#AwardsSoWhite: how minority achievement is
being blacked out
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is the Opinions Editor at gal-dem, an online platform for young women of colour. Here, as awards season approaches, she offers her thoughts on an increasingly out of touch system that fails to tackle minority representation
The rebellious energy of grime music found a well-suited outlet this week when Stormzy released his song One Take Freestyle, in which he called out the BRIT Awards for not nominating him.”None of my Gs nominated for BRITs / Are you taking the piss? / Embarrassing,” he rapped. “Last year, they told the mandem that to be nominated you’ve gotta go on UK charts / So what do we do? We chart / Don’t come here with your lies, don’t start.”
This comes during a month where Western award ceremonies in the arts have been unceremoniously grappling with the idea of diversity. There are no black recording artists in any of the major UK categories for the BRITS this year, and the fact that the Oscars failed to nominate any actors or actresses who weren’t white for accolades, for the second year running, spawned dozens of think pieces along with the viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Even President Obama has waded into the controversy, stating, “I think when everyone’s story is told then that makes for better art.”
Growing up I viewed most awards ceremonies as being so far removed from myself and my experience that I barely watched them. I quickly came to notice that I had no black role models – there was no-one who looked like me on TV or on the big screen, let alone being celebrated with gold-plated miniature statues. Living in a predominantly white environment in the north of England, I felt isolated by my race already. The lack of visible people of colour taking up space in the arts only aggravated this, and sadly, that doesn’t look set to change any time soon.
Both in the UK and Stateside we are still on our firsts. Last year Georgina Campbell became the first black actress to win a BAFTA after playing Ashley in BBC 3’s Murdered By My Boyfriend, while in America Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for her role in How To Get Away with Murder. In her now-famous acceptance speech Davis quoted African-American slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman and added, “Let me tell you something, the only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
She makes a fair point: the problem runs deeper than a lack of recognition at awards ceremonies. Although, as in America, we live in a majority white country, which also has white tradition embedded in the media, the lack of diversity is disparate from the numbers. In 2014 it was found that only six per cent of people working in the media come from an ethnic minority background in the UK, although we make up 14 per cent of the population. These figures look even worse when you bear in mind that most of the UK’s media is produced in London, where the majority of black and minority ethnic people live. Back in the US, racial ignorance has compounded to the point where a white man (Joseph Fiennes) has just been selected to play Michael Jackson in an upcoming Hollywood movie.
The creative industries have historically been a stepping stone where people from disadvantaged backgrounds were able to leapfrog over tall boundaries, and the reason that ethnic minorities aren’t getting recognised in award ceremonies isn’t because talent can’t be found within our communities. Personally and professionally I have worked with an abundance of creative people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Stormzy’s case exemplifies this – even though he is clearly excelling in the music industry, his work isn’t being legitimised. Elitism, as found within the BRITs, BAFTAs, the MTV Awards and the Oscars, is built upon subjugation; bound up in class, race and money, which see (admittedly talented) privileged actors such as Eddie Redmayne so easily swim to the top of the game.
“The reason ethnic minorities aren't getting recognised in award ceremonies isn’t because talent can’t be found within our communities"
Attitudes like those of Charlotte Rampling, the 2016 Oscars nominee who said that the uproar over the lack of black Oscar nominees was “racist to white people” in a radio interview with a French magazine last week, don’t do much to help either. Rampling, along with other well-known actors such as Michael Caine and Stacey Dash (best known for her role in Clueless, which seems appropriate), have publicly failed to grasp the significance of the lack of diversity at the Oscars. “We can never really know if it was really the case, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to be in the final straight,” Rampling expanded in the interview, before releasing a statement saying her comments had been “misinterpreted”.
It’s also worth noting the colonial nature of awards ceremonies. As Jamila Prowse argues in an article for gal-dem, “The very concept of awards originated in colonialist Britain… Just because the words ‘British Empire’ do not feature in the awards’ title, it does not separate the awards from their colonialist legacy, it simply makes it less visible.” White supremacy has meant that for years the idea that an ethnic minority could win an award at an event that supposedly celebrates the “crème de la crème” of society was other-worldly. This is why, when Marlon Brando declined to take to the Academy Awards stage in 1973 in favour of using it as a platform to expose the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry, Sacheen Littlefeather (the native American woman with melancholy eyes who appeared in his absence) was booed from the stage.
So should we boycott like Brando did, and create our own award ceremonies until Hollywood and the media in general start to create space for ethnic minorities? I’d argue yes, even with the Academy’s assurance they are to double female and minority members by 2020. While Snoop Dogg has put out a rallying cry of “Fuck the Grammys. Fuck the Oscars”, Jada Pinkett-Smith has produced a reasoned video in which she asks, “Is it time that people of colour recognise how much power, influence, that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?”
What better way to remind people of how important we are to the creative industries than depriving them of our talent. While not all awards are as bad as others – the Mercurys, for instance, have a much better track record of inclusion – it’s important to listen to the members of the entertainment industry who have called for a boycott. There has been a dangerous precedent set by award shows’ lack of diversity, and they need to become more inclusive. Until that time, I won’t be tuning in.