The Oscars are on? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!
Once again the Oscar nominations are out and, for the second year in a row, the nominations for acting performances are all White. I’m sure, by now, everybody knows that Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee, among others (including me), will be boycotting the event. I can’t say that it’s that easy, because I admit to enjoying watching the Oscars. But at some point it is impossible to ignore the fact that while we all can watch and support, in doing so, the massive advertising revenue that the show generates, we all can’t have an equal opportunity to win.
Now I know there are already some people who are calling this reaction “political correctness,” and who are saying that it is just “ridiculous to have to force people to ‘racially balance’ the awards ceremonies just so that we can create “affirmative action” in that as well!” They will say that actors and actresses of color win sometimes, as if Lupito Nyongo’o’s win somehow creates a “post-racial” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences any more than President Obama’s election created a “post-racial” America.
Nonsense. The bottom line is, the Oscars are rigged.
I don’t mean the Oscars are rigged like elections in totalitarian countries: because people are told who to vote for. Or that they’re rigged because the votes aren’t actually counted properly. I’m sure they are. They are rigged because a large percentage of people who make and watched movies are systematically excluded from the process.
Here are the cold, hard facts: the collective community of people who vote for the Oscars do not accurately represent America. They are 94% White, 76% men, and an average of 63 Years Old. There are only seven states with a lower percentage of people of color in their populations. In other words, they are me! (Well, to be exact, two years younger than me…) And that is not the half of it. According to the Ralph Bunche Institute for African American Studies at UCLA and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, women and people of color are under-represented relative to their percentage in the population in terms of movie producers, directors, writers, actors and actresses, and virtually every other category…except who buys the tickets. According the the Motion Picture Association of America, movie goers are only 56% White, 48% men, and 62% are under 40! This is not to say that people only vote their race. But when the demographics are so dramatically out of balance it can’t help but exaggerate the conscious and unconscious patterns that people have to feel more drawn to that which they know. As Goethe wrote, “We see what we look for…we look for what we know.”
The most important thing to observe about this situation is that structure creates behavior in life. When you have a structure that systematically excludes people at every level of the process, is it any surprise that we see the results we are seeing? This is true in all walks of life. For example, look at education. Children of color come generally from lower income homes, go to poorer quality schools, live in more dangerous environments, with less access to nutritious food, have less access to SAT prep classes, or people in their environment who are college graduates to mentor them (Because, of course, they were also limited in access) and on and on, ad nauseum. And, low and behold, many under-perform in school, a logical result of the systemic imbalance that they face every day. And yet, when affirmative structures are created to try to right that imbalance, the same people mentioned above rail against “affirmative action” and even sue to stop it, leaving the victims of this systemic imbalance to be treated as if they are “less then” because of what those results produce and, sadly, to perpetuate the next generation of the same.
So the question becomes what to do about it? I know that the Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the current President of the Academy, has responded with a commitment to address these issues moving forward, and I trust her sincerity in saying that. And when her efforts yield results I will watch the Oscars once again. But until that time I will practice the same strategy I have practiced since I learned it as a college student doing work in the civil rights movement, when we stopped going into Woolworths, and when working for for La Raza, when we stopped eating grapes, and that I have practiced since I decided not to watch or root for a particular Washington football team (they-who-should-not-be-named) until they change their racist nickname. Not because I think that the Academy will say “OMG! Howard is not watching…we had better change!” But because any movement is only a lot of individual people acting collectively until there are enough to change the tide.
So, once again, I will vote with my feet…or, in this case, my channel changer.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @HowardJRoss.