I grew up in Charlotte, N.C., on a quiet neighborhood street called Lockhart Drive. For years, I was the only little girl on a street full of boys. Lucky for me, I could outrun and outclimb most of them, so they would begrudgingly let me play, too — except, of course, in the treehouse.
Tucked away in the top of an old sycamore in my next-door neighbor’s yard, was a fort made of nailed-together plywood. It was the place that all the kids — excuse me, all the boys — loved to play.
To emphasize that it was for the boys only, they had scribbled the ubiquitous “no girls allowed” sign on the door. Ironically, the sign was spelled not “allowed” but “aloud,” which made me think I could come in if I were quiet.
I was wrong. I was never invited in.
I put up with being excluded from that all-boys treehouse for a long time, not wanting to rock the boat and hoping they’d change their minds. Then one morning, I woke up and thought, “This is a new day.” Sneaking through my neighbor’s gate, I inched up the ladder, and as I was about to clear the last rung, one of the boys spotted me. They all started shouting, “You can’t come up here! You’re a girl! Read the sign!”
I was about to yell, “You can’t SPELL!” when my next-door neighbor’s mom came running out of the house, and said, “What’s the ruckus?”
When the boys shouted their angry disapproval, she crossed her arms and gave one of the best comeback lines ever: “Well, boys, I own this tree, and the tree house that’s in it. Technically, you’re trespassing. I’ll let you stay, but only if you take that tacky sign off the front door and let Susan in.”
There was a long silence, followed by grumbling. Then the sign was pulled down. They did it, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They did it because they didn’t own the treehouse.
Fifty some years later, nothing has changed. The world is full of treehouses with signs that say, “no girls aloud” or “no people of color allowed” or “no LGBTQ” or “no persons with disability.” Why? Because unlike the one in my neighbor’s yard, these modern-day “treehouses” are still owned by the boys.
That changed this week when a powerful Hollywood actress woke up and decided “This is a new day.” Two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand said two words at the end of her Oscar acceptance speech that rocked Hollywood: “Inclusion Rider.”
The next day social media and news outlets were abuzz, explaining the significance of the term. In short, an inclusion rider is a stipulation that actors and actresses can ask (or demand) to have inserted into their contracts which would require a certain level of diversity among a film’s cast and crew. It is a little-known concept and one most people are reticent to engage because, like me with the treehouse, they don’t want to rock the boat or damage their chances to “getting in.”
The movie industry is a classic example of the proverbial treehouse with a sign hung out that says, “no ______________ (fill in the blank with any demographic that is not straight white able-bodied male) allowed.” For example, a recent study showed that LGBT-identified characters represented a mere 1.1 percent of all speaking characters in the top 900 films of the past decade.
Similarly, the Asian community has for years endured the sting of Hollywood casting Caucasians for Asian roles. For example, DreamWorks and Paramount cast Scarlett Johansson, a Scandinavian actress, as a Japanese cyborg in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The announcement coincided with reports that producers considered using digital tools to make Ms. Johansson look more Asian.
People with disabilities are another underrepresented population. As comedian and disability advocate Maysoon Zayid has explained, “We (the disabled) are 20 percent of the population, and we are only 2 percent of the images you see on American television, and of those 2 percent, 95 percent are played by nondisabled actors.”
Of course, women are not allowed in the treehouse either. According to a study of the top-grossing 250 films, women comprised only 11 percent of the directors, 11 percent of the writers, 16 percent of the editors and 3 percent of the composers.
And the statistics for inclusion are equally if not more skewed for people of color. Again, studies of popular movies show that in 2016 70.8 percent of speaking roles were white, far outweighing the numbers for those who were black (13.6 percent) or Hispanic (3 percent).
These statistics are particularly troubling in film and television because what we watch has the power to shape what we believe about who we are.
Hollywood is not an isolated example. It’s a microcosm of the deep seated, systemic prejudice and racism that runs through the social meridians of our nation and our world.
Achieving the American Dream shouldn’t be like trying to get into a treehouse in which only certain people are welcome. The Puritan work ethic shouldn’t just ensure success for those who look like the early white Puritans. Frances McDormand was right. We need an inclusion rider. But not just for Hollywood contracts — we need one for life.
Fortunately, we have one. It’s called the Bible.
Unlike most convoluted corporate documents, this contract boils down to two simple provisions: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. If you take these words and apply them to the discrimination in our world, you get God saying to the power structure something akin to this:
“Well, boys, I own this tree and the treehouse that’s in it. Technically, you are trespassing. I’ll let you stay, but only if you take that tacky sign off the front door and let all my people in.”
If we’ve accepted God’s terms, if we’ve accepted this contract, then we are bound to live within its parameters. We are also bound by the corollary: we must not support those who refuse to live by that contract, and specifically the “Inclusion Rider” of life. That is a deal-breaker.
There are many ways we can do this, but one is to be intentional about how we spend our money. Again, Hollywood offers the perfect example. One of the main reasons offered to justify their outrageous hiring practices is economic — the claim being that films with diverse casts don’t make money.
Last weekend, it was announced that Black Panther, the first mainstream superhero movie fronted by an almost entirely black cast, became only the 33rd movie in history to cross the one billion dollar mark. It joins films like Jurassic Park, and Avatar, and it did it in only 26 days after its original release.
In. Your. Face. Hollywood.
Brother and sisters, we have more power than we think. We have the power to take care of each other, to give everyone a fair chance, to ensure that the gifts and talents of all of God’s children are not wasted.
The misspelled sign outside the treehouse contained more truth than I realized. We all need to speak out and be heard “aloud!” “Girls aloud!” “LGBTQ aloud!” “People with disabilities aloud!” “People of color aloud!”
This is a new day. Come on! Let’s climb the ladder and storm the treehouse!
This piece is taken from a sermon delivered at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Sunday, March 11, 2018.