Black Women Take A Big Risk When They Talk About Equal Pay

by Ashley Rey
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It's no secret that Hollywood's gender wage gap is depressing, and, thanks to so many brave women refusing to stay silent, the pay disparity discussion has been picking up momentum in the last couple of years. According to Forbes, white women earn roughly 78 cents to every dollar that their while male colleagues do. But, for women of color, that percentage drops dramatically — between 56-64 cents to every white man's dollar, according to the same source. The decline could be blamed on the fact that there are only so many roles for black and brown women in Hollywood, or that the lack of those roles makes it harder for black and brown women to be recognized for their bankable excellence (hello, #OscarsSoWhite). But despite the gap, the fact remains that women of color don't have the privilege to talk about Hollywood's gender wage gap like white women do.

According to non-profit foundation World Economic Forum, the global gender pay gap is predicted to take up to 170 years to close — and I can't help but wonder where women of color fall within that estimation. With aforementioned wage disparity, it would seem like there's even more reason for black and brown women in Hollywood to speak up, right? But the act of speaking up has a level of risk that their white female colleagues will rarely experience.

Women of color in Hollywood not only have to fight to be paid equally, but they also have to fight to be seen, heard, and chosen.

Taraji P. Henson spoke about the pay gap between white men and black women in the industry in her book Around the Way Girl: A Memoir, published in October 2016. In it, the actor writes about the moment she was allegedly offered "sofa change" to play her critically acclaimed role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. According to Henson, co-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were offered millions, but the dynamic actor who currently portrays Cookie on Empire was reportedly offered less than two percent of their earnings. On top of that, she claimed:

There was one other thing: I’d have to agree to pay my own location fees while filming in New Orleans, meaning three months of hotel expenses would be coming directly out of my pocket. Insult, meet injury.

At the time, multiple outlets reached out to Benjamin Button producers for comment, but none ever received a response. And of course Henson took the part. Roles like hers aren't common for women of color, and that knowledge forced Henson's hand.

"I knew the stakes," she wrote. "No matter how talented, no matter how many accolades my prior work had received, if I pushed for more money, I’d be replaced and no one would so much as a blink." And since there's a surplus of talented black women in Hollywood, but not nearly enough work to support all of them, replacing her wouldn't have been hard to do. According to a research study performed by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 28.3 percent of speaking roles went to people of color in 2016. Subtract the roles that men of color grab, and I'd imagine that there's not much left for women of color — specifically black women — to take.

Viola Davis addressed this in her 2015 Emmys acceptance speech all too perfectly. "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity," she said. "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

Women of color in Hollywood not only have to fight to be paid equally, but they also have to fight to be seen, heard, and chosen. Speaking up about a pay disparity doesn't go over as lightly for black and brown women as it seems to for white women. White women are the face of feminism, so notoriously so that the term "white feminism" has arisen to criticize the occasional lack of inclusivity and intersectionality in the feminism movement. But because white women are the face of feminism, they're expected to complain or bring attention to injustices plaguing women. Conversely, more often than not, if black and brown women practice that same feminism, they're more likely to be seen as ungrateful, difficult to work with, or worse, angry.

Proof can be seen in the fact that actor and comedian Mo'Nique felt the wrath of Hollywood when she decided to stick up for herself on the issue. The Precious star claimed that she was paid just $50,000 for the critically acclaimed role. And when she spoke bluntly about receiving menial pay, in spite of being expected to go above and beyond for the job, she was largely ignored. She saw the disparity and reported it. But instead of being supported in the fight, Mo'Nique was reportedly told she didn't "play the game" properly. She was allegedly labeled as being "hard to work with." And, according to the actor, she was blackballed. (In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, Precious director Lee Daniels counted her claims for why she was blackballed in a statement that read, "Her demands through Precious were not always in line with the campaign. This soured her relationship with the Hollywood community.")

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Regardless, on the other side, fairer-skinned actors such as Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman are praised for their straightforwardness and bravery when they speak out about the gender wage gap. Their stories were reported on major news sites and retold in the most glamorous magazines. The industry heard their cries, and rallied behind them. I'm sure that they'll never have to worry about not working in Hollywood again. But, for women of color, that's not often the case.

That's why, when the Hensons, Davises, and Mo'Niques of the world choose to speak up on these imbalances — making the pool of potential work awarded to them shallower — we should never turn a blind eye. Because for them, the risk is a lot greater than the reward.