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Former CBS Employee Whitney Davis Calls out the Racial and Sexual Harassment She Allegedly Faced Within the Company

The CBS logo is seen at the CBS Building, headquarters of the CBS Corporation, in New York City on August 6, 2018. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)

Whitney Davis, in a powerful and emotional letter for Variety, breaks down the race and gender harassment and discrimination she allegedly experienced at CBS over her years there, as well as the treatment of other people of color.

Davis explains that she felt prompted to discuss this after the CBS investigation that came about due to the harassment claims against the studio’s former CEO Leslie Moonves. During the investigation, she gave what she describes as a “heart-wrenching two-hour interview” with six attorneys from both independent firms who were sent in to investigate the company. She claims that she talked about “workplace fraught with systemic racism, discrimination and sexual harassment,” expecting there to be a follow-up. However, she heard nothing until she saw that their report had been leaked. She then called the CBS investigation hotline which told her that the inquiry was closed.

“It was then that I realized what I had long tried to ignore,” Davis writes. “CBS has a white problem.” Davis brings up the fact that there is not a single Black creative executive working at CBS Television Network or CBS Television Studios and that of the network’s 36 creative executives there are only three women of color, none of whom are Black. “There is not one executive of color working in casting at CBS,” she says. “The one Latinx executive hired in casting last year lasted eight months. He works at Netflix now.”

Davis then breaks down the experiences she faced during her many years at CBS, starting off at “CBS Evening News,” when she was a 23-year-old college journalism graduate. She had a co-worker share some “family lore” which included: “My dad has f—ed black women, and he loved it.”  Although horrified, Davis kept quiet about the culture because she didn’t want to risk ruining her career opportunities by being labeled difficult for complaining.

Other things she swallowed for the sake of upward mobility? Having herself, and the only other Black woman working on the broadcast get called “We-Dra — short for Whitney and Deidra.”

“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,” said Davis. “I don’t think most people understand just how demeaning these daily micro-aggressions are. Or maybe they do and don’t care.”

As someone who this has happened to when I frequented predominantly white institutions, it was not only frustrating but offensive when you realize that your blackness is the only basis for that confusion.

Davis claims that a “CBS Evening News” senior producer always wanted to touch her hair while sharing an inappropriate sexual joke. But she again kept her mouth closed because she wanted to make it. Three years after starting, in 2009, she was one of three journalists hired into the newly formed digital-journalist unit.

She claims that one day Bill Felling, who was the national editor, asked her two white male colleagues if they could travel to cover a story, but ever once looked to Davis a possible option.

“I had already successfully covered important stories including Michael Jackson’s funeral, the Bernie Madoff scandal and several other high-profile news events. Summoning courage, I marched over to his office and told him that I was able to travel to shoot the piece. He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘I’’m not going to waste the company’s money for you to go there and fail.'”

In late 2009, a white female co-worker used the N-word in front of Davis and she went to speak with 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?” This right here is exactly why people do not often speak with HR officials about these issues. The environment around them doesn’t make them believe their voices are wanted. When you are told to get thicker skin about someone saying a slur around you there is something rotten in Denmark.

From December 2011 through December 2013, Davis worked with execs in casting, drama development, daytime, current programming, and marketing and was the only Black person and often the only person of color. “Nothing had prepared me for the lack of diversity I encountered in the entertainment division,” she explains. “In fact, there was not one black creative executive at the network. Today, the only black female executive at CBS Entertainment oversees diversity and inclusion.”

This would also mean that actors and performers were losing opportunities because the people who were in charge of casting did not feel like they could bank on non-white talent.

“I sat in meetings where Peter Golden, the head of network casting and talent, flipped through headshots of minority actors, commenting that they weren’t good enough while suggesting white actors who’d be a better fit. 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.

It is my opinion that Peter Golden doesn’t find minority performers to be as talented as white actors. He continues to reject the outstanding talent from the showcase because they aren’t good enough, they’re too green or they aren’t “right” for CBS.”

She mentions an occasion when they were looking for screen tests, and then-CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller said none of 12-non white actors “popped” and so none of them were offered deal. One of the participants, KiKi Layne, who two years later became the star of Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk and has slowly become a rising star. So apparently there was so pop to be had.

It has taken so long for Davis to harness the courage to speak the truth about her experiences because there is usually a dismissal of these sorts of behaviors and people asking “well why didn’t you leave before?” Because it’s CBS, one of the biggest networks in the country and if you want a career in a field you love sometimes you eat dirt. You eat it because you want to survive and hope things will change. It is sad that even in this piece, Davis has to clarify she isn’t an “angry Black woman.”

There is nothing angry about Davis’s piece. Yes, she’s mad and taking charge, but what this letter is is a call out. It’s a call out from someone who worked 13-years at CBS saying this is what they’ve experienced and flashing a light on the opportunities that are lost for people of color, when the people who decide their fates are rooms filled with all or majority white men.

“I don’t want other young girls and boys to encounter similar roadblocks in corporate America,” she writes. “They deserve a better world. I’m speaking out to encourage other black, Latinx, native, API, disabled or LGBTQ workers to know that we don’t have to tolerate what is intolerable.”

In response to Davis’ letter Glenn Geller, Peter Golden, and a CBS spokesperson provided statements to Variety.

From Glenn Geller:

“I have personally been a champion of diversity at CBS, both in front of and behind the camera. For well over a decade, I worked closely with both the writers program and the Directing Initiative. But I am most proud of my involvement with the Drama Diversity Casting Initiative. I conceived, spearheaded and shepherded the program, and was intimately involved every step of the way — from helping choose audition sides to set visits during the actors’ screen tests. For the record, I wanted to make deals with several actors. Ultimately, everyone has a boss who has the final word, and I was no exception.”

From Peter Golden:

“The claims and innuendos made about me by Ms. Davis are categorically untrue. Approximately eight years ago, Ms. Davis was a trainee in my department for the customary three- to -four-month period provided under CBS’ management training program. 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. In addition, and contrary to her assertions, the Comedy Diversity Showcase has resulted in numerous guest and series regular roles on CBS shows for the participants. Throughout my career in casting, I have always been a vigorous advocate for all actors. Ms. Davis’ implications are completely contrary to who I am personally and professionally.”

CBS spokesperson:

“During her time at CBS, Whitney was a valued team member of the News and Entertainment divisions. She was selected for a management-training program, promoted several times, and was given high-profile assignments. While we disagree with some statements in Whitney’s story, we take all employee concerns seriously and remain committed to improving the workplace experience for everyone.

“CBS leadership has made strengthening our culture a top priority. Over the past several months, we have announced plans to devote considerable resources to critical areas such as ethics, compliance, diversity and inclusion, and human resources, including creating a centralized employee relations function to respond to workplace issues. Employees are CBS’ most important resource, and providing them with a safe, fair, inclusive and positive work environment is paramount to our continued success.”

Highly recommend reading the entire piece. It’s important.

(via Variety, image: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.