Looking Back at #OscarsSoWhite

When the American Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, nominated no black actors or actresses in 2015, the African American journalist April Reign responded by creating #OscarsSoWhite, which instantly became the top trending Twitter hashtag in the United States. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, among far too many others, were powerful catalysts of the ensuing debates. Many critical tweets about the Oscars referenced police violence and inserted #BlackLivesMatter next to #OscarsSoWhite. While racial diversity in popular cinema is an important issue in its own right, the problems at stake in the critique of the white Oscars were clearly bigger than Hollywood. #OscarsSoWhite ignited social media not only because it gave Black Twitter a platform to express anger over perceived snubs to films like Selma, the biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr., but also because it extended and amplified ongoing protests against racism in contemporary American society more broadly.

Remarkably, the 2016 Oscars again nominated no black actors or actresses, and #OscarsSoWhite returned with a vengeance. In fact, the hashtag probably got more attention than the Oscars, a broadcast TV event whose cultural importance has been in decline for several years. One study found that a sample set of just 85 #OscarsSoWhite tweets generated 52 million views. In comparison, the TV audience for the Oscars was only 36 million. As the more recent controversies over fake news have made painfully obvious, social media platforms have become brokers of public consciousness. As it becomes a dominant channel for presenting, sharing, connecting, filtering, and organizing information, social media shapes what Americans pay attention to, what we regard as meaningful and relevant, and what we consider to be major political problems.

The White People’s Choice Awards

Social media’s political importance motivates my examination of a debate that erupted between Black Twitter, on the one hand, and Huffington Post’s LatinoVoices and Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented Filipino American journalist, on the other. One of the key figures in this debate was the African American comedian Chris Rock. Although Rock was selected to host the 2016 Oscars before the nominees were announced, and thus before the reappearance of #OscarsSoWhite, his selection seemed perfectly timed to address the subsequent racial tensions, which included calls by actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee to boycott the show.

Back in 2005, when Rock hosted the Oscars for the first time, some critics felt his comedy was too caustic. In addition to criticizing the Iraq War, Rock poked fun at white English actor Jude Law, whom Rock suggested was featured in so many films that he would soon play the role of African American basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Rock’s blunt political and racial commentary made his presence at the 2016 Oscars “utterly necessary,” as a journalist for Time magazine wrote during the controversy. And Rock didn’t disappoint. No sooner did he begin his opening monologue than he dubbed the Oscars the “White People’s Choice Awards.” The only way to ensure the nomination of Black actors and actresses for future Oscars, Rock quipped, is to create “Black categories.” In other words, if we institutionalize formulaic roles such as “Best Black Friend,” then African American actors and actresses are sure to get nominations.

When Rock directly addressed racism in Hollywood, he unequivocally acknowledged its existence: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist.” But then Rock framed the issue as a matter of equal opportunity: “We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunity as white actors.” I think the language of equal opportunity is the crux of the ensuing debate between Black Twitter and LatinoVoices and Vargas. And I think the failures of this debate reflect the fact that “equal opportunity” is one of the most baleful ideological defenses of economic inequality in America. It effectively says that the gap between the 1% and the 99% is justified because everyone theoretically has “access” to joining the 1%. Similarly, when equal opportunity enters into the debate over our absurdly unequal health care system, it means we all have the formal “right to buy” health care coverage, regardless of whether we can afford it. As Bernie Sanders pointed out in his response to Trump’s former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, having access to a $10 million home is meaningless if you don’t actually have the money. But that’s exactly the ideological utility of “equal opportunity” in the health care debate: the formal right to be a paying customer in a rigged health care system substitutes for the material redistribution that would guarantee universal health care coverage. And the thing about “opportunity” is that you once you have “access” to it, you can only “miss” it or otherwise fail to “take advantage” of it, usually through some fault of your own. In this way “equal opportunity” conceals structural inequality by reducing it to individual choice.

When Rock made #OscarsSoWhite about equal opportunity, he obfuscated the fact that the Hollywood culture industry is yet another reason that American society is so radically unequal. Once opportunity is expanded to mean that all races should have equal access to Hollywood, then the monopolistic control of American film by Disney, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Paramount looks less important. After all, that control is arguably what the Oscars ultimately celebrate. If the main problem with the Oscars is that it puts up racist barriers to black people’s fair access to Hollywood, then by implication, the economic inequality that drives the production and distribution of American popular culture might be permissible as long as this inequality is racially diverse. And when charging an economically unequal system with being racially opposed to equal opportunity becomes a dominant form of protest, then it seems to me quite natural — and disastrous — that various racial minorities will struggle with one another over which gets to be identified as the group to whom equal opportunity is most egregiously denied.

