The Oscars: white privilege’s big night out

2015-03-01 16:00

Film and TV’s biggest night for “white” Hollywood took place on Sunday when the 87th Academy Awards aired (or super early on Monday morning if you were on central African time). In its production, the awards ceremony showed a glaring lack of self-awareness.

The first moment, which was intended to be scathing or satirical, happened when host Neil Patrick Harris said: “Tonight we celebrate Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry?…?brightest.” While some thought this a wonderful moment of self-criticism and reflection from the Academy, a real look at it reveals it was nothing more than a jibe.

One of the most prestigious and richest institutions in the world deliberately and knowingly put on a show that once again did not represent and recognise people of colour – and then told you exactly what they were doing under the guise of a joke.

The opening was a garish indication of the lack of intention by the Oscars to address the manner in which the Academy has continued to value white work over the work of other groups. The lack of “diversity” is not accidental, but intentional, and Harris’ joke was no moment of “punching up”.

The second moment of immense privilege occurred when Patricia Arquette – in her speech after winning the Oscar for best supporting actress – had the “feminist” moment of the ceremony by calling for equal pay for women. This was followed by Arquette backstage urging oppressed groups, such as queer individuals and women of colour, to fight for older women who were being underpaid because “white women had fought for them” – despite the fact that white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action programmes.

And rather than wanting unequal pay to be abolished altogether, mainstream feminists such as Arquette want groups that earn less than them to support them in their fight to be paid the same as white men and, in so doing, keep the system intact.

Arquette then defended her statements by saying: “Don’t talk to me about privilege. As a kid, I lived well below the poverty line. No matter where I am, I won’t forget women’s struggle.”

This completely missed the point. She still would have enjoyed white privilege – even as a poor, single, working mother.

There was nothing different or critical about this year’s Oscars. It was little more than the performance of whiteness.

The sentiment that if black people don’t feel valued by certain institutions then they ought to just “stay away” pervades award shows that snub black talent.

While this sounds great and punchy, this is not, in fact, antiracism.

“Avoiding” racism is simply that, and assumes racism can be avoided, when in fact racism often seeks black people out, not the other way around.

The question for me is always: what part of asking black people to take up less and less space – in an attempt to “avoid” racism – is antiracism?

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