Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy
As soon as the nominees for the Academy Awards were announced, people noticed that there were no nominees of color among the four acting categories.
A number of people noted this disparity, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was created to highlight the situation and soon some actors announced that they were boycotting the ceremony.
Discussion and activism around racial disparity is important, but highlighting the Oscar nominees seemed strange.
The Oscar nominations have a tradition of overlooking quality performances and then giving those overlooked actors awards for lesser performances, later in their careers, to make up for the oversight.
It is an open secret that many Oscar voters don’t watch that many movies, so the most popular and talked about movies often get more nominations than small, independent films.
Protesting an award ceremony seemed gratuitous.
But the protest clarified several issues as people rose to defend the Oscar voters. One response to #OscarsSoWhite is that the nominations are representative of the number of roles that actors of color had in the past year. There are only 20 acting nominations in total, while Hollywood releases over 500 movies in a year.
This response works specifically because actors of color truly are underrepresented in acting roles, especially starring roles that are likely to get nominations.
Perhaps inadvertently, this defense exposed the larger problem in Hollywood: the number of people working behind the scenes in Hollywood is not representative of society either.
The lack of nominations for actors of color demonstrates the lack of acting offers to actors of color. These offers are made by producers and directors who are rarely people of color. They are suggested by casting agents who are rarely people of color. This continues on down the line.
Increasing minority representation behind the scenes suddenly seems as important as representation in front of the screen. Protesting the Oscar nominations started an inquiry that ended up exposing the racial problems throughout the entire movie industry, not just the nominations themselves.
The problems in Hollywood are emblematic of American society.
For example, nationwide there have been initiatives to increase the number of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Gov. Matt Bevin has announced this as one of his focuses in Kentucky higher education.
Many people have pointed out that STEM fields are notorious for poor representation of minorities, including women. Increasing minorities in STEM jobs requires more minority graduates with STEM degrees. Yet studies have shown that the completion rate of minority students in STEM degrees is correlated by how many minorities teach in STEM areas. But, of course, increasing the number of minority teachers in STEM fields requires more graduates in those areas, which is the problem we are trying to solve.
These systematic problems are one reason why unequal representation is so hard to rectify. It is also why simply demanding more nominees, or demanding more graduates, will not be enough. Hopefully those demands will lead to a deeper examination of the problems, and encourage members to initiate wide ranging systematic solutions to underrepresentation. This appears to be happening in Hollywood, but only in time will we see if it succeeds. It is also why we all need to think about minority representation. It is easy to dismiss such questions when we are not part of the opposition.
What we should be doing is trying to figure out how we can go out of our way to be part of the solution.