Former lawyer April Reign is the creator of 2015’s famous #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. She launched the hashtag to highlight the lack of diversity on the nominee list that year.
Since then, Reign has gone on to pursue what she describes as her calling: She uses her voice and her strategic thinking on Twitter to ignite dialogue and explore issues of race, politics and culture — and challenge the lack of representation of marginalized communities in Hollywood and beyond.
She was involved in creating the #NoConfederate hashtag in 2017, as well. She is also the spokesperson for the Keep Birth Control Copay Free campaign.
Remind people what the public reaction was to #OscarsSoWhite, and then tell us what the reaction was to you once the hashtags went viral?
The initial reaction to the hashtag was as snarky as my initial tweet was. I said, “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” People responded to that after seeing the nominees for themselves and said things like “#OscarsSoWhite they wear sandals in the wintertime” or “#OscarsSoWhite you can't trust their potato salad.”
It went on like that for quite some time, and it wasn't until a few days later that the conversation shifted to something much more serious. Then, I had to decide if I was going to be the spokesperson or face of this thing; this campaign — which I wasn't even sure what it was becoming.
But I also had to get up to speed very quickly because people were asking me not only what the hashtag meant, [they were] asking me more about the issues of diversity and inclusion with respect to the Oscars, initially, and then the entertainment industry.
However, #OscarsSoWhite was not the first viral hashtag for me. The first that I can think of, I think, was the year before, which was #StopTheFight. At that time, Trayvon Martin's killer was scheduled to fight the rapper DMX. It was supposed to be a charity bout, and the money was going to go to the Trayvon Martin family — but they wanted nothing to do with it.
I just thought it was a bad idea on many levels, and so I created the #StopTheFight campaign. People got behind it. I worked with a woman who started an online petition, which got thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of votes or signatures. And then, eventually, the boxing promoter called me directly and we had a conversation, a fruitful conversation, and a couple of days later he did, in fact, stop the fight.
What is it about the social media space that really resonates with you?
The immediacy and the intelligence that you can have often — not always, for sure — with folks, and the reach that one has. I know that I can speak to someone halfway across the world about issues that affect them, that affect me, that affect us as global citizens.
People are still talking about #OscarsSoWhite — the Grammy Awards is celebrating the diversity of its latest crop of nominees. What has been the long-term impact?
Not only do we see people using #OscarsSoWhite, the “so white” or the “so-something” has become a catchphrase of its own, which is great. But, with respect to the changes that we've seen in the entertainment industry, the fact that we're still talking about diversity and inclusion three years later, not just with respect to the Oscars, is great, but it doesn't interest me as much as seeing the systemic change, which is all my goal.
For the last two years now, the academy has invited its largest and most diverse class ever. It is moving the needle with respect to who actually gets to vote on the awards each year. The academy, through President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, also committed to doubling the number of women and the number of people of color by the year 2020.
The BAFTAs (the UK's equivalent of the Oscars) now have two new awards for which nominees cannot even receive a nomination unless they can prove diversity within either their cast or crew. That didn't exist two years ago. The fact that there are now fellowships and programs and specific studios [that] are actively seeking more diverse casts and crew is equally important to me.
You know, it's not just the faces that we moviegoers see on the screen. It's also who is telling the story.
I think that we are very slowly seeing some incremental changes to a more inclusive industry. But, at the same time, I get pushback a lot [when people say] "Moonlight" won in 2016, so clearly, we're post-racial now like when Obama won the presidency, [so] #OscarsSoWhite is done.
That's not true for many reasons. But one of the chief reasons is the fact that #OscarsSoWhite is not binary. It's not just about getting more black people on film. It's also about all marginalized communities. Why is it that in 2017, we still haven't had a rom-com with an LGBTQIA couple?
Why is it that we have Professor Xavier (a disabled superhero) played by the amazing Sir Patrick Stewart, but we have never had a disabled person playing a superhero, either disabled or otherwise? So, there's still a lot more work to be done.
Your work doesn't just center around race. You're now working on a campaign called Keep Birth Control Copay Free. Tell us about this project.
I am the national spokesperson for the Keep Birth Control Copay Free campaign, which is a multimedia platform that looks to educate and inform women, and all people, about the changes that the Trump administration is making.
In 2012, President Obama made birth control part of the Affordable Care Act and made it a preventative health care. That meant that the copays were free. In October of this year, Trump changed that so that insurance companies, employers and universities can now require women to pay for their birth control based on what they call a moral or religious right — and I'm using my air quotes there.
One of the issues is that it disproportionally affects black and brown women who may have less access to health care, overall. But it also really affects college-age women. Because, if this has been going on since 2012, and millions of women have come into their reproductive age under President Obama, they may have never had to think about copays [until] now.
In fact, [the copays] can be as expensive as an entire semester of books. Young women should not have to choose between their birth control and whether and how and if they start a family and going to school the following semester.
This is obviously a health issue, and it's not just a women's issue because if you are a man whose partner no longer had access to birth control and she gets pregnant because of one of your encounters, you've got unscheduled child support the next 18 years or you are now a co-parent for the rest of your life.
In an ideal world and if money was not an issue, what kind of programming would you like to see? It can be in any form of media — and dream big.
It would be inclusive. It would be that kids in middle America … that Native American kids … that my children … that all children who consume media at enormous rates every day can see themselves — not just during award season. So that they feel that they are represented in media. That goes for stage and TV and film, and it also goes to books.
There's a hashtag, which I did not start, called #WeNeedDiverseBooks, right? Kids need to be able to see their faces on the front book jackets. I want to see a world ... if money was no object — and I don't even think that this is a money issue, to be honest with you; I think that this is an implicit bias issue — but I would want to see more inclusion in front of and behind the camera.
And that has to start from the top.
Check back here over the next few weeks to read other interviews in our series, "The Media Disruptors," with:
Ilia Calderon (March 1)
Joanelle Romero (March 8)
Nancy Wang Yuen (March 15)
Christabel Nsiah-Buadi is the creator and Editor of “The Media Disruptors” and a public media producer. She also writes about the media, culture and politics. You can follow her on Twitter: @msama.