SxSW #YoutubeSoBrown Panel Tackles Show Business, Empowerment

By Sameer Rao Mar 13, 2017

Most South by Southwest (SxSW) panels incorporate digital innovation into the discussion. #YoutubeSoBrown: Diversity & Digital Storytelling highlighted that theme with a candid conversation on race, representation, and the advantages and trials the digital sphere offers creators of color.

"Geeta’s Guide to Moving On" creator and star Puja Mohindra moderated today’s (March 13) panel, which also featured Northwestern University professor and Open TV founder Aymar Jean Christian, "The Muslim Trump" writer Fawzia Mirza and the New York Television Festival‘s programming director Ian Thake. Each panelist brought their creative and curatorial perspective to the session, which unfolded in near-full ballroom at the Austin Convention Center.

Mirza’s first remarks addressed why representation on television plays an important part in dispelling harmful stereotypes. "The way that [people of color] move and create in the world is a way of creating empathy, conversation and connection," she said. "If I put all Brown people on screen, we may not talk about it, but then you get used to seeing this thing. I don’t think of it as branding, but the more you get used to seeing an image, the more you say, ‘That’s normal.’" 

But making sure people actually see that image remains an issue for many independent creators of color. Christian’s forthcoming book on digital television’s evolution, "Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood," features interviews with more than a hundred web series creators. Citing his research, he said during the panel that online platforms, while accessible and potentially lucrative for people of color historically frozen out of the Hollywood apparatus, do not guarantee an audience.

"There are so many platforms and we are deluged with content," he explained. "What we need now are distributors who can aggregate audiences and not only direct funding to production but, more often, just make marketing a little easier for creators. It’s great to have all these stories, but I think people need to see them for [diversity and representation] conversations to proliferate." 

Thake noted that such conversations and distribution pressure means that creators who feature diverse casts may always have to explain or defend their choices. "You don’t have to have all the answers, but I think you have to be willing to start the conversation," he said. "You shouldn’t have to be the representative for every Black or Indian person, but at the same time, you’re the one [people] are asking."

Culture Reporter Sameer Rao is in Austin this week covering race- and people of color-focused panels and events at South by Southwest. Check back for more posts throughout the week.