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Whitewash: Is Hollywood racist?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | February 16, 2011

Amid recent, alarmed news reports of a “whitewashed” Oscar season — in which none of the nominees are minorities — concerns abound about whether and how much Hollywood is racist. No, some might say, look at 2002, when both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington picked up Oscars for Best Actor/Actress (I always did find it annoying that Washington, one of the finest actors of this generation and my choice to have played Robert Langdon in the Dan Brown books adaptations, finally won the Oscar for playing a violent thug, of all things. Talk about perpetuating stereotypes). While we’ve come a long way towards achieving diversity since the times of Lena Horne or Sindey Poitier, we have a long way to go.

Is Hollywood blatantly racist for not including a more diverse set of actors and actresses, as well as movies, in its lists of nominees? My strong guess is that privately, people are fuming at the suggestion. Are we supposed to nominate lesser performances for the sake of keeping up appearances? Do we give up our standards of fine acting for the sake of being politically correct? How is that being fair? It kind of begins to echo arguments against affirmative action.

I’m not a movie buff, but I’d be willing to bet that the Oscar nominees this year are, in fact, the best performances of the season. And I don’t think the choice should be to change the candidates around only for the sake of avoiding the “whitewashed” label. What I do think needs to change, however, is the false-choice mentality about diversity versus quality. Rather than change who is eligible for awards for the sake of cosmetics, we need to reform the process that leads to the awards so that the best performances are both diverse and stellar.

Historically, psychologists in my area of study been concerned with the question, how do we reduce and combat racism? This is of course a laudable goal, but the focus on understanding the processes from the perspective of those who stereotype — rather than those who are targets of stereotypes — reflects the historical realities of who was asking the questions. Over the past twenty years, the demographics of the scientists have slowly changed, and with this structural change, the types of questions have come to reflect a wider swath of human experience. This is why I encourage both majority and minority students in my classes to go into research psychology, because they are the agents of change.

In a similar way, the types of movies and actors that end up on the big screen, and eligible for an Oscar, don’t reflect bias as much as they mirror a particular set of life experiences and perspectives. The truth is that people make movies, act in movies, and pay to see movies that are of interest to them, and which connect in some meaningful way to their life experiences. The stories that are likely to be told and promulgated begin with the people who dream up the stories, the plays, the scripts.

Ask yourself: if you don’t have a diverse group of writers, which life stories are most likely to be told? Another set of gates through which writers’ ideas have to pass is the publishers, the directors, and the producers of the work. The works that connect and speak to people at this level end up being the ones chosen… and again, without diversity, a certain type of narrative is likely to be (or not be!) chosen.  Then you move on to the studios, the big-time producers — again, another set of gatekeepers for art that is likely being fairly evaluated for its artistic value, but draws from a limited spectrum of the human experience.

By the time you get to the Oscar race, the “whitewashing” is less the fault of anybody consciously or unconsciously being racist; rather, the bias is inevitable through a lack of diversity and representation from the very beginning stages. We need not give up quality for diversity: what we need instead is a commitment to diversity in the film schools, the writing workshops, even the grade school drama classes.

We cannot coax powerful stories and powerful performances from the top down: it has to be a bottom up strategy, where we recognize that a commitment to diversity is not just for political correctness, but because it enriches the diversity of experiences that will ultimately lead us to steer clear of cosmetic diversity without substance.

Imagine how much more fertile Hollywood would be with a more diverse set of stories. That would be something to stand in line for.

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

Comments to “Whitewash: Is Hollywood racist?

  1. My problem with hollywood is they steal black history and accomplishments total white supremacy sublime.

  2. It amuses me no end how people want to have it both ways. When ever the topic comes up about the portrayal of minorities in film, or the lack of progressive roles, half the people begin with the, “why does it always have to be about color? You people try to make a Black thing out of everything.” Then the other half chimes in with, “Black people are only about X % of the population so of course there aren’t that many movies with Black characters.”

    Well if we’re supposed to be such a colorblind society, how is it that so many people know the percentages? If Hollywood is so colorblind how is it that Black’s tend to get choosen for only “certain” types of roles? See the problem isn’t with the percentages. I’d be happy to get 18% of films starring a Black character if they were excellent films; however most times they aren’t even close.

  3. Dear Professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton,

    Please note the African American Race represents anywhere between 12 – 15% of the American population. With that being said of course your not going to have that many black actors or black writers. People have this incredible talent of making convincing arguments about what say humans have and it reality the say they truly have.

    Thank you

    Gordon jones

    • Actually, we represent much more than 15% of the population. Due to beauracratic manipulations with U.S. Census data in defining “race,” the numbers are a desperate attempt to make whites appear to be the country’s overwhelming majority. How convienent the one-drop rule no longer applies…

    • @Gordon Jones
      If you look at the total population of the minority and majority population in the U.S, minority population is about a third, pretty soon it will be a half, so there is no reason for Hollywood to ignore talented actors of color…they’re scared.

