Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Whitewash: Is Hollywood racist?

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Amid recent, alarmed news reports of a "whitewashed" Oscar season — in which none of the nominees are minorities — concerns abound about whether and how much Hollywood is racist. No, some might say, look at 2002, when both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington picked up Oscars for Best Actor/Actress (I always did find it annoying that Washington, one of the finest actors of this generation and my choice to have played Robert Langdon in the Dan Brown books adaptations, finally won the Oscar for playing a violent thug, of all things. Talk about perpetuating stereotypes). While we've come a long way towards achieving diversity since the times of Lena Horne or Sindey Poitier, we have a long way to go.

Is Hollywood blatantly racist for not including a more diverse set of actors and actresses, as well as movies, in its lists of nominees? My strong guess is that privately, people are fuming at the suggestion. Are we supposed to nominate lesser performances for the sake of keeping up appearances? Do we give up our standards of fine acting for the sake of being politically correct? How is that being fair? It kind of begins to echo arguments against affirmative action.

I'm not a movie buff, but I'd be willing to bet that the Oscar nominees this year are, in fact, the best performances of the season. And I don't think the choice should be to change the candidates around only for the sake of avoiding the "whitewashed" label. What I do think needs to change, however, is the false-choice mentality about diversity versus quality. Rather than change who is eligible for awards for the sake of cosmetics, we need to reform the process that leads to the awards so that the best performances are both diverse and stellar.

Historically, psychologists in my area of study been concerned with the question, how do we reduce and combat racism? This is of course a laudable goal, but the focus on understanding the processes from the perspective of those who stereotype — rather than those who are targets of stereotypes — reflects the historical realities of who was asking the questions. Over the past twenty years, the demographics of the scientists have slowly changed, and with this structural change, the types of questions have come to reflect a wider swath of human experience. This is why I encourage both majority and minority students in my classes to go into research psychology, because t hey are the agents of change.

In a similar way, the types of movies and actors that end up on the big screen, and eligible for an Oscar, don't reflect bias as much as they mirror a particular set of life experiences and perspectives. The truth is that people make movies, act in movies, and pay to see movies that are of interest to them, and which connect in some meaningful way to their life experiences. The stories that are likely to be told and promulgated begin with the people who dream up the stories, the plays, the scripts.

Ask yourself: if you don't have a diverse group of writers, which life stories are most likely to be told? Another set of gates through which writers' ideas have to pass is the publishers, the directors, and the producers of the work. The works that connect and speak to people at this level end up being the ones chosen... and again, without diversity, a certain type of narrative is likely to be (or not be!) chosen.  Then you move on to the studios, the big-time producers — again, another set of gatekeepers for art that is likely being fairly evaluated for its artistic value, but draws from a limited spectrum of the human experience.

By the time you get to the Oscar race, the "whitewashing" is less the fault of anybody consciously or unconsciously being racist; rather, the bias is inevitable through a lack of diversity and representation from the very beginning stages. We need not give up quality for diversity: what we need instead is a commitment to diversity in the film schools, the writing workshops, even the grade school drama classes.

We cannot coax powerful stories and powerful performances from the top down: it has to be a bottom up strategy, where we recognize that a commitment to diversity is not just for political correctness, but because it enriches the diversity of experiences that will ultimately lead us to steer clear of cosmetic diversity without substance.

Imagine how much more fertile Hollywood would be with a more diverse set of stories. That would be something to stand in line for.

Join me on twitter or facebook .

Cross-posted from Psychology Today .