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Cult of Whiteness: #OscarsSoWhite, Donald Trump, and the End of America
Part One,
by Max S. Gordon

This article shared 5748 times since Wed Feb 17, 2016
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This week's Windy City Times publishes the first of a four-part in-depth essay by Max. S. Gordon.

"You've got to learn to leave the table when love's no longer being served." — Nina Simone

"I, too, sing America." — Langston Hughes



It is befitting that a conversation about racism and the Oscars occurred so close to Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, as it is impossible to talk about Hollywood or America without deconstructing whiteness. If you haven't noticed, whiteness is currently under attack, is deeply threatened, and may be, when all is said and done, eradicated completely. ( When whiteness crumbles, patriarchal dominance will be right behind it. ) When I speak of whiteness, I am not talking necessarily about individual white people, but the construct of whiteness, the cult of whiteness, while particularly onerous to people of color everywhere, on some level oppresses us all.

For many of us, a discussion about the Oscars may seem petty and insignificant given what is currently going on in this country. America, at this moment, is a country in flames. We have a city tricked by an indifferent governor and his administration into drinking poisoned water, which, regardless of his original intentions, may have had homicidal results; teachers in the same state walking out of their classrooms because the ceiling was literally falling down on them; and a mayor in another Midwestern city allegedly covering up police brutality and civilian murders in order to protect his career. And yet, as I write this, these men are still in office, still governing.

We trip through life, unable to digest the grief and rage over one violent incident before having to face another. Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin. Americans all, deserving of our protection and justice, but disregarded once out of the headlines or courtroom—like so much garbage. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. The gross negligence and injustice of it all could send you half out your mind, but even insanity is a luxury now, as we still have to feed our kids, we have to go work. Everything is backwards—instead of sleeping through our bad dreams, we awake each morning to fresh nightmares.

Homeless men and women and the mentally ill roam the streets sick, desperately in need, and it is estimated that close to sixteen million children live below the poverty level. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, as the prison industry continues to turn a profit. For many of us, feeling safe and protected is part of a nostalgic past. We dread the terrorist who may be lurking on the subway car or train, or who may blow us sky-high while we're standing by the coffee-machine at work. We scan the faces as we board the plane, wondering if the person sitting across the aisle is the enemy and this flight will be our last. Or perhaps it will be the high school student during second period who takes us out, and if not him, then the maniac with the assault rifle who finishes us off in a movie theater while we watch Star Wars with our kids. And now, after Charleston, there's blood on the collection plate too, as even the church pew is marked as a potential crime scene.

In light of this gruesome reality, who the hell cares about a bullshit self-indulgent contest that is always an hour too long, hosted by someone who too often disappoints the viewing audience and critics, then followed by media coverage of the millions of dollars in loaned diamonds and a debate over which color gown dominated the red carpet. Given what we face as a nation at the moment, a dinner-table conversation that shifts from social welfare and justice to whether Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win a best actor Oscar this year may seem almost blasphemous.

But because our need for escape has never been greater, we may crave movies more than ever. The Oscars matter because in American culture and all over the world, movies matter. And in a country where an actor can leave Hollywood, become governor of a state, and then become president of the United States, movies matter because stars matter. We are a society decidedly built on a system that refused to have a king and queen, yet superstars are the closest thing we have to royalty. And if anyone doubts a star's power, consider how stars have been used in modern history, to sell clothing, to sell cosmetics, to sell religions, to sell politics, to sell wars. Rock stars, sports stars, political stars, TV stars. The right star might influence you to go to AA for recovery, to leave a bad marriage, to try a new diet or health regimen, to even join a cult. And, one may argue, nothing fascinates us more or wields more power in the American consciousness than the movie star.


"Winning!" — Charlie Sheen

"Can I speak to you before you go to Hollywood?" — Labelle

In 2004, I ended a piece entitled "Bringing Down the Hope: Condoleezza Rice, Black Capitalism, and War" with the line, "In the end, despite her many achievements, I can't claim Dr. Rice. If she is the realization of Dr. King's dream, he should have been more specific."