  4. Not many people watch the awards and people donot realy care who wins or doesnt but people watch the movies these winners and losers play part in. Now the problem is not who you give the awards to. Racism was here long before hollywood or the movie industry and the awards, but instead of using hollywood to combat it, it used it to get views. A research would have revealed how boring it makes a movie to have a black scientist or a white thug or a white servant in a black family or a black superhero. The fact remains that hollywood is racist.

  5. Thanks for these thoughts. I have been fascinated by the fact that each ethnic group unconsciously creates stories and heros that conform to their cultural biases (ie. white Jesus / black Jesus), and I totally agree that we need a “bottom up strategy” to change the media and underlying systems towards a more diverse, more tolerant society. The problem is there are so many unconscious influences affecting the people that make the big decisions at Hollywood. To remove the biases inherent in the predominately “white” Hollywood and American film Acadamy staff, the Oscar nominees should be voted up by the public, much the same way that American Idol, youtube or other video contests work. This would allow a greater diversity of of input and keep things balanced. Mass public voting was once a difficult and expensive task, but times have changed since the first silver screen films came out. The Internet makes public voting extremely cost effective, and paves the road to a more balanced future. That’s the idea behind crowd sourcing (ie. wikipedia), and I’m hoping the future can be more tolerant because of these technologies.

  6. Here is some criticism of this year’s Oscar winners or of some of the nominations — I want to point out that the Oscar nominees and winners this year are maybe not the best performances of the season.

    But I don’t think this is due to Hollywood’s racism. It’s more due to the Academy incompetence and the way the whole nomination and awarding process works.

    My personal opinion about the lack of black actors is related with some other not so obvious factors. I agree that it depends on the screenplays to some extent. But there is also something else. For good or for bad, a big part of the (well-known) human history has been related to white people. This is not a fault of the Academy. But probably a fault of theirs is that they tend to pick very often historical movies for nominations in many of the categories. Well, it’s not so often in Best Animated Feature category but there are neither white nor yellow actors in the animated films. 🙂

    Another issue could be that the majority of Academy members are white people. So many of their friends or whatever kind of relationships are probably white people and it’s most likely (even if it is not intentional) to vote for someone among your circle than for somebody not belonging to it.

  7. @Natalie: I hear what you’re saying, but a wave of scientific research suggests that a colorblind strategy — trying to “ignore the concept of race altogether,” as you write — doesn’t reduce racism. It just makes it take different forms, strains race relations, and boosts resentment among the targets of prejudice. This is at least partly because of the cognitive fact that, as much as we’d like racism to go away by pretending race doesn’t exist, racial differences are salient to us from the time we’re as young as 18 months old, even registering on an instantaneous, subconscious level.

    We’ve published a few essays on the topic in the magazine I edit, Greater Good, such as this essay on the neuroscience of prejudice.

    And this piece on the perils of “colorblindness” in the classroom.

    There’s also this great, relevant essay on the implications of all this research for how/whether parents should discuss race with their kids.

  8. ACTUALLY, the best way to combat racism is not to put emphasis on diversity, but to ignore the concept of race altogether. End institutionalized racism (affirmative action) and ignore skin color. Everybody is EQUAL, and you want them all to be seen as such then ignore race completely.

  9. I LOVE the movies, on a big/wide screen, w/Quad sound; not on a small IPAD, or smiliar devise.
    There has Always been racism in movies.
    – a happy, caring slave (mother figure) in charge of spoiled adults
    – a dependable handly man w/all white Nuns
    – a psychic reader
    – a tough Sgt. (father figure) in the Army
    – a (new) slave fighting for freedom
    – a rogue cop
    – a woman w/husband in prison, sleeps w/white man, etc.

    What happened to the movie Malcolm X
    …For Colored Girls, etc.

    I could go on, but you know the deal!!!

    They only want people of color to look a certain way……

  10. Thank you Dr. Mendoza-Denton. I enjoyed your piece. I agree with you that the story makers themselves are at “fault” for the lack of diversity. (I wouldn’t say they are truly at fault; I don’t think they are racist for creating one story over another, not to mention the fact that the stories that they know are more likely white stories)

    I propose a solution: I challenge writers and Hollywood to create a series of satire films that are “color washed” in various ways. (This wouldn’t need to preclude excellent storytelling, and it could be very funny) Examples: a typical story about inner city struggling poor blacks with guns, crime, and teenage pregnancy except every actor is white. Maybe a story about high Parisian society in the 1700’s with poofy dresses, high highfalutin language, and cavier except all the actors are black.


  11. Great piece Dr. Mendoza-Denton! I fully agree that the change will occur from us focusing on how diversity enriches all of us and our perspectives. I’ve always heard that we do best to focus on what we want = celebration of our magnificent diversity, rather than thinking in terms of fighting that which we do not want = racism/bias/stereotyping. We further the cause for diversity by talking up films that speak to a wide range of perspectives, environments and cultures and how they open us to new worlds (in a rather safe way, too). In my experience we tend to close up and resist in a combative stance, whereas when we look to new and different to expand our horizons we are open and curious.

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