Today, Stephen King—one of the most beloved and prolific authors of all time—joined the ranks of celebrities who have made an ass of themselves on Twitter.
King is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body of people who vote to determine the outcome of the Oscars. Apparently, adding his two cents to the conversation surrounding the very white 2020 Oscar nominations, King began tweeting:
And then, more than two hours later, King added a seemingly contradictory sentiment:
Many people on Twitter took issue with King's tweets, responding with accusations of white privilege, among other things.
King is a historically progressive voice on the Internet, often tweeting critiques of Trump and other conservative leaders; he is also a noted philanthropist and activist for a variety of progressive causes. But, given the nature of racism in America, Twitter users who critiqued his tweets are right in their perception that he was being ignorant, and it shouldn't come as a surprise.
First, to say that the issue of diversity "did not come up" in his voting process is essentially to claim color-blindness, something that has been proven over and over again to be a way to allow subconscious bias to continue to exist unchecked. As The Atlantic puts it, "They [sociologists] argue that as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of colorblindness. But they fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination." Essentially, just because King did not openly discriminate against films made by and starring people of color, that does not mean that his choices were unaffected by racial biases.
He then goes on to say, "I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong." While this is a common argument against practices like affirmative action, it is also deeply flawed. This kind of egalitarianism would be admirable in a world in which art made by POC and white people existed on an equal playing field, but thanks to centuries of systemic racism and oppression, it does not. We are culturally programmed to see white art as the only legitimate kind of art, particularly in the case of films, because, until relatively recently, filmmaking was a particularly inaccessible medium for POC.
Of course, King ultimately back pedaled (or clarified his point, depending on your perspective), stating, "The most important thing we can do as artists and creative people is make sure everyone has the same fair shot, regardless of sex, color, or orientation. Right now such people are badly under-represented, and not only in the arts." This tweet suggests that what King was trying to say was that as long as POC and other marginalized groups have the opportunity to make art and therefore be in the running for awards, then they should be judged by the same criteria applied to white art. Unfortunately, this is still an optimistic and privileged point of view. The fact of the matter is, while explicit racism is becoming less and less acceptable in modern America, "aversive racism" still affects as many as two-thirds to three-quarters of white Americans. John Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Yale, explains "aversive racism" as: "Instead of feelings of hatred, it's more like feelings of avoidance and discomfort. That's where the name aversive racism comes from."
John Cho and Issa Rae announced the 2020 Oscar's nominations—which are primarily white.
Considering the fact that as recently as 2012, Oscar voters were 94% Caucasian and 77% male, it's safe to say that there is a lot of aversive racism and sexism at play in Oscar voting. The Academy has supposedly attempted to diversify since then, and they now have 7,902 voting members, a group that is supposedly made up of more women and POC than in previous years. But still, the Academy remains predominantly white and male; and as long as that remains true, it's unlikely we'll see much of an uptick in the diversity of Oscar nominees. Essentially, acknowledging your implicit bias as a white person is very important, but there is only so much you can do to overcome it because most of the time, you're certain you're being completely fair.
While this kind of bias confrontation is important work, as Dovidio puts it, aversive racism "...usually happens when you can justify a response on the basis of some factor other than race. So, there may be like two people that you are interviewing – one white and one black – and you shift your criteria for the job in a way that actually favors the white person without actually directly discriminating against it. So the problem is every time we look at our behavior and monitor our behavior, we behave in an egalitarian way. And it's only when we're not paying attention that we discriminate."
All of this being said, one has to ask: Should King have voted for films made by POC just for the sake of diversity, even if he didn't think those films deserved his vote? Not necessarily. But what he should have done, and what all white people should do on a daily basis when put in the position to judge and critique art made by and for POC, is interrogate our opinions and our biases.
Here are a few of the questions we need to ask ourselves in those kinds of situations:
- Is it possible that the subconscious racism I inevitably possess is skewing my view of this piece of art?
- How can I be comfortable (or at least exist in a space of productive discomfort) with the fact that this piece of art is not for or about me?
- Can I recognize that, as a white person, I see myself in the majority of mainstream art and media, but art that does not reflect me is no less impactful?
- Do I not like this piece of art because of objective flaws, or because it is unfamiliar and therefore makes me uncomfortable?
So maybe King should have voted for POC movies for the sake of diversity. Maybe he should have acknowledged that, as a white man, he was inevitably going to gravitate towards movies made for and about white men and reacted by casting his votes for films he knew were important to and celebrated by POC. Does this seem like a completely fair way to determine the recipient of an award? No, but neither is being a POC in America.
At the end of the day, the only way to actually address the inequality in Hollywood is to make room for POC to take up space. In this case, that looks like diversifying the Academy until it truly represents the reality of our diverse, multicultural country. And that starts when white men (and white women) admit their implicit biases, confront them, and ultimately move out of the way to give POC and women a chance to make their opinions heard.