White People and Black Art, Part 3: Until There Are No More Firsts, #OscarsSoWhite Remains Relevant

Ready Steady Cut

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

This is the final post in my White People and Black Art series. Post One and Post Two can be found at the attached links.

The 90th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 4th, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding them.

There’s no clear Best Picture favorite. Get Out made the cut and got 5 nominations. The Shape of Water has the most nominations but it’s still uncertain if it will sweep or go home with little to nothing.

It’s a very exciting run this year, especially in light of the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies, which arose when zero people of color received acting or directing nominations.

However, in light of Moonlight’s 2017 victory over La La Land and the increase in diversity among the 2018 nominees, some dare to wonder if #OscarsSoWhite is finally irrelevant.

According to April Reign, who launched the hashtag in 2015, the battle is still far from over.

“Until we are no longer lauding ‘firsts’ after a 90 year history,” Reign tweeted, “until we can no longer count a traditionally underrepresented community’s number of nominations on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.”

While the list of nominations for the 2018 Oscars reflects a potential shift in films the entertainment industry recognizes, work must still be done to ensure a number of nominees and winners featuring the stories of the traditionally marginalized becomes the norm, not the exception.

This work includes recognizing and dismantling the structures that keep these communities from being well-represented in the first place.

The Academy is predominantly composed of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and as such, their standard for “talent” is judged through this lens. The training and education required to meet those standards is often only available to those within certain socioeconomic classes, classes which are predominantly composed of white people. Not to mention, those providing the training and education are also likely to be white.

This is why a common rebuttal to an all-white nominee list is, “The white actors are simply more talented.”

While I am not contesting the talent or ability of any previously nominated actors or actresses, it is worth confronting the truth that certain socioeconomic classes, and therefore a certain race, are better able to access the education and training required to make it into “award-worthy” films. As a result, the white talent often comes out on top, and the talent of the marginalized is often left unseen due to lack of access to these resources.

This is why the Academy continues to dish out nominations which are the “first” of their kind, or ones so rare they can be counted in the single digits, even after a 90 year history.

Among the “firsts” and rarities in the 2018 Oscar nominations are: the first female cinematographer, the fifth female and black directors, and the first black woman in 45 years to receive a screenplay nomination.

In the Best Actress category, only 1 black woman and zero Asian or Latina women have won award. The last black woman to win was Halle Berry in 2002, and she has even lamented this lack of representation, which she thought would be amended with her victory.

These standards also affect the types of stories the Academy rewards, as well as who is rewarded for telling these stories.

When women of color receive nominations, they are often nominated for playing maids, slaves, or abusive mothers instead of three-dimensional characters with autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Black directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen are nominated for films like Precious and 12 Years a Slave, which are stories of violence committed against black people, while Spike Lee’s films about both black excellence and black struggle are repeatedly snubbed.

And in 2016, when Straight Outta Compton received a Screenplay nomination, the nominees were all white. While the cast was led by black men, the ones recognized for telling the story were white.

The challenging of this predominantly white, hetero, able-bodied, male membership is a major reason why a massive overhaul of judges and Academy members occurred. The 2017 Academy year saw 800 new members join. Of those 800, 39% were female, and 30% were people of color.

This shift in judges alone had drastic results, as evident in the type of films nominated this year.

Call Me By Your Name, a love story between two men that doesn’t end in tragedy, was adapted for the screen by an 89-year old gay screenwriter. Get Out is a “horror parable about racism” directed by a black man. And Lady Bird centers around female friendship instead of a heterosexual romance and is directed by a white woman.

When people from more marginalized backgrounds are given the power to see and judge films, they seek films which embody their lived experiences. As such, they bring with them a judgment criteria different from the dominant white, straight, able-bodied, males who have traditionally held the reins.

And when the films are honored by the Academy, they can also be honored by the American culture.

This is a big step in the right direction, and it could result in major systemic change if sustained in the future.

But again, this is not yet the norm.

While the 2018 Oscar nominations show a shift in the right direction in terms of the representation of marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done. The Academy still needs to be intentional about the talent they find, produce, and recognize, and Americans who occupy realms of privilege need to be more intentional about the media they consume.

