too-obsessive television fan—they were always followed by the crushing reality: the shitty reminder that our wins—both on- and off-screen—are few and far between.