What The Oscars Diversity Discussion Is Getting Wrong And How We Can Fix It

Senior Editor
02.28.16 65 Comments
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The Oscars have been lily white for years, and this year, more than any other, it seems like the general public has finally taken notice. Which is great. We can tell people that the Oscars don’t matter, and that they were only ever intended as a ruse for studio heads to consolidate power. (“I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” said Louis B. Mayer.) But movies are still a business. One Forbes study found, for instance, that Best Actor winners experience an 81% salary bump after winning an Oscar. So, while they’re probably irrelevant in terms of art and legacy, Oscars do still have some demonstrable value. Thus, people who get snubbed have a right to be pissed, and the public is justified in calling the Academy out on it.

It’s good that it’s happening, but the way it’s happening, it feels like a lot of us are missing the point. We’ve given the controversy an official name, #OscarsSoWhite, and have asked basically anyone involved in the movie business their opinion on “the diversity problem.” Which certainly makes for some great shark pit journalism, where we all tear apart 70-year-old Charlotte Rampling for saying that being upset about non-white snubs is “racist to white people,” or 82-year-old Michael Caine for telling black actors to “be patient.”

Sure, it’s easy to rip on old white people for using the wrong words when flustered, sometimes it’s even a little fun, but it’s also not especially constructive, and at times feels a little cruel. These are people who’ve spent their lives memorizing lines, not solving America’s social problems. Not that what they said isn’t still dumb, it just seems a little silly to ask for their perspective on a problem that was caused by an overabundance of old white people’s perspectives in the first place. What’s the media’s job here, guys? Trying to solve problems or trying to set traps? And we wonder how Donald Trump got popular.

#OscarsSoWhite, if I can be somewhat reductive about the name, is a symptom of the problem, but it’s not really the problem. Do I personally think a lot of talented people of color got snubbed this year? Absolutely, from Idris Elba and Samuel L. Jackson to Ryan Coogler. But me offering yet another white person’s perspective on this is to miss the point. (Sadly, I saw more than a few articles written by white dudes, with the theme of “#actually, so-and-so wasn’t really snubbed because I did not like that movie,” the writing of which must require a heady cocktail of tone deafness and pure chutzpah). The point is, the problem isn’t so much that the Oscars lacks non-white nominees, it’s that it lacks non-white perspectives in choosing those nominees. #OscarsSoWhite is a symptom, #TheAcademySoWhite is the problem.

Science backs me up on this, by the way. The Economist recently did a statistical analysis on the racial breakdown of both Oscar winners and the Academy, and it seems to suggest that while this year’s lack of non-white nominees and perceived snubs of black actors and directors may have brought awareness to the problem, historically, a lack of black nominees hasn’t been the issue. At least, not exactly.

As our analysis of film casts and awards shows, the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America’s overall black population.

Great! Racism solved! We can all go home now, right? Well, no. For one thing, that doesn’t mention the yawning gulf between the number of Latino moviegoers (25%) and their almost total Oscars shutout (same with Asian actors). For another, even if this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy is a statistical anomaly, there’s still a big problem. There are lots of numbers in the Economist piece, but this one seems like the most important:

Fingers are pointing at the Academy’s 6,000-odd voting members, 94% of whom are white.

Yep, 94% white. Meanwhile, white people make up about 62% of the total US population. All of which are numbers that prove what everyone already knew: The Academy is very, very white. Does the fact that the Academy is lily white mean that they’re incapable of recognizing non-white talent? Not necessarily, but let’s face it, that lack of a non-white perspective makes a difference. Much of the entertainment world is still somewhat segregated, or at the very least suffering some kind of hangover from various kinds of deliberate, accidental, and/or cultural segregation, and even where it isn’t, we still have cultural blind spots.

How famous does a Latino, black, or Asian artist have to be with their core demo before white people know who they are? Kevin Hart was selling out Madison Square Garden before I knew who he was, and I’m a comedian. And I’m not a 73-year-old theater director who lives in Bel Air. Simply not being aware of certain artists doesn’t make me, or my hypothetical theater director terrible racists or bad people, we naturally just don’t see what we didn’t know we were supposed to see.

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