Minnesota Nice and the case of the tall white woman


Step 1: Be tall, beautiful and white. Step 2: (See step 1.)

Among industry insiders, the casting notice for a role on television is called a "breakdown." The term never seemed more fitting than earlier this month, when a prospective TV show called Minnesota Nice posted a very specific casting call for its female co-host.

The show would highlight "nicer restaurants, nicer personal products, and nicer fashion." To present all this niceness, the casting appeal sought a certain kind of woman.

She'd have no visible tattoos. She would be 5-foot-8 or above, to pair with the 6-foot-4 male co-host. She would match the show's target audience — specifically, viewers outside the "urban" core of the Twin Cities, according to a producer's description.

Translation: They needed a white lady.

The call for a "Caucasian" host was met with ridicule and howls of racism. "Terribly sorry that an inch of height and some tattoos will keep me from this VERY exciting white lady job opportunity," tweeted Anna Merlan, a writer for feminist blog Jezebel.

Suddenly, it looked like the show might get killed before it even auditioned its leading ladies.


The casting call said it would appear on Fox 9. As the controversy ramped up, a national Fox spokeswoman said the show would not, in fact, be broadcast on the local station. She also distanced Fox from the scandal, saying the network had nothing to do with the production, or the demand for a towering, tattoo-free white host.

Talk about a breakdown.

People involved say the controversy is overblown, unfair, and risked losing jobs for 10 crew members, not to mention the show's low-melanin stars.

They're angry. They blame one person for this mess. Me.

A story I wrote for citypages.com, highlighting the race requirement, brought the co-host call out of the safe space of an intra-industry Facebook post to a wider audience. Thus unleashed, the ever-baying hounds of online outrage did what they do.

The show's producer, Brock Dombrovski, felt teeth at his heels and scurried. He later told me that the show was changing course, and might actually be looking for a black woman. Then he changed tone once more, saying the next guy I heard from would be his lawyer.

Others argued that some people — like me and the bloodhounds of online justice — just didn't understand the entertainment biz. We naïve rubes wouldn't make it five minutes in New York or L.A. After all, this is how casting works. The wizards of television and movies tailor their productions to fit an artistic vision and find an audience.

They're not wrong. And that's the problem. This casting plea was racism in the black, white, and blue of a Facebook post, since deleted. Even more troublesome was the inches-high bar for entry: Previous television experience was "preferred." Whiteness was mandatory.

For better or worse — worse, probably — a culture infers its identity from who it makes famous. Non-whites can cross over to the mainstream, but only the most exceptional. Acknowledging that LeBron James, Beyoncé, or Chris Rock belong on network television is like recognizing that a meteorite has landed on your forehead.

Only when black hacks can make it as easily as their talentless, beautiful white counterparts — only then will we be loosed of our racist past.

Representation matters, especially to little kids. Robyne Robinson, former Fox 9 news anchor, always wanted to be on TV. This made her like a lot of little girls. Unlike the white ones, she only saw a few kinds of black women on the screen. They sang, and danced, and did little else.

It wasn't until she discovered black broadcasters like Carole Simpson, the first black woman on a national news desk, that Robinson could imagine herself onscreen. If a black woman like Simpson could give the news to white people, she could too.

"Those [broadcasters] were women I thought were remarkable," Robinson says. "They weren't singing, dancing, or showing off their bodies. They knew a lot about many different issues, about current events, and politics."

Even when Robinson became that woman, she was pushing against the soft bigotry of low expectations. When she went on assignment, some subjects started talking to the camera guy, assuming he was the newsman, and she was his assistant.

Knowledge, even competence wasn't what Minnesota Nice wanted. It was a lifestyle show for middle- and upper-income viewers. It sought a pretty woman to fawn over fancy products available for purchase in this great state. It needed a Vanna White, a girl-next-door type who smiled warmly as soon as the red light went on. Someone viewers could identify with.

Before cutting off communication, Dombrovski told me he wasn't sure small-town Minnesota was ready for a non-white personality in their living room.

But it's hard to imagine consumers so bigoted that their television time skipped past the era when millions woke up to Bryant Gumbel on The Today Show, and Oprah Winfrey became an industry unto herself. If those people are out there, their televisions are so old and their eyesight so poor they probably cannot tell the races apart.

I don't have anything against white women above 5-foot-8. I live with one. But people like her don't need any favors getting in front of a camera.

What's wrong is when this kind of screening is done within the industry, baked into television's recipe. A few white guys gather around a long table, a combined $5,000 worth of shoes under the table. They order in Thai food and chat about which race viewers are most likely to believe when it comes to designer bathroom scents.

The decisions they make rule our television, and our culture. It's time we shift the spotlight so it shines on them. 

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