What We Should Learn From #OscarsSoWhite: Broadening The Context

Originally posted on Ryerson Student Affairs’ professional blog, ryersonstudentaffairs.com

I’m not particularly interested or invested in popular culture, but I do enjoy a good film. I love a good film, in fact, and I love admiring cinematography, incredible performances, and thought-provoking writing. I don’t, however, enjoy seeing essentially the same people celebrated, year after year, for their accomplishments in the arts while other performers and creators are left out. Even more, I am frustrated, exasperated, at those people having to explain over and over again why their exclusion is part of a bigger picture, a bigger, historical, and systemic injustice that repeats itself in the myriad ways that systemic things do.

#OscarsSoWhite trended online for the second year in a row when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for the 88th Academy Awards and—to no one’s surprise—the Oscar nominees were dominantly white and male. In fact, no person of colour was selected for any of the 20 slots available for acting. Wondering why it was “no surprise” to many? Because the nominations “reflect the state of the industry as it relates to diversity. We’re talking about an Academy that’s 93 per cent white, 76 percent male, and average age 63.” That’s not exactly representative of… well, much.

Now, some people have been responding to critics by saying it just “works out that way” based on the performances, suggesting that if performers and creators of colour want to be nominated they need to “work harder”, “be patient”, and “it’s just really competitive”. The thing is, if you don’t create space for people, roles for people, hire people, and celebrate those people, then of course it will “work out that way” because it’s part of the system. Not to mention that even those who do get in, who have been “patient”, and who have worked hard—they still don’t get recognized because their peers don’t see them. The availability heuristic be damned—this is systemic racism.

Thinking about these things, I offer some ways to broaden the context of something like #OscarsSoWhite to our understanding of things in Student Affairs.

Always ask more questions:

People have been critiquing the poor diversity in Hollywood for years; it’s just now that the mainstream ears are listening. This reminds us to keep our critical hat on and always ask questions about what we’re doing, who it’s serving, and why. For example, when we’re creating a new program, or better yet, when we’re putting on a program we’ve always put on, let’s ask ourselves:

  • Why am I creating this program?
  • For whom am I creating this program?
  • What assumptions am I making about this program and the students it’s meant to serve?

The great thing about asking questions is that you’ll learn more and be able to adapt whatever you’re creating to its best form. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?

When confronted with something that makes you feel uncomfortable:

Listen. Listen, listen, listen. And listen some more. As expected, much of the conversation following #OscarsSoWhite has included voices chiming in, uninvited, to give their perspectives on something that has little to do with them personally and everything to do with them socially. The most common response when we’re confronted with something that makes us uncomfortable, that points out our privilege and role in a system of injustice, is defensiveness. It’s like our fight-or-flight response kicks in and people start saying things like “Well, I’m not one of those people…” and ludicrous things like “I’m not racist, but…”. The blatant un-listening that happens here is really an incredible thing to behold. The saddest part of this reaction is that the point of the conversation is lost, and the people who for a second had their voices emerge from the margins are once again sidelined.

What can we do when we’re confronted with something that makes us feel uncomfortable? In our context, when we’re developing something that we’re super keen on, it’s easy to be so excited by your idea that when someone points out some of its flaws you feel upset and defensive. Instead, opening ourselves to the conversation and listening to those whose needs aren’t yet being met, and understanding your role in maybe contributing to that, is the only way to grow. Awareness isn’t enough; action is necessary.

Sit with your discomfort. Question it. Challenge it.

Inclusion is more than being there:

Take a look at this infographic illustrating the #OscarsSoWhite discussion.

An infographic that blatantly shows the diversity gap of the Academy Awards.

What do you think this graphic might look like if we created it for the post-secondary context? What about within our departments of staff and students? How about if we broke it down into the kinds of services we deliver, for whom, and the kinds of things we celebrate? We can broaden this in many directions: how do we stack up against our neighbouring institutions? Our government?

The thing about inclusion is that it’s not enough to just be invited in. Even though the #OscarsSoWhite press has resulted in a much needed call for the Academy to assess and change their procedures, promising to “double the number of women and minority members by 2020”, it doesn’t mean in 2020 we’ll have an equal representation of diversity among nominees. That’s because the lens through which Hollywood frames its concept of “outstanding” performances and creation still works within a framework built on keeping certain ideas, formats, styles, and stories out.

The same can be said for our work: inviting students and alternative perspectives to the table is just the first step. “‘Diversity’ problems aren’t fixed once people enter places they’ve been excluded from. There needs to be support and tools to thrive, such as anti-oppressive frameworks,” writes Chanelle Adams.

To build those frameworks, more questions need to be asked, and more listening needs to be done:

  • Who is missing?
  • Why are they missing?
  • How can I bring them in?
  • What kind of spaces need to be created to ensure they aren’t left out again?
  • What kind of advocates do people need and how can we make their voices heard?

These are just a few starting points. #OscarsSoWhite is just one example among many in our current political and social climate that can relate to the work we try to do in RyersonSA. Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled that the conversation has led to the Academy making huge changes to their processes and making moves to change the industry within which it operates. It’s important to remember that our students, and we as staff, and our community in the university—we don’t operate within a vacuum. The happenings, forces, and systems within which we operate affect our ways of being and ways of thinking. Therefore it’s important to keep questioning why we do things and how we do things, and to include the necessary people and communities in those conversations, so that we can contribute to creating a university culture and, by extension, a world that makes us proud.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s