Only when it becomes the standard for traditionally marginalized populations to tell their stories can we truly say change has come, and #OscarsSoWhite can finally retire.

Why I Want to Win an Oscar (And How Waking up at 3 AM Helped Me Realize This)



I woke up at 3 AM on Sunday morning and could not get back to sleep.

I was in that half-awake state between dreams and consciousness. Half of my mind was still ringing up customers at Bed Bath & Beyond, and half of my mind was trying to tell Sparky to not purr so loudly in my ear so I could get back to sleep.

I finally came out of limbo, realized I was in bed and not dealing with more impatient customers, and cuddled with my little kitten hoping I would easily drift off to sleep.

It wasn’t that easy.

Maybe it was because I had a Mountain Dew at dinner for the first time in about a week. Maybe it was because my 7 hour work day had left me tense and irritated. I could feel the pain of tension in my lower back and shoulders. My tummy was rumbly. The kitty continued to purr loudly. My room was too hot.

After laying and waiting for sleep for a half hour, I threw off the covers, grabbed my journal, and sat in the living room.

My roommate’s cat, Moose, who I suspect is quite irritated at me for bringing the new addition home, was meowing and begging for someone to play with and scratch her. I absentmindedly threw her little mouse toy around for her to chase, pondering what in the world was keeping me awake at such an hour while sweet Moose relished in my long absent attention.

After Moose had finished playing, I grabbed my pen and journal, and I did something I don’t normally do anymore.

I asked God for help.

I’ve recently written about how I don’t identify God as a man, or as a woman, or as a big guy with white robes and a long beard. I’ve also recently written about how difficult prayer is for me nowadays, and how writing has become my new medium with which I connect with God. So before I asked God for help, I had to figure out what I’d call God, and how I’d communicate best with God.

I didn’t need a parent, friend, or lover. I needed someone to listen to me without judgment, maybe give me some advice, but most importantly, help me work through the knots in my own mind and untangle the problem with my own hands and some proper guidance.

I needed a Counselor.

Oftentimes when I muster up the strength and courage to talk to God, I treat it like a counseling session with Anne. She has the most attentive ear and sincere heart, but she doesn’t act like other female counselors I’ve had in the past, the ones who only say “I’m so sorry that happened to you. It must be awful to be that way,” in the most fake and insincere voices. No, I know she is sympathetic and loving and cares deeply about me and my mental health.

But this woman calls me on my crap. She also helps me figure out what I, not her or the people around me, can do to make living my life a little more bearable.

When I tell her the times I’ve lashed out at people because of my anxiety, she doesn’t pat me on the head and say “It’s ok, Lindsay, you just can’t help it.” She says, “I get that you’re hardwired this way. I get that it sucks. I also get that if you keep doing this and using your anxiety as an excuse, you’re not going to be healthy. And you’ll definitely be lonely. Now let’s talk about ways you can talk yourself down from the ledge and also explain to people how you’re feeling without accusing them of being monsters.”

When I used to talk to God, I assumed He’d either be pissed beyond all reason at me, or He’d pat me on the head and say “Now now, little one. You’re just weird. Carry on.”

At 4 AM on Sunday morning, God and I had a counseling session. Mercifully God doesn’t charge for these sessions, whether they’re an hour or two minutes. My Counselor helped me figure out what’s been on my heart. I wrote down the racing thoughts in my mind, ranging from fears on how our cats would get along to worries about the meaning of life and everything in between.

Which brings me to my dream of wanting to win an Oscar.

Ever since I was in third grade, I have been unreasonably obsessed with watching awards shows. The Emmys. Golden Globes. Academy Awards. Teen Choice Awards. MTV Movie Awards. You get the idea.

I love the glamorous outfits, the shiny statues, the loud applause for the winner, the sometimes ridiculously long acceptance speeches, the glory and status of it all. These people seem so sure of themselves, of their success, so on top of the world. The paparazzi commit invasive crimes to get their photos and personal information. The newspaper headlines proclaim their victories.

