Blog Post

D&I Lessons from Viola Davis’s Emmy Win

October 20, 2015
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Viola Davis accepts her historic Best Actress Emmy

Viola Davis and Nancy Grahn have quite a bit in common. They are both talented actresses, both in their fifties, both on ABC and both on top-rated shows. So on September 20, 2015 when Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama, it would stand to reason that her ”teammate” would celebrate her victory and the company’s win.

But instead, Davis’ historic win wasn’t celebrated, but rather somewhat eclipsed by Grahn’s public criticism of her acceptance speech. On Twitter, Grahn of “General Hospital” tweeted, that the Emmys was “not the venue 4 racial opportunity.” She also went on to assert that, “She (Viola Davis) has never been discriminated against,” as she is the “elite of TV performers.” She even went so far as to say that she should have let Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Davis’s hit show, “How To Get Away With Murder” write her speech.

Grahn was immediately, “schooled” as she puts it by other Twitter followers. Initially, I crafted my own “put Nancy in her place” tweet. But gosh darn that 140 character limit really put a cramp in my rant.

But as I thought about how I would coach my ERG leaders and D&I executives, my perspective changed and even though I don’t like her comments, I understand that true diversity exists when we can share differing opinions and still feel included and safe. Our organization’s success and potential for growth is directly related to our emotional intelligence, which includes the ability to understand our emotions, while moving forward towards agreement or at the very least respectful disagreement with our team.

The speech, which sparked the controversy, began with a quote by abolitionist Harriet Tubman and ended with Davis stating that, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” I thought it to be both inclusive and inspiring. Grahn’s stance, however, is a representation of the larger problem we are experiencing as a nation—allowing our unconscious biases to cloud our thinking and responses.

Activating Your EQ: Looking at the situations with the emotional intelligence (EQ) of a coaching perspective, here are some things we can learn to do when discussing topics that elicit a strong emotional reaction in our personal and professional lives:

1. Stick to facts. Sometimes, numbers don’t lie. Ms. Davis is the first African-American actress out of sixty-six other actresses to win in the Outstanding Lead Actress category. Grahn was peeved, because “ALL” women are belittled in Hollywood. But she forgot that all discrimination is not equal. The fact is Ms. Davis has been discriminated against within a larger group of people who experience discrimination as well. We can’t just care when “our group” is the target. Rather than focusing on dismantling an argument, we have to first focus on understanding and making sure we have an informed perspective.

2. See the bigger picture. Davis’ win was ABC’s win and as an ABC employee, one for Grahn as well. However, her personal feelings caused her to miss the opportunity to celebrate a team victory and her actions could have possibly been polarizing. Bigger picture thinking helps us to properly process and position our emotions. It doesn’t mean we don’t speak our minds, it just helps us to be more mindful of how and in what context we communicate.

3. Everyone has a story. Their story matters. Despite acknowledging that all women experience discrimination in Hollywood, Grahn actually asserted that because Davis has a great role on a top-rated series that she has never been discriminated against. It’s possible she didn’t mean that, but it made her argument easier in the moment. The problem is that discrimination against Ms. Davis has been obvious since she landed her Emmy winning role. She’s endured articles about her complexion and hair texture and not being a “classic” beauty in the Grace Kelly, even Lena Horne tradition. Grahn may have some valid points to her perspective, but the way to get them across isn’t through dismissal of truth or others feelings, just because their inconvenient.

4. There is a time and place for difficult discussions. Grahn’s viewpoint matters and she had her fair share of supporters. However, speaking on the night history was made and in a public forum, might not have been the best time to, or platform for, her thoughts. Ill-timed and placed speaking caused many to simply reduce her to being a “hater.” In a moment where she could have been supportive and formed an alliance, she alienated some key people.

5. A different perspective doesn’t always require a label. Based on her Twitter rant, Nancy Grahn has been labeled a racist, amongst other things. I think it is unfair to lift an unfavorable moment (within context and reason of course) out of anyone’s life and let it cast a shadow over their entire character and contribution. We all have those moments…some of us just didn’t have them publically.

Our “ists” and “isms” are not always representative of a heart condition, but rather a perspective or thought process. Putting good people in a box simply because they don’t see things the way we do, or they haven’t been exposed to something different, hurts us all.

Yes, there are racists, misogynists, homophobes and sexists. To me, these people are willing to deny the humanity and potential of another person. But, more often than not, there are people who, like us, are still on a learning curve and just need to develop the skill to listen, question, discuss and learn.

If we remember that we’re all on the journey together, we can work through the emotions and share the insights that will help most of us be better for the team! Together, we can create some real historic wins in life and business.

About Coach Felicia Scott:

Coach Felicia was selected from over a 1,000 speakers, to become eWomenNetwork’s first “North America’s Next Greatest Speaker.” Touted as one of “today’s leading motivational speakers,” the Certified Empowerment Coach™ and bestselling author of THRIVE! designs, executes and administers emotional intelligence-based coaching and training programs that teach executives, business leaders and professionals how to optimize their performance.

In her ten-plus years working with Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric, JPMorgan Chase, Time, Inc., Pearson Education and others she has worked with HR executives, D&I, and ERG leaders to craft and execute results-driven diversity and development programs that drive retention, career progression, inclusion, leadership development, and ultimately bottom-line results. You can reach her at [email protected].