For the second year in a row last year, the Oscars had no acting nominees of colour. As I look back at the outrage and try to figure out a way forward for myself as an aspiring film writer of colour, I’m continuously peeling back the layers of the race issue to uncover the roots of the problem. In this, I’m starting to see that Hollywood really isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom of it.
There isn’t so much a lack of diversity in film as there is a lack of diversity within the various races. This is to say that there are people of colour in film. We see them often. But we don’t get to see an accurate representation of diverse characters within those minorities. As a black girl, I know I have not yet been able to identify with a black female character on screen because they are usually written to behave in the way that they have been stereotyped. My racial category does not separate me from the complexities that come with being a human being. I am a young woman of colour but I am also soft spoken, cautious, thoughtful, introverted, etc. My interests are widely ranged and my character is multi-faceted. I am just as layered as the next white woman. That is the problem with race in film.
The main issue is that white people in film are not classified racially. They are not constrained by the chains of a category. They are just human. While we are “other”. As R. Dyer puts it in White: Essays on Race and Culture (1996), “whites are people whereas other colours are something else”.
Explaining that #OscarsSoWhite was not a matter of racism within Hollywood so much as it was a lack of accurate representation, would have been a breeze if I had been aware of Dyers text earlier. He really nails it down, the core issue of whiteness in media. There is absolutely no way of achieving equality if we continue to ignore whiteness. Looking at whiteness is important because “as long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people aren’t racially seen and named, they function as a human norm.”
Sure there were major league films such as Star Wars and Creed that were injecting some racial diversity into the worlds of those stories but it was still a global spectacle in the media. It was still “unusual”. That matter is not a problem that stems from within Hollywood but from all of us as an audience and as society. As long as we continue to separate people of colour from white people, white will continue to be the standard by which we compare everything else and we will continue to be othered. “Research repeatedly shows that in western representation whites are overwhelmingly and disproportionately predominant, have the central and elaborated roles, and above all are placed as the norm, the ordinary, the standard.” (Dyer, 1996)
Here’s how I peel back the layers of last year’s Oscars issue. The nominees were nominated not because they were white, but because they gave Oscar worthy performances because they were given the opportunity to, because layered and multi-faceted characters written for the screen are white by default because the template of a film character is white because white is the standard.
A film writer in Hollywood is under pressure when writing for a person of colour because of the unspoken rule that film characters of colour need to represent their racial group. A white character can be anyone, can be anything. As Dyer says, “raced people can’t do that – they can only speak for their race.”
Even as a young black woman, when I sit down to write a script, my characters will predominantly be white. It took me a while to notice this but when it was pointed out to me, the discussion on the matter led to this conclusion: We create what we already know. Our minds are conditioned to understand white as normal because it is everywhere in representation. We don’t see white people as a certain race. We see human beings – people who are variously gendered, classed, sexualised and abled. My idea of a film character is a white male before it is moulded into anything else because that is what I’ve seen my whole life.
So the way forward is for writers – the artists responsible for the characters we’re presented with – to distribute the voice which speaks for all humanity among all races. Dyer speaks of “dislodging” the white claim to power, which is the claim to speak for the “commonality of humanity”. He suggests that we need to reference whiteness in our habitual speech, just as we do with other races. As long as whiteness is ignored, it will continue to be in the ascendant.