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!

10 Fundamental Insights about the Tech-Driven Future for Humanity*

*and why women, POC, and other underrepresented people in tech should lead it

Today I spoke at the Irish Business Organization of New York’s women’s networking luncheon and addressed them on the tech-driven future for humanity, and why women should be leading it.

Tech Humanist front cover

Here are those insights in brief; if you’d like to hear more of this, of course, I elaborate on all of these points within my keynote presentations and my books.

  1. The tech-driven future will be neither dystopia nor utopia. It will be what we make it.
    We tend to tell a story about technology that pits the worst case scenario against the best case scenario — and conveniently leaves our actions and responsibilities out of the equation. But the truth is we are very much responsible for shaping the future of technology.
    Is it possible that tech can even help us be better humans? As I repeatedly asserted in Tech Humanist, with the emergence of automation, artificial intelligence, and other capacity-expanding tech, we will have the opportunity to create the best futures for the most people.
  2. Humans crave meaning.
    We just do. We seek meaning, we’re compelled by meaning; when you offer meaning to us, we can’t resist it. To bridge the gap between what makes tech better for business and better for humans, business needs to create more meaningful human experiences at scale.
    Moreover, the shape meaning takes in business is purpose, and the amazing thing about purpose is that when you can be clear about what you are trying to do at scale, it helps both humans and machines function more effectively. Humans thrive on a sense of meaning, common goals, and a sense of fulfilling something bigger. Machines thrive on succinct instructions. A clearly articulated sense of strategic purpose helps achieve both of these.
  3. Robots aren’t “coming.” They’re here.
    Everyone talks about robots coming 
like they’re some far-off future 
as if millions of homes don’t already have Roomba and Alexa.
  4. What tech does well vs. what humans do well will continuously evolve.
    What does tech do well, for now? Productivity: 
speed up laborious tasks, improve reliability of variable tasks, automate repetitive tasks, archive, index. Certain types of predictive insights: 
track data, expose patterns. Security: 
impose rules and limits, regulate access.
    What doesn’t tech do as well? Tech isn’t so hot at: 
Managing people. Making judgment calls. Fostering relationships. Discerning contextual nuance. (Yet.)
    Also, humans can’t leave meaning up to machines. That’s value humans add to the equation.
  5. Machines are what we encode of ourselves.
    And since that’s true, why not encode our best selves? Our most enlightened selves?
  6. Data-rich experiences tend to be better experiences. Just remember that analytics are people.
    Everyone loves the oft-quoted statistics about data: every 2 days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of time until 2003, and over 90% of all the data in the world was created in the past 2 years.
    And there are huge opportunities to use this data to make amazing, delightful, fulfilling, enriching human experiences possible.
    But what’s important in all of this is remembering that most of this data comes from humans, and represents human identity, preferences, motivations, desires, and so on. Most business data is about people. Analytics, in other words, are people. And while relevance is a form of respect, discretion is, too. So we need to treat human data with respect and protect it excessively, even as we use it to inform the design of more meaningful experiences.
  7. If you don’t align human experiences with meaning, you risk building absurdity at scale.
    There’s a story I tell (and it’s in the book) about a big retailer encoding a behavior change that, at some point, could put a cultural norm in jeopardy. And the upshot is: experience at scale changes culture. Because experience at scale is culture.
  8. “Online” and “offline” are blurrier than you may think.
    This is basically the whole premise of my previous book Pixels and Place, but the short version of this insight is: just about everywhere 
the physical world 
and the digital world converge, 
the connective layer is 
the data captured through 
human experience.
    And to create more meaningful human experiences, 
we need to design more 
integrated human experiences.
  9. Everything is in flux. Embrace change.
    70-80% of CEOs say the next three years are more critical than the past 50 years. The coming years, for example, are likely to see massive shifts in the scope and types of jobs humans do. Some companies will gain tremendous efficiencies from the use of automation; I propose that companies reinvest some of those gains 
into humanity in various ways: better customer experiences, job training, basic income experiments, etc. And that where possible, companies look to repurpose 
human skills and qualities toward higher value roles.
  10. Diversity in tech is a strategic asset. Scratch that: it’s an absolute imperative.
    We need women — 
and diversity of all kinds — 
in tech, 
leadership, and entrepreneurship for myriad reasons: because algorithms contain our biases, because it makes the space better for everyone, because we need diverse representations of the problems tech can solve, and on and on.

If these ideas and insights resonate with you, check out my book Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans. Or inquire about booking me to speak at your company or organization.

Here’s to a more meaningful future for all of us.