white fragility at the oscars
By Raine Roberts
The Academy Awards—also known as “The Oscars”—have recently come under great
scrutiny regarding their selections for nominations. The hashtag: #OscarsSoWhite was coined in 2015 by April Reign, who saw that all the nominations were given to white people in 2015 (Reign, 2018). It is apparent that the Oscars have been favoring films that are about white people, made by white people for many years. But, there hasn’t been all-white-nominees Oscars since the late 80s (Berman, 2016). So why now do we see this trend again? Aren’t we ‘progressing’? This comes during the rise of the BlackLivesMatter movement, and it questions why the Academy continues to pump out elitist ideals into the second most watch television event in the world, when most of the world—and most of America, in particular—does not uphold nor live in this elitist realm? After coming under fire of their lack of racial inclusion of their film nominees, they react like a five year old who denies they stole a cookie out of the cookie jar, and then they don’t make a huge until four years later. Why? The Academy is mainly made up of white people—94% of members are white in 2012—and they are embodying white fragility (Berman, 2016).
White fragility is defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 2018). This occurs amongst all white persons—if a white person does not experience racial stress then they are choosing to do so, and it is not easy—where if they come into contact with persons of color, namely Black individuals/groups, they react in a number of ways: with “anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, cognitive dissonance, and removal of the stressful situation” (DiAngelo, 2018). This can be seen in the Academy Awards’ reactions to the criticisms of their selections. Not only do they react defensively, but the Awards were setup in a way to incorporate a “protective pillow” from race and “lower class” individuals/groups. The Academy Awards uses white fragility defensive mechanisms to maintain their position of elitist, Hollywood power. So, how does the Academy Awards incorporate white fragility into their nomination process, and how does this affect America’s view on race?
Let’s first take note of the winners and nominees of the Oscars starting in 2015 to 2019. Upon looking at the Oscar’s website, I noted something interesting; they had a “Highlights” section for each year that showcases their ‘diversity’. During the #OscarsSoWhite campaign years (2015-2019); they highlighted the Black, Latinx, and Queer winners for a, sometimes, minor category. For instance, in 2019 they highlighted the fact that Lady Gaga won “Best Original Song”, Regina King won “Best Supporting Actress”, and Alfonso Cuarón won “Best Director”. In 2018, Jordan Peele for “Best Original Screenplay”, “Best Adapted Screenplay” went to Call Me By Your Name, and COCO won “Best Animated Film”. Now, I want to emphasize that these are great accomplishments achieved by these individuals, however, to be plastered on the “Highlights” section, which immediately appears when you click on “Awards”, adds an element of manipulation by the Academy. They are controlling what the viewer of their website sees first, and if the viewer sees diversity immediately then they may not question #OscarsSoWhite. If the viewer sees “Queer Lady Gaga, Black Regina King, Mexican Alfonso Cuarón” then clicks back a year and sees “Black Jordan Peele, Queer Call Me By Your Name, and Latinx COCO” they’re going to question the truth and accuracy of the claims against the
Academy. The fact of the matter is the Academy is being defensive about their whiteness and it’s apparent just looking at their website.
#OscarsSoWhite came in conjunction with the rise of #BlackLivesMatter. Jayakumar and Adamian note that, “history and racial theory confirm that any significant movement [BlackLivesMatter] (real or perceived) toward racial justice in the United States is followed by backlash from whites” (Jayakumar & Adamian, 2017). We’ve learned that the Academy Awards is mainly made of up white and male persons (Berman, 2016) and their whiteness is attacked by #OscarsSoWhite. So they create ‘safe spaces’ and ‘protective pillows’ to allow their colorblind ideology to continue. They utilize what DiAngelo (2018) calls, “cognitive dissonance and removing oneself from the stressful situation” to acknowledge racism exists, while they “dismiss policies and practices intended to combat racism by invoking the language of equality and liberal views” (Jayakumar & Adamian, 2017).
The Academy Awards president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs continues to say that they will increase the amount of women and people of color by 2020. Stating that they will add 928 members to increase diversity. Sounds pretty nice. Most readers and audience members will probably be thrilled, and think that the Oscars will now be more inclusive. Except when you look at the actual numbers: “If all 928 of the Academy’s invitations are accepted, female membership will rise to 31% from 28%, while ethnic minority members will increase to 16% from 13%” (BBC News, 2018). With that addition of 928 members, they will now have 9,300 members on the board. After doing some calculations, the amount of female and ethnic minority members (which probably overlaps) together will still be less than the amount of white male members. There is still a clear majority: white men. Yet, the publicity surrounding this announcement is met with praise, and white people excited that this will never be a problem again. Safe space achieved and maintained, check.
Hollywood, in general, utilizes a colorblind ideology. Their insistence that they are not racist or sexist is truly laughable when you see who stars in which “Oscar Bait” flicks. It’s not just the Academy Awards that influences white washed Hollywood, but it’s the top executives in film and TV studios (Berman, 2016). These executives are the ones who decide what is marketable. What they consider to be marketable are movies about white, straight, male leads put into a challenging circumstance, and they must find a way to win. However, studies have shown that inclusion sells (Reign, 2018). Top executives and extremist moviegoers say that making films with ethnic minorities and women will “take roles away from white actors” (Veneto, 2017). These white people are claiming reverse-discrimination, which is highlighted in Jayakumar and Adamian’s (2017) article on white fragility and colorblind ideology. It is a tactic used by white people when they feel threatened/uncomfortable, and therefore feel the need to bully overtly about their ‘feelings of injustice’ that white people (actors in this instance) are facing. Said simply, their white fragility is showing.
To conclude, the Academy Awards perpetuates a system of oppression—that is quite clear. It is only until now, that they’ve come under scrutiny, that they feel the need to do something about it. Add more diverse people! Great, but that’s not enough... they’re still the minority of members on the Academy board. And their white fragility makes it that they include just enough Black and Brown people (men and women alike) to make sure that whites still have the majority, and therefore their ‘safe space’ is maintained. They selected Green Book as Best Picture, a movie about a white man driving a Black man to various concert events and the white man realizes that racism exists. But, the movie shows the white man as the hero, following the
hero trope to a T. That’s not progress, it’s another excuse to acknowledge racism exists, but the white people are still going to be the heroes.
BBC News (2018). Oscars awards body acts to boost diversity with 928 member invitations, BBC News.
Berman, E. (2016). The Unbearable Whiteness of the Oscar Nominations, TIME.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,
Penguin Random House.
Jayakumar, U. M. & Adamian, A. S. (2017). The Fifth Frame of Colorblind Ideology:
Maintaining the Comforts of Colorblindness in the Context of White Fragility,
Sociological Perspectives, 60(5), 912-936.
Reign, R. (2018). #OscarsSoWhite Is Still Relevant This Year, Vanity Fair.
Veneto, N. (2017). “That lightsaber. It belongs to me.”: Patriarchal Anxiety and the Fragility of
White Men’s Masculinity in The Force Awakens, Film Matters.