Oscars show symbolic of state of U.S. race relations
Much as I hate to, I admit it: I love the Oscars. Someone told me they’re the Super Bowl for women. It’s true. I almost never see any of the nominated movies (not until they come out on video or pay-per-view), but I love to look at the clothes and diss all the actresses’ choices. (Could you believe Gwyneth Paltrow’s dress? My husband said it made her look like an anorexic hunchback with two baby porpoises dangling over her shoulders.)
But that’s not really the point. This year, racism once again raised its snarling head. (Not that it doesn’t every year; it was just more pronounced this year because three, count ’em, three, differently colored people actually got nominated.) So we’ve been treated to months of intense speculation, fascinating only to those who have no other sort of life whatsoever, about whether or not a black person would win an Oscar and make some sort of stunning breakthrough in race relations. (As if that would be the most shocking thing that could possibly happen in this day and age. No one has ever accused Hollywood of under-sensationalizing even the most trivial things.) I thought 9/11 made that breakthrough already, and much more honestly and powerfully.
Granted, I’m a white woman who’s grown up in a place sheltered from racial controversy. And that very fact will make any statement I make on race totally invalid to any person of color. And granted, there are always those idiots among us who are so insecure that they have to disrespect anyone who is the slightest bit different from them in any way. And in extreme cases, hurt or humiliate them. But those attitudes are no longer mainstream attitudes toward those who think, look, or believe differently than we do.
Doesn’t racism come from inside ourselves, and isn’t it mainly our perception of ourselves? Doesn’t it come from a fear that we’re (for whatever flaws we think we have) not as good as others? Doesn’t it come from the belief that others can spot those flaws (especially physical or cultural differences) immediately and will therefore judge us just as harshly as we judge ourselves? Isn’t most perceived racism, in short, personal insecurity? I think, therefore I am?
“Society” is an interesting concept. There’s no such thing, really. We’ve come to think of it as synonymous with individual people, but it’s not. It’s merely a collection of stereotypes, like the cardboard figures used as crowd backdrops on a low-budget movie set. You have your gay Americans, your African-Americans, your Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, female Americans, Indian-Americans, white Americans, etc., and you’re expected to stand behind the cardboard image of whatever subset of American you belong to. You’re expected to display all the attributes of that subset as determined by its stereotype. And, most important, you’re expected to believe the propaganda your subset releases to all the other subsets in order to protect its status among the stereotypes.
For example, I belong to the subset of overweight Americans. Therefore, my stereotype makes me (especially being female) an object of ridicule, repulsion and contempt. My stereotype tells me I must be thin and beautiful. (Not to mention 20 years old, but that’s a different subset, and even more depressing.) And so everywhere I go in “society,” Olive Oyl’s refrain to Bluto rings in my head (“and he’s laa-rrrr-rge …”) when I’m out in public. I know that’s exactly what “they’re” thinking.
Is it? My stereotype tells me it is. But whose perception is really at fault here? Isn’t it mine, for buying into a stereotype and letting it determine how I experience my life?
Look at the difference between Halle Berry’s acceptance speech and Denzel Washington’s. Halle Berry’s totally bought into the African-American stereotype, which tells her she’s second-class because of her skin color. She thanked everybody for giving her the award because she was black, not because she was the best. What an incredible shame.
On the other hand, Denzel Washington said in his acceptance speech that his goal was to be the best actor in the world. Not the best African-American actor, the best actor, period. This guy knows skin color is nothing more than a tired old stereotype, and he stomped all over it.
I believe racism is mostly a state of mind. It’s the state of mind of the person who believes in the stereotypes “society” tries to crush us under, and who lets those stereotypes dictate the potential of his or her life.
Melinda Monaghan lives in Rough and Ready and writes a monthly column.
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