Jada Pinkett and Spike Lee called for a boycott of the Academy Awards for reasons best expressed in the #OscarSoWhite Twitter conversation. In short, advocates argue that the Academy Awards repeatedly fail to recognize people of color in terms of their artistry. As a result, there were some people declaring to boycott the event.
A little while ago, I read a conversation thread where some people weighed in on whether or not a boycott made sense as a social justice strategy. Some even argued against the racialization of nominees as, in their opinion, nominations are based on talent, not on race.
Of course this conversation moved me. As a centrist, often wading in the critical space of seeing both sides, I seem to have some strong opinions and I want to go on record by offering the following points.
First and foremost, as stated by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and quoted here:
You can't talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can't talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry...
While I used this quote to talk about the profits associated with the achievement gap, I think it also pertains to this #OscarSoWhite discussion.
As long as those very same people who were aiming to boycott the show allow their hard earned money to be channeled into the show's industry, on some level the boycott would be counterproductive. The problem has more to do with the economics of supply and demand that is based on an undisclosed racial bias. Not only is this racial bias undisclosed, it is buried deep within an American psychology of white is right, white is beautiful, and white is universal. When that psychology has the backing of an economic system, there exist a seal that a simple attendance boycott cannot penetrate! As referenced by D.L. Hughley on his Facebook page, "You can't boycott a place you weren't invited to."
My second point, which almost negates the first, is that boycotts are a necessary step in raising awareness. Reverend Sharpton said it eloquently, as I quoted him here, "Sometimes you've gotta show out to get people to show up." The boycott that Jada and Spike were soliciting won't do anything to disrupt the structural forces that influences the #OscarSoWhite phenomenon; however, it did bring attention to the bigger problem of Hollywood reducing the scope of talent to a point where black actors, black directors, and black writers are restricted to the margins, giving them very little visibility. The boycott may not have changed the problem, but it put the Academy on public notice that there is a problem.
My final point is that black face is not power. In the conversation thread that inspired this post, several people argued that the Academy is not all white (in that its president is black and the host and producer for this year's show are black). This argument was made to negate the potency of the #OscarSoWhite Twitter movement and to offer a red herring (a misleading distraction). It is deceitful to pretend that these positions are evidence of a colorblind institution. It willfully ignores the relationship between race, decision making authority, and profit.
The problem is not about representation. It is about power. Racism (along with sexism, classism, etc.) is a system that maintains current distributions of power. When the policies, psychology, and economy are favorably rooted in the current distribution of power, representation is simply aesthetic and nothing more. And truthfully, this notion of representation is questionable because those three roles (the host, the producer, and president of this year's Academy Awards) are not voting representatives. Even if those voting "peers" were more diversely represented (which seems to be the Academy's newly declared promise for moving forward), the system is still grounded in an inherently biased economy. Having more diversity does not represent equity until we are financially invested in a different psychology of worth.
As I close, I am distinctly aware of my own internal contradictions as an emerging cultural critique. For reasons stated in a post about the people of color designation, I grow weary of giving people a racial frame. Being identified as a black woman is complex and loaded, and sometimes exhausting. I am not proud when I find myself distinguishing people as black or white (as I did here in a conversation about black and white teachers). But, the reality is that we live in a world that is not yet neutral when it comes to race. Failing to acknowledge race gives weight to a system that does. While it no longer is overt, the true weight of racism is in its structural intricacies linking selective standards (and psychology) of worth with economic advantages.
In the end, here is my position. I don't think an attendance boycott would have disrupted the system but it may have challenged the psychology of those who economically benefit from it. It is that disruption (a psychological one) that will challenge all of us in how we spend our money.