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Women in entertainment panel reminds us why representation matters

Panelists Ravi Karkara, Carrie Goldman, Bettina Hausmann, Dr. Janina Scarlet, Jennifer K. Stuller and moderator Chase Masterson. Pop Culture Hero Coalition

Hundreds of women of varied ethnicities gathered Friday, March 17, at the United Nations in New York City for a conversation on closing the gender gap in the entertainment industry.

The event was hosted by the Pop Culture Hero Coalition, an organization that makes a stand for heroism over hatred through entertainment, and the United Nations Association San Diego chapter.

As everyone settled into their seats, a scan of the nine panelists and moderator had some audience members, including myself -- a black woman -- searching for women who looked like me, but only one woman of color was represented, Carmen Perez, the co-chair of the Women's March on Washington.

Other notable women headliners included womenswear designer Mara Hoffman, Teen Vogue editor Lauren Duca and feminist pop-culture historian Jennifer K. Stuller.

Duca opened the discussion about Teen Vogue's editorial approach of providing political coverage to young women who are equally fascinated by Kylie Jenner's Snapchat and the latest makeup trends.

However, before Duca's opening remarks, it was evident that the promising dialogue of closing the gender gap in entertainment would lack depth and nuance due to the overwhelmingly white female panelists.

Intentionally or not, the event exposed the pecking order of white feminist privilege, which left me to wonder: How do we expect to win the fight for gender equality when women of all races are not equally represented?

Co-organizers of the Pop Culture Hero Coalition Carrie Goldman and Chase Masterson took full responsibility for not putting forth the effort to replace a last-minute cancellation by a woman of color.

"We should have had more than one. We should have had several," Masterson said regarding the lack of diversity on the panel.

Teen Vogue's Duca admitted that she felt ashamed for not speaking up.

"It reminded me that no, maybe I shouldn't have to worry about seeming rude," Duca said, who added that the oversight was harmless in intent and meant no ill will.

It's also necessary to note that black, Latina and Asian women aren't the only marginalized communities that deserve to be represented: Trans, gender-nonconforming, disabled and all ethnicities including indigenous communities require inclusion.

When the glaring omission of black women was acknowledged, Joann Mae Spotted Bear, also known as Mato Gleska from Wounded Knee, South Dakota, passionately spoke from the audience on behalf of Native American women and reminded the crowd of her community's plight -- the painful erasure of her people, land and history.

Later, Stuller highlighted the dynamic role the internet plays in raising levels of consciousness and awareness to racial biases and microaggressions deeply entrenched within society.

She cited the recent "I am Major" viral campaign successfully executed by the Asian community as an example. Paramount Pictures invited fans to upload a photo along with text to create an "I am Major" image to promote the upcoming release of "Ghost in the Shell," which stars Scarlett Johansson and is based on the Japanese media franchise of the same name. Instead, would-be fans used the promotional campaign to retaliate against the movie's whitewashing of Japanese culture.

"[The internet] created its own media literacy language," Stuller said. "It's amazing because you see it, and you're not approaching someone and saying, 'Hey, I'm disadvantaged, and I'm marginalized.' And they're immediately defensive. They actually see something they can digest and process in a way that's a form of a digital protest."

This is how you demonstrate alliance. Eliminate denial and defensiveness, and acknowledge and take accountability for your privilege and biases.

That was Hoffman's approach when she launched her self-titled womenswear company 17 years ago. Hoffman, a white woman, used her growing influence and platform to champion diversity. Her mission was to empower women through transformative dress.

"I'm not a hardcore activist in that space, but I have a microphone that I can hand to those that are," she said. "And I think that's our role in a big way. Who do we give our microphones to? Who do we lend our platforms to? Who do we put front and center and say, 'This is the woman, listen to her'?"