Accordingly, in response to Rock’s opening monologue, LatinoVoices sent out the following tweet under the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag: “But what ABOUT the Latinos? We want that [opportunity] too!” Almost simultaneously, Vargas tweeted to Rock: “When will Chris Rock bring up Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American actors and opportunity?” The tweets reflect not only their author’s particular interventions, but also a broader subtopic within the #OscarsSoWhite discussion that was led primarily by nonblack people of color who sought to push the debate beyond the categories of blackness and whiteness, which some Latinx Studies scholars have come to designate the “black-white binary.” The project of broadening the meaning of “American” is also at the heart of Vargas’s online platform EmergingUS, which is dedicated to understanding a “new America” that is “more multi-ethnic, more immigrant, more colorful than ever before.”

Some African American voices in the #OscarsSoWhite debate also stressed that racism in Hollywood affects nonblack people of color, too. In an interview published on the same day as Vargas’s tweet to Rock, Reign clarified that she created #OscarsSoWhite to address the exclusion of black and nonblack people of color: “there has been a surge of diversity at the Oscars, but there has been an overwhelming lack of other races, Latinx, Native Americans, and Asians, so this definitely is not just about blacks.” But in the context of the Oscars controversy, the most important advocate for expanding the vocabulary of racism in Hollywood was Rock himself. In a 2014 article in The Hollywood Reporter, Rock draws attention to the exploitation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Hollywood: “But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough?” Rock uses the figure of slavery — a controversial rhetorical strategy, as we will see — to explain Hollywood’s racialized division of labor, which consigns Mexicans and Mexican Americans to service and manual jobs:

[T]here’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. […] You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up?

Statements such as these motivated Vargas’s tweet to Rock. In calling on Rock to address the absence of other people of color at the Oscars, Vargas was trying to remind Rock of a political stance that he had already taken. Yet I think Rock was actually being much more radical in his Hollywood Reporter piece than Vargas realized. That piece asks us to imagine how Hollywood looks if we see it not just through the perspective of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but through the perspective of all the people whose exploited labor makes Hollywood possible. As Walter Benjamin put it: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Get Your Own Movement: Politics as Property

Black Twitter’s reaction to LatinoVoices and Vargas was mostly defensive and hostile. Some users equated the call to mention Latinxs alongside black Americans with a denial of the existence of a third group, Afro-Latinxs. This “erasure” was taken to be an expression of antiblackness. For example, one of the first African American users to reply to LatinoVoices tweeted: “funny thing about that tweet is they show that they pretty much forget black Latinos even exist.” Another user tweeted: “fix your damn anti-blackness and stop erasing Afro-Latinxs.” I find this criticism to be a cheap shot that misses the substance of the interventions by LatinoVoices and Vargas, although this sort of simplification is common, perhaps even inevitable, on Twitter. Asking a black actor to address the problems of Latinxs and other nonblack people of color could imply ignorance or disregard of black Latinxs. But this logic is, ironically, the same logic behind conservative white Americans’ rejection of the political slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which in their view means that white lives do not matter. As Black Lives Matter activists and supporters have made abundantly clear, the advocacy of A does not entail the rejection of B. This is true whether A is black lives and B is white lives, or A is nonblack Latinxs and B is Afro-Latinxs. In both cases, the interpretation of advocacy for A as the negation of B functions as a containment strategy that sidesteps the proposition that A is worthy of attention and concern.

Another problematic response to LatinoVoices and Vargas came from Black Twitter users who claimed that Latinxs should speak for themselves instead of demanding that black people speak for them. “It’s not up to black people to represent other racial minorities,” tweeted one African American user; “START YOUR OWN MOVEMENT! That’s not our job,” tweeted another. The critique became especially pointed when it intersected with #NotYourMule, a hashtag started by Mikki Kendall in 2014 in order to highlight the ways that black women are expected to provide free labor to others while remaining silent about their own concerns. Kendall and others resuscitated the hashtag during the debate between Black Twitter and LatinoVoices and Vargas, and implied that their tweets to Rock were yet another case of the instrumentalization of black labor. LatinoVoices and Vargas were allegedly repeating the logic of slavery by demanding that a black man — and by extension, black political actors in general — do the hard work of activism for them, while they sit back and appropriate the rewards. Although Kendall specified later that she was not targeting all nonblack people of color, only those who do not truly stand in solidarity with African Americans, most #NotYourMule tweets asserted that Latinxs do not support black movements enough, that too many of them are complicit in antiblackness, and that they should devote their energies primarily to forming their “own” movements — as if politics were a kind of race-specific private property. If the chance for solidarity exists, it comes not through black people’s adoption of the struggles of other people of color, which would supposedly perpetuate the burden placed on black people to “carry” others, but through the reverse: nonblack people of color must recognize the centrality of antiblackness and commit to foregrounding the problem of antiblackness in their own communities.

