What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business

“I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way.” — Chloe Jade Skye

A note from KO Insights CEO Kate O’Neill:
As many of you know, I was an early employee of Netflix, and I have proudly shared stories witnessed firsthand from my time there as examples of strong leadership. But with greater scale comes greater influence, and the discourse of the past few weeks demonstrates how important it is to get that influence right when leading.

A recurring theme in my work is the importance of building inclusive experiences, and creating the best futures for the most people. I’ve also talked about how important it is, during times when a population is harmed by leadership decisions, to listen to people who are directly affected. Moreover, as a bi woman whose own activism has long been intertwined with the trans community, it’s important to me to center the voices of trans people when issues arise that relate to harm.

So with the heat of the immediate news coverage a bit cooled, to help us navigate this discussion with insight and respect, I sought the help of our new team member, Experience Manager Jupiter F. Stone (look for their introduction coming soon!) who brought in today’s guest writer: Chloe Jade Skye. Chloe is a trans woman who follows stand-up comedy pretty closely (having done some herself) — in fact, she had already written an article about this on her blog a few weeks ago. I’m grateful that she shared with us her view on this topic in a way that ties into the KO Insights approach to humanity in tech and business.

What the Netflix/Chappelle Scandal Can Teach Us About Humanity in Tech and Business

by Chloe Jade Skye

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the Netflix employee walkout over CEO Ted Sarandos’s handling of the latest Dave Chappelle special, ‘The Closer’. Unless you’ve avoided the Internet or been living under a rock, you probably saw the words, “I screwed up” quoted somewhere, in a headline or tweet, attributed to Sarandos. But that part of the quote, to me, isn’t as interesting as what followed, a.k.a. the reason he screwed up.

“I should have led with more humanity…I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made…[and] I didn’t do that.” The humanity lacking in those internal emails, according to Sarandos, was his statement that on-screen content does not equate to real-world harm. He walked this back in a later interview with Variety, acknowledging that creating real-world change is the reason Netflix exists, and the reason creators and storytellers do what they do.

My question is this: If humanity was missing in internal memos distributed within the company before the launch of a new product, is it not also possible that humanity was missing in the decision-making that went into creating the content in the first place? I find it hard to believe that humanity just happened to slip the minds of the chief decision makers in the final stage of content distribution.

I’ve watched the special, so I can say with certainty that humanity was at the very least not Dave Chappelle’s chief concern. I strongly disagree with Sarandos, and apparently the rest of the Netflix executives, that ‘The Closer’ does not incite hate or violence. I’m speaking as a trans person when I say that even just in the room with Dave during the special, I saw the exact type of hatred that I encounter in my day-to-day life receive standing ovations.

At one point, Chappelle jokes about beating up a woman (because he thought she was a man), and the line “I smacked the toxic masculinity out of that b*tch” receives uproarious applause. He also echoes some of the most harmful rhetoric of the anti-trans movements, going so far as to proclaim himself “team TERF” (TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a term created by the trans community to refer to the cis women fighting to take away rights from trans children). This line also received a plethora of clap-ter.

But I’m not here to debate whether or not the special does harm. That has been been written about at length by far better-known writers than me. Besides, even if I managed to convince you, it wouldn’t change a single thing about the inner workings at Netflix. So, what am I here to do?

I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way. For what it’s worth, Sarandos has already stated that he is “committed to continuing to increase representation on screen and behind the camera,” and has explained that Netflix has a fund set aside for “specifically trans and non-binary content” (this Creative Equity Fund does invest in generating trans content, but that is currently a small slice of the fund overall).

“I want to talk about solutions. I want to talk about how major companies like Netflix can put their money where their mouth is, and lean into humanity in a big, bold way.”

Committing to more diversity and inclusivity on screen is laudable, but doesn’t do anything to prevent further mishaps regarding content that trans and non-binary creators aren’t directly involved with. If a platform invests money into a show celebrating trans people, and simultaneously invests money into a show denigrating those same people, I don’t believe that constitutes “leaning into humanity.” I’d call that “playing both sides,” and what the LGBTQ+ community actually needs is for the company to understand that just because something doesn’t explicitly call for harm doesn’t mean it isn’t causing any.

Someone who is not a member of a marginalized group has no right to make decisions about what does or does not constitute hate-speech against that group. Sarandos, a White, Cis-gender, heterosexual male, does not get to decide whether or not Chappelle’s words cause harm to the LGBTQ+ community at large. Now, I know the decision that ‘The Closer’ is not harmful was not his alone. I don’t have access to a list of all the Netflix executives involved in that decision, but I’m willing to bet there weren’t a lot of members of the queer community seated at the table.

So how do we fix this? How can a giant corporation like Netflix actually emphasize humanity in their decisions and content generation? Rather than come up with my own list, I’m going to use the one put forth by a think tank of trans employees at the company, publicized as a “list of demands,” but that I think is better described as an instruction manual for inclusivity.

