So you don’t understand the hubbub around #OscarsSoWhite?

Ok, so I read this comment on the Facebook page of a Root article on the lack of diversity in the Academy award nominations:

I’m just curious as to why people freak out and scream “Racism!” just because no black films were chosen. Maybe the committee just didn’t think they were good enough. Maybe I’m kinda playing devil’s advocate here but I’m genuinely curious.

This person clearly doesn’t understand why people (largely, though not exclusively, black folks) are crying “Racism!” over the Oscar nominations. People like this do not understand what the big deal is bc to them, these are just awards. They can’t seem to see beyond the awards and see the deeper problems. Or maybe they haven’t tried to view the world outside the lens of their privileged experiences. In any case, even though people like this are being blatantly racist (I mean, come the fuck on with this “black people just weren’t good enough” bullshit. Because white people, by default *are* good enough?!), I’m going to give a response that treats such inquiries in good faith (don’t ask me why). The following is my response to the queries of the above commenter about why African-Americans take issue with #OscarsSoWhite:

The Oscars this year are actually even whiter than this image implies. We’re talking as white as the Silver Surfer (who typically appears more white than silver).

For me, the problem is that the history of Hollywood is one of exclusion of all people of color. From its inception, Hollywood was loathe to employ PoC in film roles. As the years and decades rolled by, that hesitance diminished and they allowed PoC in, but only in racist or stereotypical roles. During this time, Hollywood was notorious for using black/brown/yellow/red face, often choosing to paint white people as other races, rather than employ actual PoC. Such exclusion is very much racist (just as it was in any other industry where PoC were prevented from having jobs) because it excludes a particular group from the workforce based on the racial identity (this should be obvious, but I don’t want to take common sense for granted here). Further time went by and PoC were allowed into the ranks of Hollywood, but were not offered leading roles or roles that offered challenges to the actors. There were of course exceptions to this. Some PoC were and did stand out. But on the whole, Hollywood was notoriously a white person’s club (and heterosexual, cisgender, male club at that). During the 80s, 90s, and 00s, roles for PoC did explode, but that explosion has never matched that of white people, bc Hollywood has always catered to white people. There has never been a time when PoC were treated as the equal of white people in Hollywood. Moreover, I believe it has primarily been African-Americans who have seen significantly increased participation in Hollywood. Other PoC-Asians, Latinx, and Indigenous people-still lag far behind.


This is institutionalized racism. While the early days of Hollywood were rife with outright racism and discrimination-and I don’t mean to intimate that such bigotry is gone today-the weight of history has pushed these prejudices into the fabric of Hollywood in such a way that no one has to be actively racist to perpetuate them.

Thus, we come to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an elite group that has historically not recognized or honored the accomplishments of black people. They’ve historically paid attention only to the achievements of white people. As with the participation of black people in Hollywood, recognizing the achievements of blacks has occurred-slowly-as the decades rolled by, but nowhere to the degree of white people.

This is at the heart of the problem-the Academy still primarily focuses on the achievements of white people. White actors/actresses/directors/filmmakers-these are the ones that the Academy is paying attention to. And IMO, that largely has to do with them voting for the people that are in the in-group: other white folks. Black people (and Asians, Indians, Latinx) are the outgroup. They aren’t as well known. They aren’t the people the Academy is biased towards (and yes, I’m aware that there are some people of color in the Academy, but as seen in the graphic above, their numbers are incredibly small, the amount of power they wield is quite limited; in contrast, the number of white Academy members is quite high, thus increasing the amount of power they wield).

I believe the problem (or one of them at least) is one of implicit racial bias, which often means that an individual makes subconscious (and negative) assumptions about another person or persons based on their actual or perceived race. This leads to people seeing a black person and clutching their belongings, or seeing someone they think is Muslim and thinking they’re a terrorist (bc many people in the West think only Arab looking people are Muslims, hence the racial component of anti-Muslim bigotry), or seeing a latina and thinking she is an undocumented immigrant.

But implicit racial bias also leads to positive assumptions about others. It can lead people to associate good things about people who are part of one’s racial group-irrespective of any actual evidence. It can lead to people having a favorable opinion of people who are part of one’s racial group. This, IMO, is a huge part of the racism in the Academy’s decision. They’re mostly viewing movies by white actors and directors and paying little attention to movies by black actors and directors. In other words, they’re viewing habits are a reflection of their identity: white (as well as heterosexual, cisgender, and male). But I don’t think this is necessarily a conscious decision on their part. I don’t think the Academy members sat down one day and all decided not to pay attention to black actors or directors or black films. But their biases affect them on a subconscious level and lead them to pay attention to the actors and directors they judge favorably.

Without greater diversity among the Academy members, this is not likely to change. We need more black folks (and other PoC, as well as other minority groups like women and LGBT people) among the Academy members. It doesn’t automatically mean that more black films and actors and directors will get nominated for Oscars, but it does increase the chances that will happen. At the very least the achievements of black folks will be on the radar of the Academy members. And that can potentially change the outcome of their decisions. When you change the outcome so that the bias against black people is reduced, you reduce institutional racism.


So you don’t understand the hubbub around #OscarsSoWhite?

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