Is there any network that loves straight white men as much as CBS? A damning—but not altogether shocking—letter published by a former exec makes the beige bar pretty damn hard to clear.
In a letter published Tuesday in Variety, Whitney Davis, a veteran executive with years of experience working in the network’s entertainment and news divisions, chronicled years of racial microaggressions, straight-up aggression-aggressions, and dead ends that belied the company’s outward facing commitments to diversity and inclusion.
Davis began the letter with the company’s recent investigation into sexual misconduct allegations by then-CEO Les Moonves, a process Davis thought would probe “all forms of discrimination.”
Davis says she spoke with six attorneys from two different firms investigating the misconduct allegations, detailing her experiences “in a workplace fraught with systemic racism, discrimination and sexual harassment.”
“My understanding was that there would be follow-up and long-awaited reforms as their discovery continued,” Davis wrote. But when the report leaked, Davis saw nothing about those experiences—much less suggested reforms—in the document.
“It was then that I realized what I had long tried to ignore—CBS has a white problem,” Davis wrote.
Let’s do a quick recap about CBS:
The network—more than others in recent years—has drawn attention for consistently putting blindingly white shows in its lineup. This culminated in 2016, when the network released a fall line-up boasting six new shows starring six straight white men, including one of the dudes from Friends, the dude who played Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and four other dudes who are allegedly not one of the two dudes named above.
With their feet to the proverbial “are you fucking kidding me?” fire, CBS has made gains in diversifying talent in front of the camera. But the network’s issues with toxic Caucasity are deep-seated, Davis writes, including some stark stats:
Did you know that there’s not one black creative executive working at CBS Television Network or CBS Television Studios? Of the network’s 36 creative executives—all upper management roles that deal with content development, casting, current production, daytime and alternative programming—there are only three women of color, none black. There is not one executive of color working in casting at CBS. The one Latinx executive hired in casting last year lasted eight months. He works at Netflix now.
That’s at the macro level. Then, there’s Davis’ personal experiences with racial harassment and discrimination, a laundry list that includes encounters familiar to many black people and people of color in the workplace.
“In every job I’ve had at CBS, co-workers have confused me with other black women in the office, as if we’re interchangeable,” Davis writes, citing one specific example were she and another black woman staffer on the CBS Evening News weekend show were given the nickname “We-Dra”—a combination of “Whitney” and “Deidra”—because their white coworkers kept mixing them up.
That was far from the worst of it.
“While I was at CBS Evening News, a co-worker shared some family lore, telling me, ‘My dad has f—ed black women, and he loved it.’ Though horrified, I didn’t take action. Like many women who experience workplace harassment and inappropriate behavior, I didn’t want to lose my job if I complained,” Davis wrote.
“One CBS Evening News senior producer always wanted to touch my hair while sharing an inappropriate sexual joke,” she added. “Once again, I brushed this off as ignorance—not wanting to imperil my job—and kept pushing forward.”
She was 23 at the time of these experiences, but the harassment didn’t cease as she got older and more experienced.
There was the time a white female colleague used the N-word in her presence:
I was outraged. I was advised to talk to a senior executive in the news division. Her response was to tell me that I should have thicker skin. I was speechless. Why would I go to HR to file a formal complaint if a senior executive would only tell me that I needed to be tougher?
The time a former manager touched her inappropriately at work:
Before I could wipe the smile off my face, he stopped talking about my work and placed his hands on my shoulders, turned me around and asked what I had done differently to my hair. The touching and the remark made me uncomfortable, but at the time, I felt there was nothing I could do.
And, of course, the “off-color” jokes:
During a stint in drama development, I saw that the overwhelming majority of creators, producers and hired writers on CBS series were white and male. During my drama-development rotation, an executive made an Aunt Jemima joke (if there is such a thing) in front of me and several colleagues.
Through all those aggressions, Davis pressed on at the company, but says she repeatedly found herself hitting walls when it came to her advancement. She was frequently told that she wasn’t ready; told that there weren’t manager roles open—only to have a white male manager hired shortly after; tapped for leadership programs, only to be passed over for promotions.
Davis never went to HR to report the trauma and bias she experienced, she says, because she never trusted the process.
Two executives Davis called out in the piece—then-CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller and Peter Golden, the head of network casting and talent—contested Davis’ claims in written statements given to Variety. In her open letter, Davis accused Geller and Golden of systematically overlooking and dismissing actors of color in favor of white ones.
“I have personally been a champion of diversity at CBS, both in front of and behind the camera,” Geller said.
“While it is certainly possible that I may have reviewed headshots in front of Ms. Davis, her claim that I systematically dismissed diverse actors is patently false,” wrote Golden, before adding an #AllActorsMatter nod.
“Throughout my career in casting, I have always been a vigorous advocate for all actors,” he continued. “Ms. Davis’ implications are completely contrary to who I am personally and professionally.”
Davis is no longer at CBS, and after 13 years of keeping (publicly) silent about the culture of bias and harassment at the company, she says she now feels empowered to create “meaningful dialogue and change.”
“It’s just not enough to open doors to diverse, talented candidates,” she wrote. “We need to be respected, promoted and compensated on the same level as our white peers.”