Since the premiere of Grey's Anatomy on ABC more than a decade ago, creator Shonda Rhimes has been lauded for putting together a cast that actually resembles the world in which we live, at least in terms of racial diversity.
At a BuzzFeed Brews with Facebook Live event in Hollywood on Wednesday, the star of Grey's Anatomy, Ellen Pompeo, sat beside the actresses who lead Rhimes' other ABC dramas — Kerry Washington of the hugely popular Scandal and Viola Davis of the upcoming How to Get Away With Murder — and was asked about what it's been like to be a part of the shift away from all-white television casts.
"It's been incredible to be a part of the change in television," Pompeo said, admitting she was nervous to answer the question. "This has been an incredible ride and thank god that Shonda Rhimes had this agenda to make television look like life, to make it look like the real world. And finally, the networks, who are operating on a completely archaic system, once something succeeds and makes money, [they realize], Oh, what a brilliant idea that is. Let's give a black woman a job. Because there's no black women in the world, so why would you ever think of that before?" she questioned angrily and sarcastically. "All of sudden, Oh, black women can make money, too? Oh. OK. Well, let's fill up the screen. It's such an outdated, archaic system. Thank god for Shonda Rhimes, because, you know, without her wisdom and wit and creativity behind it, giving it the right stage, they just don't see it."
Pompeo went on to thank Washington for her part in making sure people watched the show that really pushed the boundaries that much further, Rhimes' follow-up ABC series, Scandal. "Thank god for Kerry because Kerry was so instrumental in making Scandal what it is… It was really Kerry's whole political side that she pushed that through and she made people watch and she made people pay attention and she was like, 'Everyone is going to see this show,'" Pompeo said passionately. "She took a real leadership role. That is not always easily done… And it worked so brilliantly."
When asked what she imagines it's like for people of color to finally see themselves represented on screen, Pompeo began to get emotional. "I'm so, so often embarrassed, you know. As a white person, I'm so embarrassed. You know, we have a lot to be shameful for," she said, tearing up. "And we can only hope and do everything we can and continue to make strides, because we've done a tremendous amount of damage to people and I've seen it firsthand. We're going to be paying this debt off forever as far as I'm concerned. There's no amount of retribution that's enough in my eyes."
The actress also noted that Asian, Latino, and Indian people are still underrepresented on television, pointing out that there are many Indian and Pakistani doctors at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, but that we don't see them on screen. "There are other groups that we need to represent," she said. "We are not finished by any means."
Davis went on to point out that Rhimes isn't trying to set or meet a quota when it comes to her racially diverse casts. "She doesn't set out to say, 'I want a certain number of black people in the cast, and a certain number of Hispanics.' She just goes out and she finds the actors," the actress said. "And it's interesting that you have a number of directors and showrunners out there who just have all Caucasian casts. Now, they see color. They may not tell you. And you know why they won't tell you? Because you won't put them to task. ... So they will continue doing what they're doing and they're the ones who really need to be pushed in that direction. Shonda doesn't have the problem."
Pompeo added that she struggles with the word "diversity" itself. "I'd love to sort of take the term diversity and bring it into the next century to no longer just include race. Because let's just get past diversity being a couple of black people in a show. Diversity is political differences, handicaps," she said. "Sexual orientation, religion, age, gender," Washington added. "The word diversity, honestly, I'd like to just throw it away," Pompeo said emphatically. "Because we're all diverse."
"Unfortunately, we can't yet," Washington said. "But how great it will be when we can," she added with a smile.