Deliver us from the writer who quotes him or herself, but I include it here because what motivated that piece more than a decade ago is the same question that inspired this one: for people of African descent, a people who are themselves the descendants of slaves, what is our relationship to American capitalism and patriarchy and should it be any different because of our horrific past? What does it mean for us as black Americans in this society to "win"?

Is it "winning", for example, when a black star makes millions for his or her latest clothing line or sneaker, and endorses a company which uses the equivalent of slave or child labor in a developing nation? Shouldn't we, who know what it means to be on the wrong side of capitalism, know better? For the shining black capitalist in 2016, out to pillage and get rich or die tryin', is there any less blood on the money because it goes into in a black hand instead of a white one? What is the black fulfillment of the American dream?

And what does black success really look like in Hollywood? Hollywood—which so often has an aggressive disregard for the black actor and has been more devoted to its stereotypes and romance about black life than to the truth. When Hollywood is negligent, what is the black actor's responsibility to honor "the blues song" and the black American experience? Should we praise the black actor any time he appears, even if the vehicle encourages the kind of contempt that affirms, most decidedly, that black lives don't matter?

We may root for Kerry Washington, exhilarated that a black woman is the lead on one of the most popular shows on television, and that Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, writer and producer, has been credited with single-handedly saving a major network. And yet, as I've also written before, there are aspects of their show Scandal, including its depiction of torture, that I find deeply problematic. But, business is business.

Angela Bassett is gifted performer and I'm always glad to see Gabourey Sidibe in anything. My goodwill towards them and my curiosity about the casting of Patti Labelle ( underused as a non-singing black maid! ) kept me watching American Horror Story ( AHS ). What I didn't anticipate was its truly perverse depiction of slaves being tortured, which I still regret seeing to this day. ( The real horror is the thought of children being exposed to the show. ) AHS has a certain creative extravagance and one is titillated by the knowledge that because it has no boundaries, anything can, and will, go down. Some people call this "brave". ( You watch parts through your fingers, like young children watching scary movies, not sure if you can handle what comes next. And often you can't. ) The premise of AHS is full of potential too often is unrealized, particularly when it applies to examinations of racial terror: weaving together history and fiction while revealing what lurks in our subconscious, the history we refuse to integrate. James Baldwin wrote about The Exorcist in his book on Hollywood, The Devil Finds Work ( 1976 ):

For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. … The devil has no need of any dogma—though he can use them all—nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do. The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. … Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children—can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

With the exception of one rare, beautiful episode of AHS that featured an extraordinary performance by actress Naomi Grossman, cruelty is woven into the show's fabric and its lack of empathy for its victims. Perhaps the show's sociopathic tone is its biggest indictment of American life. I finally gave up last year after the extended, brutal rape of a gay man in the season's opening while another character looked on; mesmerized, amused. Whatever one thinks of the show, however, I've taken time to examine it here because it's money-making Hollywood at its best, it has millions of viewers, and it definitely hires black actors. I've watched American Horror Story with ambivalence, often glad a black person has a job, then remembering that the person who flips the switch on the electric chair has a job.

We need to be able to say no, an example led by black actors, particularly black female actors like Esther Rolle, Cicely Tyson, Beah Richards, and Alfre Woodard. Robert Townsend reminded us in 1987's "Hollywood Shuffle" that black actors don't have to debase themselves in Hollywood to "win"; there is always work at the post office. But then this: Hattie McDaniel, Oscar's first black winner is often quoted as saying, when criticized for her role in the film Gone With the Wind: "Hell, I can make a lot more money playing a maid than being one!"


"The new racism: Racism without 'racists.' Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will. It's common to have racism without racists." — Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

If you've followed the #OscarSoWhite controversy, then you know that for a second year in a row an exclusive roster of white actors, directors and writers were nominated, with what seems with one exception like the deliberate exclusion of any artists of color. Lawyer April Reign created OscarsSoWhite as a hashtag in response to the Oscar race of 2015. Reign told Forbes magazine last year, "There were many performances both in front of and behind the camera by people from marginalized communities that I believe should have been recognized."

