The Racism Of Awards “Merit”

By Sarah Hannah Gomez

As a media junkie, intersectional feminist, and masochist, awards season is my favorite time of year.

For me, it starts earlier than the Golden Globes and Oscar announcements. The first awards ceremony I tune into is the Youth Media Awards, which occurs in late January at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting. You’ve probably heard of the Newbery Medal and Caldecott Medal (for children’s books and picture book art, respectively), but the organization also hands out awards for YA books, nonfiction, audiobooks, and more. If you work in libraries, bookstores, or publishing, the YMAs are a BFD. Just like awards for film and television, winners’, nominees’, and finalists’ careers are impacted by their appearances on selected lists and shiny stickers on book covers. For actors, awards lead to their names on posters and more scripts passed directly to them; for writers and illustrators, awards help keep their books in print, get them new deals, and ensure they’ll appear on class syllabi.

Shocker: Book awards are as traditionally white as those of acting and film awards.

This year, though, Youth Media Award winners were comprised of an unprecedented number of what we now term “diverse books” (meaning that the story and its characters deviate in some way from being white, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, Christian, and/or middle-to-upper class. We’ll talk another time about how that word is problematic and continue using it as convenient shorthand for now). In other words, the award slate actually looked like the diverse “melting pot” America is.

It’s past time that major awards honored diverse experiences, rather than leaving them to the realm of “ethnic” awards or other identity-centered ones (there are, for example, the Coretta Scott King Awards, for black or African American creators, and the Stonewall Awards for books about the LGBTQIA+ experience, to name a couple). Those awards, while created with goodwill and of incredible importance if it means they help diverse books stay in print and go to the kids who need them, also tend to prompt in white people the idea that their work is done because they’ve supported diverse awards, and now they can go back to the other, more important ones. That is to say, the very people who champion diversity and say that they want more diverse books (or movies, or TV) in the world are also the ones who are perfectly happy to ghettoize things into niche awards so that their stories of being privileged aren’t lost.

But while the Internet largely cheered the great books honored that day, members of the audience (the social media one and the physical one gathered in Boston for the event) noticed some tittering about how it was a shame that the awards seemed to have been given “to promote diversity” that year. And maybe committee members should have just gone with the criteria for each award, not an agenda.

Of course awards are subjective, and as a past and present member of literary award committees, I can tell you that the tastes and experiences of the group judging winners greatly inform the outcome of the award, even if its criteria stay the same. And there’s always room for the public to say they didn’t like a committee’s choices — or the actual book, movie, film being honored. Argue it out! Talk about how you thought the characterization was weak, that the dialogue was flat, that it was totally derivative of that other thing from a few years ago. Go for it. Cultural dialogue is great.

But you don’t get to claim that diversity and quality, or diversity and merit, or diversity and artistic achievement are mutually exclusive.

Diversity “only exists if there is an assumed neutral point from which ‘others’ are ‘diverse,’” says Kavita Bhanot at Media Diversified. What you’re really saying when you claim that diverse award winners are the result of an “agenda” is that anybody who is not white AND cisgender AND heterosexual AND non-disabled AND Christian AND middle-to-upper class is ineligible for entry in any discussion on artistic merit or quality — let alone recognition of it.

That is, as my friend Paula Young Lee has termed it, white institutionalism.

All of us, even nonwhites, have been trained in the western, Eurocentric world to view stories in a particular way. We are fans of Campbell’s hero archetype, even though it describes what is an ingrained western structure of storytelling, not a universal one. We are drawn to linear prose. We like a clear protagonist and antagonist. We want to relate with our heroes — or heroines, but only if she’s a Strong Female Character.

And that’s fine that we respond to those things. There’s nothing wrong with cultural heritage or common themes if they have resonance for society. Tradition is great! But there’s a lot wrong with claiming to be a melting pot but not actually melding together the multiple forms of expression that come with being a multicultural society. Ethnic and religious groups have storytelling methods and themes that speak to their morals and values, their intragroup language, their common histories. And those groups live in America. They deserve to be honored as a part of American cultural production.

Whiteness, too, has traditions and vernaculars and shared histories. It’s just that you’ve been told that they’re called “American” — that everyone else’s deviates from that norm. But American is all the things, not just the traditions of the conquering class.

White institutionalism means that the white aesthetic is the yardstick against which all books by people of color are measured. “Merit” and “literary quality,” which appear in the criteria for many book awards, are defined by Eurocentric styles of writing, from characters who never mention race (because to be white, whether on paper or in real life, is to be able to choose not to be aware of one’s race) to characters who speak in “perfect English.” And those characters live according to white-defined rules of respectability, screwing with certain establishments but not others, and operating in a setting that is as white as they are, because they don’t have any training in seeing the world otherwise (see: 10 seasons of Friends and three black people).

The meme “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” has been going around too long for me to figure out to whom attribution belongs, but it’s apt. When the YMAs looked like reality, instead of white myopia, it scared people and jarred them. And why wouldn’t it? It even jarred people of color, because we’re so used to not seeing ourselves.

The YMAs were a win. The SAG Awards were a win. The committees and judges of these awards looked through the great amount of eligible media projects, recognized that people from many backgrounds make valuable contributions, even if their stories don’t resonate with absolutely everyone, and yet because they represented hard work, artistic interest, and resonance with some people, they passed the test of “merit.”

The Oscars were not a win. As it happens pretty much every year, they ignored the wider field of eligible entries and focused on stories that the largely white Academy sees as relevant. But to say, as so many headlines have, that “diversity was the winner” at X award ceremony, does not help. Such framing stresses the idea that to decentralize whiteness is to diminish the very idea of artistic achievement. The winners at the ceremonies were the winners.

Even if you support diversity, advocating for it as if it’s an agenda or a revolution isn’t helping. You’re just reinforcing the status quo. What needs to be called out is a lack of diversity, not the presence of it. “It isn’t about limiting creativity, it’s about changing a single narrative that is often marketed as ‘universal’ into a truly universal narrative,” says Justina Ireland, a novelist and activist.

Diverse representation of American creators at an American award ceremony is reality, nothing else.

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