Adopt measures to avoid future platforming of transphobia and hate speech. Create a new fund specifically for trans and non-binary talent, both above and below the line. Revise internal processes on commissioning and releasing potentially harmful content, including parties who are part of the subject community. Hire trans content executives, especially BIPOC. Recruit trans people for leadership roles in the company. Allow employees to remove themselves from promotional content. Eliminate posters and murals of transphobic content within the workplace. Add a disclaimer before titles that flag transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Boost promotion for trans affirming titles already on the platform. Suggest trans affirming content alongside content flagged as anti-trans.

That isn’t everything, but I paraphrased the key points. Although some of the suggestions apply specifically to Netflix, there’s something on the list that could benefit a CEO at any corporation. Diversity and inclusion does not just mean featuring POC or members of the LGBTQ community in advertisements or content—it means bringing them to the table in positions of power so that we can help ensure, from the top down, that your company’s actions align with your stated values.

I’ll end with an example of this being done right. When it was brought to the attention of John Landgraf, Chairman of the FX network, that 85% of the directors of FX content were Cis White males, he decided to make a change. He made a list of female directors and directors of color and actively sent that list to every producer of every one of their shows, recommending they hire someone from the list. In 2021, only 37% of FX shows were directed by Cis White men, with the remaining 63% made up of diverse and/or female directors. And according to Landgraf, “the quality of work we got from this new crop of directors was actually superior.”

Thank you, Netflix, for making ‘humanity’ a buzzworthy word these past few weeks. We have a long way to go before we achieve it, but it is certainly something worth striving for. I, and many others, will be watching.


Chloe Skye is a trans woman currently living in Los Angeles. She writes, podcasts, and, in her words, thinks too much. You can check out her podcast about women in history, Broads You Should Know, her film review podcast, Modern Eyes with Skye and Stone, or her TV review podcast, Skye & Stone do Television!

COP26 and why it matters to you

Have you been hearing references to #COP26 but not sure what it is or why it matters to you or anyone else?

When I was asked to come to Madrid in December 2019 to lead a panel discussion at COP25 with bright thinkers from around the world on how we can use emerging technology to fight climate change? Well, it was genuinely one of the highlights of my life.

Why did it matter so much to me? And why does the COP26 climate change conference happening in Glasgow this year matter to you? Here’s a brief guide.

Leading a panel at COP25 was a highlight of my life

What is it?

First of all, let’s define our terms: COP stands for Conference of the Parties. That doesn’t help much, does it? OK, I’ll do better. It’s a summit of leaders from around the world focused on climate change. The first COP took place in Berlin in 1995 and this year Glasgow will be hosting the 26th COP.

When is it?

From the 31st of October to the 12th of November. Some of that time is programming that’s just for top officials and delegates; some of the days feature broader programming. (Like that panel I led. If you’ve ever been to a really large expo with overwhelming exhibitor floor space, this is not unlike that. Only the exhibitors are countries, and the events taking place in the auditoriums and meeting spaces are filled with people shaping relevant discussions and decisions for governments, big organizations, big companies, and so on.)

This was India’s booth at COP25 in the “Country Hall” which was basically an exhibitor floor filled with governments from nations around the world

Why does it matter?

The primary objective of the COP is to reach agreements between countries about commitments to reducing carbon emissions and other climate-related factors. There’s a big, big difference between what happens to life on this planet if average temperatures increase by 1.5° C or, say, 3°, 4°, or even more. Small though those increases sound, they mean considerable more devastation through extreme weather events, more loss of life, and more forced migration from areas that will no longer be able to support human — or much other — life.

As a result of the need for decisions around these issues, there will almost certainly be pushes for new legislation in many countries, so no matter where you are on the planet, you’ll be affected. If you’re concerned, as I am, that most countries aren’t doing enough to contend with this massive climate emergency, then you’ll want to see aggressive and urgent action by participating countries.

What can we do to make a difference?

While we may feel like the events happening in Glasgow have no bearing on our lives in the immediate sense, the circumstances of the climate emergency are growing so urgent that we should challenge ourselves to follow along as best we can. The brighter future requires us to commit our attention and energy to understanding the challenge, making personal changes where possible, and applying pressure on companies and governments to make broader, more impactful changes in policy and practice. Perhaps you can use COP26 as a reminder to send emails or make calls to elected officials, company leaders, and other influential people who can affect wide-reaching change for the better.

As I wrote in A Future So Bright, “It won’t be sufficient to put all our energy into eliminating or cutting emissions based on what we’ve normalized today; we need true progress, and that’s going to take our best, most innovative, most forward-looking efforts.”

(You can read more, by the way, about what’s needed in A Future So Bright.)

Where can I read more about COP26?

