Why #OscarsSoWhite matters

Opinion by Sean Rhodes

SEAN

Sean Rhodes

The Oscars are incredibly white again this year and social media blew up about it. In an ideal world the color of one’s skin wouldn’t matter, but we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where who we are as individuals and as members of a society matters.

The most common responses to the #OscarsSoWhite have been: “Well, maybe minorities just weren’t good enough,” and “Well they don’t nominate white folks at the BET Awards.” Both responses to the topic ignore the big picture: Representation matters. Our history within entertainment has rarely valued people of color.

The real question is, who gets to determine if minorities are good enough? When whites are rejected for a job and a person of color ends up getting it, suggesting that perhaps the white candidate “wasn’t good enough,” never occurs. In fact, the opposite always happens. Instead, people largely assume the person of color must not have been good enough and that they only could’ve succeeded based on their race.

The Oscar contenders and winners are predominantly voted on by older white men and they are the ones assessing merit.

It is not objective; it is a matter of preference. It’s easy to overlook minority characters when you can’t identify with them.

2015 was a really diverse year. Movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Creed” surprised critics by their lack of nominations. Both were met with praise from critics and diverse audiences, whites included. Idris Elba’s role in “Beasts of No Nation” has been talked about so much that bringing him up feels redundant. If white people are trying to rationalize that minority films weren’t good enough, critics and audiences disagree.

“Creed” did manage to snag a nod…for Sylvester Stallone. The movie was good enough to honor the white man in it, but not the black man who starred in it, or the black man who wrote and directed it.

It’s hard for whites to think something like merit is subjective. More than that, whites feel they can’t acknowledge that even they like to see themselves represented. White people (especially white males) have never had to go far to find racial representation. It never occurs to white audiences they’re being pandered to, because they’re white. It only occurs to them that such movies are “for everybody.” Whiteness is never considered.

Now let’s talk about BET. If white people won’t represent or give credit to people of color, who will? People of color, of course. No one needs to be reminded that white people perform well, or that white performances are valued. White people aren’t ignored at the BET Awards, either.

It makes sense that black people would want to honor black people. White people have been patting themselves on the back and honoring each other for centuries while people of color are constantly deemed “unworthy” of greatness based on a social structure that still sees anything but whiteness as inherently inferior.

The BET Awards suck, by the way. They’re one of the few places where blacks are awarded without having to play a game of “Token Waldo.” BET isn’t the best, but sometimes minorities are forced to accept representation when it’s there because that’s just how scarce it is in comparison to white representation. Subpar minority representation becomes “good enough,” by default.

Ultimately this raises the question, why are they separating themselves? The question is asked as though separation was something people of color chose for themselves.

Entertainment was once a much more segregated institution than most of us can remember. Even now directors and producers are hesitant to create entertainment that focuses on people of color for fear that white audiences wouldn’t watch it.

Certainly people of color were allowed on networks, but only in small numbers, and the entertainment in question still had to be centered on white characters concentrating on their goals. BET and networks like it were a response to that segregation. People of color didn’t separate themselves; they were already separated out of mainstream entertainment before slowly being integrated in.

It is hard for white people to see it that way because they’ve never had to think about representation.

Whiteness is the norm. Certainly white people can complain about BET, but there are several other TV channels and movies that pander to white audiences.

Minorities having one godawful channel is nothing compared to the hundreds of other channels that were made with white audiences in mind. #OscarSoWhite matters because in entertainment white people are never forgotten.

How can aspiring actors, actresses, directors and producers of color hope to be successful if the message they receive is: “Your success is worth nothing?”

One Response to "Why #OscarsSoWhite matters"

  1. Erin  January 28, 2016 at 11:09 pm

    This is a great piece that I hope many others read. People of color are not at all well represented in mainstream media, and when they are, its so often in an unflattering or harmfully stereotypical way. It makes me sad that our ideal world is one where we outgrow this subconscious bias thats plaguing our country right now (i.e.- wait for the racism to die out, already), but I’m so ready for it to be dead. Thank you for writing this.

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