#OscarsSoWhite: Yes, this is a race issue


As I was doing the dishes last night, I popped on a rerun of Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, because the sound of other voices in the room creates a barrier between oneself and the crushing sense of emptiness that accompanies by-hand dishwashing. Marty and her guests were discussing a recent Esquire/NBC News poll which found that “half of our country’s population is angrier than they were a year ago.”

The thing about living in a period of heightened political, racial, and ideological tension is that each expression of anger–directed at a dangerous trend, at a harmful policy, at The System®–draws an even louder groan of righteous outrage from the opposing political/racial/ideological force(s). Reactionary politics are nothing new, but with the rise of New Media has come a corresponding rise in self-consciousness and insecurity among the electorate. To concede to an opposing view is to risk not just pride but also social capital, so we fight harumph with harumph. I don’t get the feeling that either side of any contemporary argument listens with serious, intellectual curiosity to the other side. The aim is to be heard, not to hear.

For instance, Jesse from Jonestown, PA calls in to Radio Times and says he’s a “middle-class white person.” “I have seen my parents struggle their entire lives,” he says. “I’ve seen myself struggle my entire life. And I’m just wondering when this ‘white privilege’ will start kicking in, and what exactly should I be expecting?”

Now, we can tell from Jesse from Jonestown’s sarcasm that not only is he (a) just a little skeptical that such a thing as white privilege even exists, but that he also (b) has little interest in actually hearing, acknowledging, and considering an explanation of white privilege and its many, often subtle forms. There is no curiosity here–in fact, the very notion of being curious about opposing views is part of what Jesse’s comment-phrased-as-question mocks. Ms. Moss-Coane and her guests–senior Esquire editor Richard Dorment and political commentator David E. Love–were more than dutifully patient in their responses, explaining that, while some whites may feel economically alienated, there remain daily struggles for blacks and other minorities that whites, by virtue of nothing more than their skin color, simply don’t have to think about. (Hear the full conversation here.) But do you imagine that Jesse from Jonestown was really interested in a serious response to his question? Do you imagine he’s now a humbler, more understanding person who recognizes the struggles of others and not just his own? Do you imagine he even stayed tuned for the response?

What would Jesse from Jonestown say about the 2016 Oscar nominations, announced earlier today? When asked why, for a second year in a row, exactly zero nonwhite actors were nominated for the industry’s highest form of flattery and regard, would Jesse from Jonestown roll his eyes and groan? Would he suggest that maybe the best performers of the year “just happened to be white”? Would he in fact imply or outright state that the very idea of being upset at an award show for excluding POCs is racist against the hardworking white people who earned nominations? Would he say something like:


On the flipside, do you think Jesse from Jonestown will take pause, will have a moment of clarity in which it occurs to him that, even if a purely subjective assessment of “talent” yielded an all-white cast of Oscar nominees, that industry awards are not about talent alone but about respect, acknowledgement, an understanding of the cultural moment at hand? That, even if Academy voters had made a concerted effort to be objective in their choices, the exorbitantly high percentage of old white men doing the voting might have tipped the scales just a bit? That in a year that boasted Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation (91% on Rotten Tomatoes, zero Oscar nominations) Michael B. Jordan in Creed (93%, one nomination for Jordan’s white co-star), Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight (74%, 3 nominations), and a host of young standouts in Straight Outta Compton (88%, one nomination for its screenplay, written by a white man and white woman), perhaps the 94% white, 85% over-fifty Academy felt–consciously or not–more comfortable voting for people who look like they do? That when Hollywood creates an output consisting of (as per the most recent Hollywood Diversity Report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA) only 16.7% nonwhites in lead roles and only 13.8% majority nonwhite casts (and even those numbers are significant improvements over previous years) perhaps the nominations are merely indicative of a larger problem? And that when 94% of studio heads and 92% of studio senior management is white, then the imbalance of racial representation is systemic and, mathematically and common sensibly, there is white privilege?

(And we’re not even talking about gender disparity here, which deserves its own essay.)

I dunno. How much credit do you give Jesse from Jonestown? How much credit do you give a whole country made up largely of Jesse from Jonestowns?

I’m a white, straight male. Not everything is easy for me, but I acknowledge–cannot help but notice, in fact–that (a) most movies and TV shows are made for me, and (b) the movies that get talked up at awards time are not only made for me but are talked up by people like me, voted on by people like me, and then re-presented to people like me as the most valuable statements of an entire medium. White privilege isn’t us winning at life over nonwhites. It’s us speaking for and in place of nonwhites across various media. It’s us not realizing that most of what passes as “entertainment” in this country is made for us, which means that it’s simultaneously, pointedly not made for blacks, latinos, women, homosexuals, and every other group that does not have the privilege of being a desperately coveted market.

I don’t doubt that Jesse from Jonestown has struggled all his life, or that his parents struggled all their lives. Our birth characteristics didn’t gift us with everything. But as of the 2000 census, Jesse’s hometown was 97.67% white. How would his struggle have gone were he of the other 2.33%? Do you think Jesse thinks about that?

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