New Orleans It’s hard to find many people who live and die for the Academy Awards. This is an industry show where plaques are given out much like the ones you might find at the Hardware Dealers’ or Plumbers Friends Conventions in a side ballroom in some off-the-strip Las Vegas casino hotel. It’s very, very important to the people who make their living this way, but for most of us at best it’s a curiosity. There’s a difference though because the big shining light of television cameras is pointed at all the pretty people, and it’s not supposed to be real, but entertainment, and millions watch as a distraction from the daily grind and the abusive political season.
For a change though it did matter because the issue of diversity has made the entertainment seem too expensive for the damage done to our collective culture and its impact on the millions who are excluded, as the Academy and its industry awards are exposed as baubles from a rich, elite white boys’ club and little more. The painful stories of sidetracked careers, thoughtless comments, and lost opportunity suffered by African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays, and, ok, anyone who is not a white man are now live streaming constantly in every medium.
The great comic, Chris Rock, hosting the show, zinged everyone on all sides of the question, belittling the boycott of the Awards as being “…like me boycotting Rihanna’s parties…[when] I wasn’t invited,” but still be clear about the reality. “All these producers, actors, they don’t hire black people, but they’re the nicest white people on earth. Hollywood is sorority racist.” Ouch, that one hit ‘em hard! All of this was prompted by it being the second straight year in which no non-white was nominated for any of the awards. Focus on the Academy’s membership which turned about to be about 88% white certainly gave a clue that diversity was not on the screen credits very prominently in Hollywood.
They’ll sort this out and pretend to do better, but the gut punch of diversity is being able to empathize with the experience of others, rather than being blinded simply by your own interests. This is not just a problem in Hollywood, but everywhere, whether well-meaning or malicious.
Recently I attended a rededication of a “diversity garden” at my old public high school for our class that had been the first to be integrated in the city. The former class president of so many decades ago read a poem that presented the experience in a glowing light, emphasizing the lack of violence and overt expressions of hate that met so many similar episodes in the South. One of the 14 first-time African-American students spoke as well and gave a far different narrative of feeling alienated and ostracized, and poorer and dumber than her life experience had led her to feel previously or subsequently. In place of the pretty picture was her story of being spat on in the streetcar by a random citizen of the fair city. Some classmates were surprised to hear that the head of the NAACP had solicited her to attend along with the others, as if these life changing bits of history all happened in a vacuum or through some pro forma process of sending out an announcement and having people show up for an admissions test. Others felt they should speak about their own feelings of alienation at the time of not being part of the richer, preppie-style in-crowd…the folks that ate at the popular grill across from the high school rather than eating from their bag lunches or in the cafeteria.
Diversity is about welcoming difference and in the process learning to empathize and perhaps even beginning to understand the separate, and often difficult, experiences of others. Hollywood needs to do this now under the big lights, but the task also never ends for the rest of us who live in the shadows, but need to constantly learn to shine our own light to brighten and enrich the whole community and enjoy the small rewards of a richer life for ourselves and others by doing so.