Master of None’: Cord Jefferson Talks Diversity, Writers Room and More

TV writer and former journalist Cord Jefferson photographed in downtown Los Angeles, May 14, 2017. Melissa Bunni Elian


It's the one word both President Trump and TV show writer Cord Jefferson use when talking about current events, but the last word that applies to Jefferson's trajectory since leaving the world of journalism for the entertainment industry three and a half years ago.

Over the weekend Netflix released the second season of Aziz Ansari's critically acclaimed romantic comedy series "Master of None," which Jefferson worked on as a writer and story editor. It's the latest addition to his growing list of writing credits which include "Survivor's Remorse," "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore," Vice News and NBC's "The Good Place."

NBCBLK sat down with Jefferson in downtown Los Angeles to talk race, changes in entertainment and how he's handling the rising tide of white supremacy.

TV writer and former journalist Cord Jefferson photographed in downtown Los Angeles, May 14, 2017. Melissa Bunni Elian

How has race played a role in your life? How did you come to understand it?

Something happens to me everyday that reminds me that I am Black. There's a James Baldwin quote — "Being white means never having to think about it."

Being a person of color forces you to think about things differently. You're thinking about your safety or if you're welcome in certain spaces. You're always considering your self and your body and whether your making people fearful. Being Black forces you to think deeply about so much in the United States and I think that being thoughtful about things is now such a deep part of who I am. It's really helped my writing to be honest.

I know that's something you talk about a lot.

Race? Yeah, absolutely. It was a natural extension in my career because I think about it all the time. So for me to go into journalism and going into writing and not writing about those things would have been so untrue to who I am as a human being and also I think in some ways the stuff that I would have written would have been unimportant. Solving this question of how people can exist with one another is... I mean if you solve that in the United States you can solve anything beyond that.

Related: #OscarsSoWhite: Hollywood Appears Poised to Avoid Repeat of Last Two Years

It's depressing to see people march with torches to the Robert E. Lee statue in Virginia. The thing that I am realizing and the thing that makes me sad I think is that those people were always there. I was just lulled into thinking that didn't exist anymore.

I heard you in 2011 on the Yo! Is that Racist? podcast where you were talking about the Victorian era and "Mad Men" and how that show brought a sense of nostalgia. You kind of called it.

[Seeing] a lot of white men latch on to that and feel excited about and almost nostalgic for that period in history was strange to me. They basically want white supremacy and they want everybody to shut their mouths. They think that's the last time America was great.

What's different about the talk that you hear now, is talk of a white ethno-state. Which is different from what the "Mad Men" era wanted. It feels like people that are nostalgic for the 50s and 60s — don't mind living with other races, just as long as they keep to themselves and they never threaten you financially or educationally, as long as black people know their place, where as what people seem to want now is just no black people at all which is ... I thought we were at a time in American history when that kind of thing wasn't going to be accepted as part of the normal political dialog.

TV writer and former journalist Cord Jefferson photographed in downtown Los Angeles, May 14, 2017. Melissa Bunni Elian

Were you ever afraid of being typecast as a writer?

Absolutely. When I first started writing for television I told my manager and my agent that if they ever only sent me out to write on Black shows that I would fire them. I like a lot of Black shows, was raised watching Black sitcoms, but I also have ambition outside of Black television.

Nobody does that to white writers. It was a big deal for me that I never wanted to be known as the guy that writes about Black stuff and only about Black stuff. Those are things I'll always care about and I'll write about them for the rest of my life, but I don't want to ever be known as the guy that only writes about those things.

It's been two years since #OscarsSoWhite came out, how have you seen diversity grow or shift at all from the inside? We've seen "Moonlight" win, but have you seen shifts in hiring since then?

I will say that in every writer's room I've worked in there has been a commitment amongst people to diversity and to treating characters of color as layered human beings, not just stereotypes and cliches.

The movies that are normally heralded as important dramatic Black movies are about Black people reacting to white racism and "Moonlight" wasn't that at all. You see that you can make a movie like that you see that you can make a show like "Blackish," "The Carmichael Show," "Atlanta," "Master of None."

When you hire people of color and women to tell their stories in ways that you want to tell them you can make these incredible pieces of art.

I think that now if you are a show runner or executive and you are not looking for women and people of color you are missing out on the depth of human experience. Even if I'm looking at it from the most cynical, business oriented perspective that I can, that's bad business. You're ignoring that fact there are millions of people in this country who want to be entertained and want to turn on the TV and go to the movie theater and see people who look like them and see stories that remind them of their lives.

TV writer and former journalist Cord Jefferson photographed in downtown Los Angeles, May 14, 2017. Melissa Bunni Elian

“The men who think they're being brave in the name of love rarely stop to consider who that 'bravery' may hurt, because begging for sex or a relationship despite a woman's expressed wishes is a beloved staple of pop culture.” You wrote that for the Guardian in 2014. As a creator of pop culture how do you use your position to combat harmful tropes?

Even though I am a person of color in America, there are any number of blind spots that I have. I don't know what it's like to be a dark skinned Black man, or a Black woman, white woman, an LGBT person in America or an Asian person...

Related: ‘Master of None’ Wins at Emmys, Celebrates Story of Immigrant Parents

There are so many things that I don't understand about human beings. If I'm ever in a position to hire those people, [I] bring them into the writer's room so they can tell their stories as well as possible. That's what you need to do. For me it's always understanding that if I want to tell those stories that I need to bring those people around.

When you look at #OscarsSoWhite and the Writer's Guild of America strike, both really interestingly reflect the turmoil in society in general. As someone who was a journalist, what do you make of that? The fight for better wages is a fight you see across the board. Your journalist senses must be tingling.

I am always quick to remind myself that this is a very lucrative industry and feel incredibly grateful for the amount of money I make. That said, going to battle with corporations that are making millions of dollars and asking for a small sliver of that money for ourselves, for our healthcare plans and stuff is a fight that I'm happy to have. I feel like it's deserved.

I approach things with a journalistic sensibility and it's been helpful in the rooms that I'm in because people want to have those conversations. When I worked at the "Nightly Show" it was probably the most important because it was a topical show the spoke about politics and issues of race as it related to people in America, but it's also helpful in places like "Master of None" which wants to stay relevant and have timely conversations that are in the zeitgeist.

TV writer and former journalist Cord Jefferson photographed in downtown Los Angeles, May 14, 2017. Melissa Bunni Elian

What makes "Master of None" so timely?

What makes "Master of None" special is that is giving center stage to stories that haven't been told before by people who you don't really see working in these kinds of positions. There are not many Asian or Indian American men running TV shows in America and so Aziz and Alan are using their platform to tell the stories they want to tell is new. Seeing the way a lot of people latch on to the stories because they resonate so deeply, it's nice to see.

Some of the white nationalist reaction that we are seeing globally is due to the fact that these people are afraid. They see that the while male domination of society is going away.

They say it, 'we're going to take our country back'. Take your country back from who?

Nobody's taking your country, we're just asking you to make room for our stories, in your schools, in your government and that our desires and struggles be represented in public policy and media.

To me they're reacting to the fact that those stories are being told and to me that's the best thing you can do. Let's just keep doing good work and keep winning Oscars and Emmy's.

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