12 Lessons the Oscars Teach Us About Race in America

January 26, 2016

 

 

For the second year in a row, no people of color were nominated for academy awards in any of the four acting categories, leading to public criticism of the Oscars, celebrity boycotts, and the return of the hashtag: #Oscarssowhite

 

While I don't believe the Oscars really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things, they are instructive. The Oscars are a microcosm of America. Well, at least a microcosm of mainstream America's racial attitudes.

 

Here are 12 lessons the Oscars teach us about race in America:

 

1. Having a Black President does not mean you have racial equity. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs expressed her own disappointment at the lack of diversity when the nominations were announced. Getting people of color into high level positions is important, but we also have to push for structural changes within our institutions to create more equitable distributions of power

 

2. If there's a majority of white people making the decisions, there's a high likelihood the outcomes will advantage white people and disadvantage people of color. Whether it's a majority white board room, Congress, police force, teacher's union, jury box, or academy, we need more diversity to help us overcome implicit racial bias and provide greater accountability. Out of the 6,028 academy voters, 94% are white, 77% men, and 86% over 50.

 

3. No matter how rigged the system is in favor of whites, whites will still think they earned it (and people of color didn't). British actress Charlotte Rampling, nominated for Best Actress, commented that "maybe the black actors didn't deserve to make it to the final list." While the white actors who were nominated no doubt worked hard to get where they are, as did your white parents and grandparents, the reality is they were given opportunities to work hard that others were not and this advantaged them whether they asked for it or not. (Here are 12 people of color who deserved to be there too).  

 

4. Even when there's obvious racial disparities, whites will tell blacks to just be "patient." Actor Michael Cain's message to black actors, like America's message to many black communities, is to be "patient." This is the same message whites had for Dr. King during Jim Crow segregation (see: Why We Can't Wait for King's response to that). In the words of the character Samantha Booke in The Great Debaters, "No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, the time for equality, is always, is always right now!"

 

 

5. Challenging white privilege will always be seen by some whites as being "anti-white." Charlotte Rampling also accused those deciding to boycott the Oscars of "anti-white racism." Sigh. Calling out racial inequality is not anti-white racism, it's anti-white supremacy, which all whites have a responsibility to weed out of our lives and institutions. 

 

6. While black on black conflict does exist (ie, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Janet Hubert's fued) it doesn't remove responsibility from white people to do our part to work toward racial justice.

 

7. Those who benefit from the way the system is, will defend it ardently (even when it hurts their own people): Stacey Dash.

 

8. Progressive whites can be just as racist in deed as conservative whites are in word. While progressives like sounding progressive, I've noticed in practice they often aren't much more racially diverse than conservatives. Take the democratic presidential candidates, for example; they are about as progressive as you can ask for but still overwhelmingly white. We all got work to do.

 

9. If you want to change the system, you have to make some noise. Protest works! Changes were not made until #Oscarssowhite, celebrity boycotts, and public outcry made their voices heard. As a result, the academy voted unanimously to double the numbers of women and diverse members by 2020. It's a start.

 

10. Jamie Foxx deserves another Oscar (or humanitarian award) for being a real life action hero

 

 

11. Superficial things like the Oscars will continue to get more coverage than things like the Flint water crisis. #staywoke

 

12. Seeing how white the Oscars are, illustrates how much harder actors of color had to work to win Oscars in the past. Mad respect to all the people of color throughout history who have had to work harder, jump higher, and run faster to achieve their dreams because the playing fields have not be even. 

 

Whether you watch the Oscars or boycott them, hopefully we can all learn something from this to motivate us to make changes for racial justice in whatever spheres we are in so things will be better for future generations. 

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