The notion that antiblackness is exceptional isn’t unique to Black Twitter. It’s also a touchstone of the intellectual formation within contemporary Black Studies known as Afro-pessimism, one of whose most articulate and polemical representatives is Jared Sexton. In “People-of-Color-Blindness,” an essay that encapsulates several of his core positions, Sexton argues that “slaves are paradigmatically black” and that “blackness serves as the basis of enslavement.” While these may look like empirical statements about the history of slavery, they’re instead formulations of the “political ontology of race,” that is, of the ways that blackness “functions as if it were a metaphysical property across the longue durée of the premodern, modern, and now postmodern eras.” In other words, while the enslavability of black people takes historically different forms, from chattel slavery to contemporary mass incarceration, Sexton claims that its core, antiblackness, is a structural constant, “invariant and limitless.” In the view of Frank B. Wilderson III, another major Afro-pessimist whom Sexton quotes frequently, antiblackness is the condition of possibility of civil society itself: “civil society gains its coherence […] through the violence of black erasure.” While Sexton acknowledges that nonblack people are “unequally arrayed,” his commitment to the ontological priority of antiblackness requires that he lump people into two groups, blacks and “all nonblacks.” Other forms of racialized oppression, such as settler colonialism, labor exploitation, or anti-immigrant and anti-refugee nativism, are all secondary in Sexton’s view to black slavery and its legacies. Sexton thus argues that the very concept of “people of color,” with its collective noun and presumption of commonality, produces its own kind of “colorblindness,” namely, “people-of-color-blindness, a form of colorblindness inherent to the concept of ‘people of color’ to the precise extent that it misunderstands the specificity of antiblackness.” Within this theoretical framework, moving beyond the black-white binary would be tantamount to moving beyond the capacity to think racialization as such.

I find both Afro-pessimism and Black Twitter’s criticisms of LatinoVoices and Vargas to be fundamentally flawed approaches to thinking about racialization in the United States (though again, Black Twitter’s position is quite logical once you take equal opportunity as a starting point). Building on Iyko Day’s critique of the nondialectical, totalizing nature of Afro-pessimism, I propose that Afro-pessimism is a species of what the western Marxist tradition calls “expressive causality.” The Marxist theorization of expressive causality grew out of the critique of reductionist and economistic tendencies within Marxism itself. Although Sexton positions Afro-pessimism against Marxist thought, he reproduces the expressive causality of the worst Marxisms. Using a vulgar Marxist’s architectural metaphors, Sexton replaces economics with antiblackness and argues that social formations are the superstructural expressions of black slavery:

[T]he study of slavery is already and of necessity the study of capitalism, colonialism and settler colonialism, among other things […]. Slavery, as it were, precedes and prepares the way for colonialism, its forebear or fundament or support. Colonialism, as it were, the issue or heir of slavery, its outgrowth or edifice or monument.

I don't intend to dismiss Afro-pessimism. On the contrary, to the extent that Afro-pessimists challenge Latinxs, Asians, Native Americans, and other nonblack people of color to confront their potential role as “junior partners” of white supremacy, to use Wilderson’s term, their interventions are necessary. But I reject the expressive-causal logic according to which complexly mediated social formations are reduced to antiblackness, and according to which everyone necessarily participates in the antiblack foundations of society by virtue of their inclusion in the abstract category of “all nonblack.” Moreover, Sexton and Wilderson trivialize the power of “people of color,” that is, the interracial alliances that already exist in the United States, and that have been active throughout American history. These movements should be object lessons for Afro-pessimism and Black Twitter because they don’t compartmentalize their politics, or frame interracial solidarity as a lazy, racist demand for one group to carry the other, or bicker about whose oppression is more fundamental or “ontological.” The problem with “ontological” theories of racialization is that they want to win Oppression Olympics gold so badly that they concoct ingenious ways to disqualify all nonblack players before they reach the playing field.