Jada Pinkett Smith, after the 2016 nominations were announced and history seemed to have repeated itself, recorded a video on Martin Luther King day about the Oscar race. She instructed black Americans: "Begging for acknowledgement or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people and we are powerful, and let's not forget it."

Whether she was motivated by an activist's fervor or sour grapes because her husband, Will Smith, wasn't nominated for his performance this year in the film Concussion, Jada looked beautiful, noble even, and her words resonated with those who preach self-determination. While she never mentions the word boycott, she made it clear that not only will she not be attending the Oscars, she won't even be watching. Spike Lee came forward in his inimitable way, joined her, and asked, "How is it possible for the second consecutive year that all the nominees under the actor category are white?"

The arguments and rebuttals follow on social media, including a mesmerizing response ( or meltdown, depending on whom you ask ) by Janet Hubert ( "Aunt Viv" ), Will Smith's ex-colleague from his The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air television days. Hubert's critique, perhaps motivated in part by a career debacle involving Smith, is the YouTube equivalent of the poison pen. However savage her approach, her points can't be dismissed: she calls the Smiths out on their entitlement and timing, suggesting they may be motivated more by self-interest than black pride.

Others weigh in: Charlotte Rampling channels unfiltered white indignation and, in a moment of rare honesty for an actor speaking to the press, claims, "( #OscarsSoWhite ) is racist to whites. One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list." Piers Morgan tweets soon after in response: "MISSING: a set of marbles. If found, please return to Charlotte Rampling." George Clooney acknowledges that we are "moving in the wrong direction", Danny Devito admits that "the entire country is a racist country", and Whoopi Goldberg reasons on The View: "Oscar can't be that racist, I won one!"

Will Smith informs us that in his experience "prejudice is everywhere, but racism in America is rare." I am irritated at Smith, because what he ends up describing in his critique are racial preferences, with the usual, "we're all prejudiced" line that too often lets real racism off the hook. Smith has no analysis of institutional racism, which is required in this particular conversation, as Oscar and Hollywood are American institutions. And an analysis of institutional racism may help us understand how we can have generation after generation of new people in new positions, how everyone can be well-intentioned and talk enthusiastically of making progress, and yet year after year the only black faces we see on the executive floors of Hollywood studios are operating the elevator or pushing a food cart.

Whoopi is another performer who uses her platform to talk about individually prejudiced people, whom she colloquially refers to as "boneheads". She refuses, however, to discuss the power of institutional racism and sexism, how insidious it is, and how it is perpetuated throughout our society in our universities, corporations and law-enforcement. Whoopi has replaced Truman Capote as this generation's talk-show bullfrog. Truman, whose work I adore, did his star turns on The Tonight Show with slithery insinuations and gossip, while Whoopi nastily shouts down anyone who attempts to disagree with her politics on The View. She openly tells the audience, Don't bother writing me because I don't give a care if you disagree. Her opinions on race lack depth, and I believe she's dangerous. We're invited to think that because she dresses in schleppy clothes and occasionally faux-farts on the air, that she's "everywoman", "just like us", and not a millionaire Hollywood insider.

Certain black actors love to keep discussions of race on the level of personal experience, knowing that it won't implicate or insult the white members of the audience who may watch their movies and pay their salary. They are allowed to remain the favored black performer, the audience leaves their racism unexplored, and everyone stays happy and pats themselves on the back for having had an honest conversation about race—racism in America is treated as just another "hot topic." Conversations about institutional racism, sexism and homophobia are always more threatening than mere talk of "prejudice", because they extend us past the whims of personal bias and force us to examine what is endemic in the belief systems of our culture; what keeps injustice alive, regardless of who the individual players are.

