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White Oscars, white fragility

BOYCOTT: Hollywood actress Jada Pinkett Smith

AS IS now well-known, the second consecutive all-white list of Oscar nominees prompted Jada Pinkett Smith to call for a boycott of the awards.

Since this time, the call has gained support from a number of black actors and celebrities including David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, her husband Will Smith, director Spike Lee and Snoop Dogg.

Simultaneously, addressing the House of Commons here in the UK, Idris Elba highlighted a lack of diversity on British TV and a “disconnect between the real world and TV world”.

This idea is not a new one and, for any viewer of British television, a difficult one to dispute.
The claims are not without validity either. A 2015 report from academics at UCLA found that despite representing nearly 40 per cent of the US population, minorities are still massively underrepresented at every level in Hollywood.

Just last year Lenny Henry berated the “small steps” taken by the TV industry and called for ring-fenced funding for ‘BAME’ TV projects. In the wake of the recent debates, this is a call he has since repeated. As Lenny Henry, Idris Elba and others have noted, the lack of diversity on screen means that a great deal of creative talent is not being cultivated.

Whilst the growing number of black actors speaking out is heart-warming, the condemnation of the industry has been met with some opposition and a great deal of white fragility. White fragility is what makes it difficult for white people to consider and understand racism, particularly when it is anything less brazen than a skinhead shouting ‘n****r’. The problem is that contemporary racism rarely manifests in this form. It is institutional, systemic and difficult to see.

It is this white fragility, a defensiveness and an inability to face up to the realities of endemic racism that can lead to comments like those of Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling.

Rampling’s contribution to the debate has been to argue that, “one can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list”. This is a common rebuke from defenders of white privilege and those experiencing white fragility.

As the well-worn argument goes: it is not the fault of institutional racism that pervades creative industries, it is the inferiority of black actors. They’re just not good enough! In schooling, it is not institutional racism that must harbour the blame, it is the failure of black students, their families and their communities. The disproportionate incarceration rates in both the UK and the US are not the fault of the institutional racism that infects every level of the criminal justice system. Rather it is the fault of the incarcerated.

As Rampling argues, we can never really know. This is a difficulty of contemporary racism that makes it difficult to call, and difficult to challenge. It is this not knowing that will create self-doubt in young black actors as they face rejection in a space not prepared for the emergence of more than a select few black faces.

Unsurprisingly, Rampling argued that the Oscars boycott is “racist to white people”. Frequently, attempts to talk about racism are met with claims such as these. But this claim ignores historical realities of power. The claims ignore the consistent patterns of exclusion and marginalization that have seen Television (among other institutions) develop as a white middle-class entity.

British white actor Michael Caine has urged black actors to be patient. But with a long history of the benefactors of white privilege calling for black patience, we must ask why? Why is now not the time for a radical overhaul of television and creative industries? An overhaul that reflects the realities of contemporary societies. A lack of diversity on-screen is not just an issue for black actors, it is an issue for us all. Perhaps Caine and Rampling’s efforts would be better placed joining the boycott.

Pinkett Smith asked: “Is it time that people of colour recognise how much power, influence that we have amassed?”

Given the attention the boycott has drawn, perhaps it is.

Michael Caine

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