But here we meet another complication, for in contrast to LatinoVoices and Vargas, Reign rejected Rock’s capacity to represent her position: “Chris Rock doesn’t speak for #OscarsSoWhite. I do, as its creator. Don’t assume he does because he’s Black.” This is a remarkable statement. It not only reiterates the problematic language of private property — which makes no sense when applied to hashtags — but also reveals an important assumption in many of the critiques of LatinoVoices and Vargas. Those Black Twitter users who told Vargas to start “his” own movement for “his” own people presumed that Latinxs are an undifferentiated mass whose allegiances are, and should be, limited to their own group. With a certain poetic (in)justice, they misrecognized the Asian Vargas as Latinx, due to his Spanish name and his advocacy for Latinxs. The same critics presumed that black people are also an undifferentiated, self-identical mass, and that a black actor, simply by virtue of his blackness, represents all blacks. While calling on Vargas to get his own voice, many critics took for granted that Rock was their voice. But why is it more reasonable to believe that a rich, famous, heterosexual black man can speak for all black people than to believe that this same actor can speak for Latinxs? Why is the one presumed to be legitimate representation while the other is attacked as antiblack exploitation, even though they both require an expansive concept of similarity? To put it the other way around: if Black Twitter could presume that Rock legitimately crosses the gender, class, and sexual divisions within black America so that he represents all blacks, why could they not accept the legitimacy of a request by an undocumented Filipino American for Rock to cross additional boundaries (which he had in fact already done in his Hollywood Reporter essay)? The problem is rooted in what Cedric Johnson calls the false equation of “racial identity with political constituency.” Once we drop the exceptionalist or ontological concept of blackness at work in the #OscarsSoWhite debate, we can probably say that working-class and poor black women, on the one hand, and working-class and poor nonblack Latinas, on the other, have just as much, if not more, in common with each other than working-class and poor black women have in common with Rock.

Metaphors of Race

Once we start with equal opportunity, then the different political locations of African Americans and Latinx Americans in American race discourses are likely to structure the ensuing struggle. While Sexton’s critique of “people-of-color-blindness” also aims to highlight difference, my position differs from his insofar as I don’t ontologize and rank different modes of racialization relative to blackness. Indeed, a consideration of the different discursive positions of African Americans and nonblack people of color shows that Sexton’s defense of the privileged explanatory power of blackness and antiblackness is somewhat redundant. For when LatinoVoices and Vargas asked Rock to address Latinxs, Asians, and others, they practiced a rhetorical strategy that is probably unavoidable for nonblack people of color whenever they intervene in racial discourse: they compared their oppression to the oppression of African Americans. More than a mere means of freeloading off black people and treating them as “mules,” this rhetorical strategy negotiates the privileged status of blackness in public consciousness of race, racism, and antiracist struggle.

I must try to be crystal clear on this point. I am not saying that black people are privileged members of American society. Such a belief is not only demonstrably and nonsensically false, but also plays into ideologies of postracial colorblindness and racist discourses that claim that whites are the true underdogs of liberal America, while blacks and Latinxs allegedly receive constant government handouts. One Obama does not cancel structural racism that took centuries to build. However, I am saying that blackness is the default setting for most discussions of race in the United States, that slavery and Jim Crow and antiblack policing are the lenses through which most Americans understand racism — that is, when they acknowledge its existence at all — and that the African American Civil Rights movement is the gold-standard narrative of resistance to racism. If I may say so from my own perspective as a nonblack American of color, this default setting gestures toward one of the great contradictions of black life in America. On the one hand, far too many black Americans are treated as a disposable, even killable, surplus population, making it politically necessary to assert and struggle for the basic dignity of black lives. On the other hand, black history and culture are institutionally and popularly memorialized and celebrated more than the history and culture of any other racialized group — except for white history and culture, which of course goes unmarked as just plain old history and culture.

If nonblack people of color want to be heard, they must find a position within this dominant, and contradictory, racial discourse. Consider the case of Luis Torres, a Mexican immigrant who was suffocated by Texas police in 2002. Latinx activists spoke of Torres’s death as “Rodney King en Enspañol,” referencing the infamous beating of African American motorist Rodney King by white Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Here I can only underscore the assessment of John Márquez, a professor of African American Studies and Latino/a Studies at Northwestern University who articulates a powerful alternative to Afro-pessimism. Marquez’s analysis of the rhetoric of “Rodney King en Enspañol” is worth quoting at length:

This maneuver, I believe, derives from a haunting presupposition that the death of persons like Torres […] will not spur much alarm from the body politic, that the names of those Latino/a victims will never be recognizable as are names such as Rodney King and Trayvon Martin within debates on race and racism in the United States, and that the mass-scale police brutality mandated by border militarization and other harsh measures to police and punish immigrants will not receive much attention in the “lives matter” campaigns that have proliferated as of late. The activism elicited by these cases implies that this invisibility is due, in part, to the black-white binary, a discursive condition through which “relations” between whites and African Americans are positioned as the epicenter of “race relations” writ large, and in part to the extent that the histories and struggles of groups like Latinos/as, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Arab Americans are routinely overlooked or marginalized in political discourse.