Here are some additional overviews and guides to understanding COP26 and climate change overall:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/10/1104142

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56901261

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/11/what-is-cop26-and-why-does-it-matter-the-complete-guide

https://racetozero.unfccc.int/heres-why-cop26-concerns-all-of-us/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/28/cop26-what-at-stake-climate-summit

Online presence data as human rights risk

Have you ever had to delete parts or all of your online presence because you feared for your life? This story has been on my mind since I read this:

“USAID, the United States’s humanitarian arm, purportedly sent an email over the weekend to partners asking them to go through their social media accounts and websites with a fine-toothed comb to ‘remove photos and information that could make individuals or groups vulnerable’. USAID also advised partners still operating in Afghanistan to delete and wipe any personal identifying information of those they’d worked with on the ground, in case it fell into the wrong hands.”

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/afghanistan-social-media-delete

Are there lessons we can take from this story about data privacy architecture and such? Probably, and out of fairness to these and potentially the next humans who will go through this we should absolutely work through that discussion and create better solutions. For reasons far less grave but still important, we have long needed to re-think the opportunities we have to control where our data goes, who has access to it, and how we can pull it back or lock it down when we need to.

But I don’t want the vastness of that conversation to overshadow the very real experiences people are living through right now. So in the meantime this is just a placeholder of compassion for human beings dealing with an imminent existential threat that is complicated even further by the latticework of digital experiences and data most of us take for granted.

Here’s wishing safety and peace to those who desperately need it.

Thinking today for tomorrow

Reading today both that Sumatran rhinos are extinct in Malaysia (only 80 of the species are left in Indonesia now) largely due to poaching for their horns, and that koalas are in ever-greater danger (even if they may not be “functionally extinct” as a few now-viral articles have claimed) due to habitat loss from the bushfires which are worsening likely due to human effects on climate. There are untold consequences of human effects for humans everywhere too, of course, but the suffering of animals tugs especially at my heart.

Today seems like a good day to do some deep thinking about both the big, bold actions and incremental choices we need to make to leave the world better off from here, not exponentially worse off.

Is there a small step you can make? Is there a big action you can take, and/or that we can take together? I invite you to join me in considering these questions today.

Algorithmic Lookalikes

I’m back visiting my old home town of Nashville for a few days, and had a super-fun breakfast conversation with Mary Laura Philpott this morning during which she mentioned that she sometimes gets automatically tagged in photos as Nashville mayor Megan Barry. The two bear a passing resemblance but not enough that you’d probably think to comment on it. She also mentioned that she has occasionally heard that she looks like Reese Witherspoon (although she never hears that in Nashville — Witherspoon’s home town).

I also used to hear all the time that I looked like Sandra Bullock, and the joke used to go that I could be her security double — the person who goes out the front door to throw off the fans and paparazzi so the actual star can sneak out the back door. (I’ve always wished I could be mistaken for Connie Britton just for the hair, but I don’t have the patience for hot rollers.)

Anyway, it occurred to me as Mary Laura and I were chatting that there’s a new kind of double: the facial recognition algorithm double. Facial recognition algorithms have become a routine part of our social media and personal photo library management, but they’re going to show up more and more in varied aspects of our lives, from surveillance to shopping. And the idea that you can “pass for” someone else — and that someone else could pass for you — is a tad troubling, isn’t it?

After all, there’s not much we can do about it, unless we have reconstructive surgery and hot-roll our hair and even then we might start getting tagged as Jocelyn Wildenstein or something, so we should probably just accept whatever Doppelgänger fate hands us and get on with life. The machines don’t know whether we’re the mayor of Nashville or the star of “Nashville” or just visiting Nashville.

Creativity and Change: The more things change, the more the timeless stuff matters

Snapchat pic in Shakespeare Garden with notebook and coffeeSitting in the Shakespeare Garden this morning, soaking up the sun and the homage to the Bard, I can’t help but think about the work of creativity, and its place in culture, and how that is subject to change over time, or not. Creative endeavors always bear the burden of every genius who came before. It’s as if the legacy is silently challenging the new to match its power. And already in biblical times there was “nothing new under the sun,” so attempting to put something new into the world can feel pointless.

Of course, one way of looking at it is that there legitimately are new developments — new technologies, new understandings of science and the nature of the universe — and that those might indeed give us something new to know, to study, to color our thinking, and it follows that we might have something new to write about, to sing about, to paint about.

But on the other hand, humanity is still humanity, and more to the point, a person is still a person, with all our famous failings and timeless shortcomings. In that sense, nothing at all has changed.

Recognizing those two ways of looking at the world leaves me feeling that the current emphasis of my work — how the new stuff, like tech and digital innovations and ubiquitous data collection — affects what is timeless about our understanding of what it is to be human, and how love happens in the world, and all about meaning, and purpose, and empathy. What it means to be a physical being in a world of virtual interactions and digitally projected aspirational selves. What the future may hold for us socially, culturally, and individually.

In a way, I’m sure it’s very much an of-the-moment question. And of course, abstracted from the specifics of technology, it’s no doubt the same question people have been asking for ages and will ask for all time.