In the end, I am more annoyed at myself for expecting anything different from Smith. He is the black Tom Cruise ( or maybe the only Tom Cruise, as Cruise isn't quite Cruise anymore ), and for Will to talk about racism, and the frustrations of black life, goes against his brand as an actor. He's our golden boy, winning, and always full of sunshine. ( He'll win his Oscar playing Obama one day. )


"I love being famous. It's almost like being white." — Chris Rock

For the mere mortals of social media, Jada's video inspires discussion and debate. Some claim we need our own movies, our own awards shows, and, most importantly, we need to stop looking to Hollywood and white people for help or validation. This argument asks: How many times do we as black Americans need to be abused and rejected by Hollywood before we get it? Certain white people and institutions simply refuse to acknowledge us, and always will. It's time we empowered ourselves.

Others contend that as black Americans we should be able to participate within the system anywhere and in any way that we choose. And that no matter how much one may appreciate the BET ( Black Entertainment Television ) or NAACP awards, they will never wield the same economic power or command the same media attention as the Oscars in Hollywood. We have a right to demand equality within organizations, aware that completely divesting from and abandoning America's institutions is a romantic fantasy. ( Along with the suspicion that the true white segregationist may be so delighted to see us leave he'll not only buy our plane ticket but help us pack. )

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. As black Americans, it has been reported that we are responsible for approximately 46% of movie ticket sales. Which means if we stop going to movies, we could shut the industry down overnight. Jada is right; we have to know our power. And we need our own projects, we need our own film companies, and we need our people to support them. We need to know that our projects are worthy and invest in them, whether they are recognized by "mainstream" institutions or not.

But the Civil Rights Movement wasn't a mass exodus from the South in which activists said, "If you're not going to serve us, fine. We'll get our own lunch counters, department stores, hotels, and restaurants." In other words, demanding equality in America and insisting on full participation isn't the same as asking for white validation and approval.

We desegregated buses, schools, hotels and major league sports because we are Americans, and this is our country too. And not because we landed here by accident on a cruise ship, or as my high school teacher seemed to suggest, because slavery was a shrewd career move orchestrated by bored Africans. We built this country with our bare hands, from Florida to New York to California—sometimes paid for our work, but too often kidnapped and exploited, or incarcerated and exploited for it. Black men and women, including my own grandfather, have fought in our wars. One thing you'll never see in this country is #IraqWarSoWhite.

We are entitled to enjoy every last square inch of this land, and Jackie Robinson and Aretha Franklin are just as American as John D. Rockefeller and Betsy Ross. Walter Lee Younger tells the character Linder who wants to pay to keep his black family out of a white neighborhood in Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun: "we have decided to move into our house because my father … earned it for us brick by brick."

We know the experiences of black performers in the United States from Vegas to Mississippi, who were told to stay in trailers behind the hotels where they were headlining, asked never to use the pool, and to come and go through the kitchen. Ella Fitzgerald, like many jazz greats, had to have a white person buy her food in towns where it was potentially life-threatening for a black person even to enter a white restaurant. These stories are part of our collective history.

Which is why #OscarsSoWhite isn't just a "black cause", and why some have suggested that white actors should be the ones to boycott the Oscars, not blacks. We may not need white validation, but in the battle against racism, we can use all the help we can get. It mattered, for example, when Walter Yetnikoff, President of CBS records, threatened to pull his other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, from MTV in the Eighties when they refused to play Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean". Or when David Bowie confronted MTV's Mark Goodman on the channel's system of musical apartheid and why black musicians weren't being played. The truly secure white artist doesn't want an #OscarsSoWhite or anything else "so white". He or she wants to compete with and learn from black artists, knowing that the victory of winning any award is sweeter when the playing field is equitable. She understands that she needs both Mozart and Sly Stone, Bessie Smith and Joni Mitchell. And she will acknowledge her appreciation and creative debt to the black American artist, as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones both shared and acknowledged a love for black American blues.

Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos ( University of Michigan Press, 1991 ), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction ( Henry Holt, 1996 ). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His published essays include, "Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence" and "Maybe Yesterday, But Not Tonight: A Black Homosexual Speaks to Governor Mike Pence." This column originally ran on February 7, 2016, at .

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