Surely someone could reply to the Rodney King analogy by telling Latinx activists to get their “own” history, or by criticizing the way their analogy dulls the specificity of antiblack violence by equating it with anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant violence. But while such views might be motivated by authentic and legitimate concern for African Americans, they refuse to acknowledge the metaphoricity that is necessary for Latinxs and other nonblack people of color to make their claims recognizable in black-white racial discourses.

The situation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Hollywood reiterates these broader social dynamics. Let’s return to one of the sparks that helped to ignite #OscarsSoWhite, namely, the absence of nominations of black actors and actresses in 2015 and 2016. Once we stop seeing the Oscars exclusively in black and white, a more complex picture emerges. The Economist magazine has tabulated that since 2000, African Americans have received only 10% of Oscar nominations. Latinxs have received only 3%, and Asians only 1%. When each group’s nominations are compared to their share of the total population of the United States, the disproportions become more revealing. Whites are nominated at disproportionately higher rates, blacks are nominated at rates roughly equal to their population size, and Latinxs and Asians are nominated at disproportionately lower rates.

Thus, black Americans are significantly more visible in Hollywood than other people of color. They attend drama schools at higher rates than nonblack people of color, they audition for top roles in major films at disproportionately higher rates, and they receive more Oscar nominations. And, as in the case of Rock, who has hosted the Oscars twice, African Americans have had multiple “opportunities” (there’s that ideological code word again) to host the show since the 1970s, whereas, as far as I can tell, a Latinx or Asian American has never hosted.

Of course, the success of black Americans in Hollywood deserves celebration. African Americans have produced a brilliant and thriving popular culture by working through the culture industry. It’s also important to clarify that I’m not simply trying to turn the tables on the Afro-pessimist position by demonstrating that the oppression of Latinxs and Asians is more fundamental than antiblack racism. My point is that Latinxs and Asians asked Rock to mention them not simply because they want black people to be their “mules,” but because Rock had an “opportunity” that they didn’t have, and they used the rhetorical strategies of nonblack people of color to make that point.

Yet even LatinoVoices’s and Vargas’s call for racial solidarity is ultimately damaged by the logic of equal opportunity. Let’s assume that #OscarsSoWhite wins, equal opportunity for all races is achieved, and black and nonblack people of color receive Oscars in proportion to their demographics. Latinxs and Asian Americans also get their turns to host the show. Hollywood’s economic inequality will persist, but it will look more diverse. And the exploited will continue to mop up after the celebrities.

A World Without Hollywood

Understanding the significance of blackness and antiblackness is necessary for any analysis of American society, especially as it becomes ever more undeniable that racism did not end with the Civil Rights movement and the Obama presidency. It’s equally obligatory for nonblack people of color to critique antiblackness in their own communities and political movements. If there is one point on which I agree fully with Sexton, it is his view that “every attempt to defend the rights and liberties of the latest victims of state repression will fail to make substantial gains insofar as it forfeits or sidelines the fate of blacks.” “Without blacks on board,” Sexton continues, “the only viable political option and the only effective defense against the intensifying cross fire will involve greater alliance with an antiblack civil society.” But while blackness is a necessary component of the study of racialization, it’s not sufficient. To believe that this statement is antiblack requires the false logic that the critique of racism is a zero-sum struggle over political private property, such that affirming the semi-autonomous logic of other forms of racialization means taking away the political focus that “belongs” to black people. We need to understand the various ways that different racialized groups stand in relation to the history and structures of racism, as well as the various ways that they stand in relation to one another, without falling into a competitive race to the bottom to prove whose oppression is more important, and without fighting one another for the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Instead of vying for a seat at that table in a game of racial musical chairs, we must work to upend the table together.

That work starts with imagining truly popular and democratic forms of culture outside the control of Disney, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Paramount. Don’t get me wrong — the Hollywood culture industry has generated many brilliant films. I’m a scholar of popular culture, after all. And I appreciate seeing a diverse range of peoples on screen, especially when people of color are allowed to be full human beings, and not simply formulas like “Best Black Friend.” But in the end, the fundamental problem with the Oscars isn’t their whiteness, it’s the fact that they exist. Yes, racially diverse commodification is better than lily white commodification. But that’s a very low standard for popular culture. We can start to raise the bar by imagining a world from which the Oscars and Hollywood have disappeared.