They are noticed. They are seen. They are heard. They are powerful.

Their fame and success make them important.

I want that.

I want to prove myself worthy, of being seen and heard and loved. I want to know that my life is important, that I am worth remembering, admiring, and respecting. The privacy invasion aside, I want people to care deeply about what is going on in my life, the ones I love the most, and my hopes and dreams and fears and failures. I want to prove to my naysayers that they are wrong and I am awesome. I want to be validated. I want to know that my life is worth something.

If I have the golden statue celebrating my acting or writing achievements, my life will be worthwhile. If I am invited to talk about my bestselling books on talk shows, my gifts will be important. If I host SNL a record number of times, people will know I am funny and worth seeing and hearing.

I loved doing Theater in college. I loved the thrill of being on stage, my amazing community of thespians, my professor who challenged me with the plays he had me read and the monologues he had me perform. Onstage, I felt special, important, like the whole show would be completely different without me. I loved telling the stories, being part of such wonderful stories with such amazing and talented people.

It is similar to the feeling I get when I’m giving a sermon, or when I get a lot of comments and likes on my blog posts. My words and ideas feel valid, important, listened to. I hold my audience in the palm of my hand, and that power is exhilarating. With every compliment, my life’s significance becomes greater.

I crave the spotlight. And I like to think the spotlight craves me. And when it works both ways, I feel like I own the world.

I like to think I’m not alone in this, that we all have our “golden calves” (or in my case, a golden statue) that we forge in our own minds and hearts and show our worship and devotion, hoping it will give our lives and routines more significance in the eyes of others and ourselves.

And I like to think that while God isn’t exactly pleased with this behavior, as our Creator, it makes sense why we do this to ourselves. I also like to think that while it may piss God off, God loves us enough to let us throw our tantrums, make fools out of ourselves, then pick us up and say, “Alright, you’ve had your fun. Now let me tell you how this really works.”

And then God helps us pick up the idol and maybe, just maybe, convince us to start burning it up, piece by piece, no matter how difficult it is for us, no matter how much we’ve invested in it, and start giving that gold away so someone can have a meal today. Or fashion it into a beautiful necklace to give to someone who’s had a bad day. Or just do something productive with something so beautiful instead of fretting in front of it, asking this lifeless product of our fears and overactive imaginations to give our lives meaning.

I told my Counselor this. I let God know all these and more. I let my Counselor know how badly I wanted to sleep and how badly I wanted to know I would be loved and remembered when I was gone from this world, how badly I wanted the golden statues and halls of fame to prove that to me. The more I talked to my Counselor, the more a new but always present truth started to dawn on me.

I have always been worthy.

I have always been loved. I have always been admired. I have always been respected. I have always been worth remembering. I have always been important.

My life has been solid proof of this. My mom, dad, and family took care of me before I wrote or even spoke my first words. My faith communities lovingly embraced me before and after I embraced them and Jesus, and even in times I wasn’t sure I wanted to embrace either of them. My Creator made me before I could prove that creating me was going to be worth it.

I, along with the rest of the world, was created to reflect the immense love of God. This image makes me worthy today, and it has always marked me as worthy.

I don’t need to make myself worthy. I don’t need to win an Oscar, host Saturday Night Live ten times, or write a record number of bestsellers to be seen, heard, and loved.

I already am, right here, right now, as I am. My life is validated because it’s mine, a gift from the God of Love.

I exist. I am alive. I am worthy. Somehow, these are all related. Somehow, my Counselor was able to crack through my pain and fears and speak some truth to me, even at 4 in the morning with church only hours away.

This is what I like about mine and God’s relationship now. Truth is no longer some abstract thing that drops out of the sky bathed in yellow light, a sudden realization of something I never could have understood without divine intervention.

Now, truth is a change in perspective, the Spirit moving inside me to realize what has always been true. Truth is what the Spirit opens my eyes to see and makes room in my heart to truly understand it.

So I still want to win an Oscar, but every day, I realize my life isn’t dependent on it. I still want to write some of the best books the world has ever known that may make it to the Banned Books list, but my life will still be important if I never end up doing that.

And each day, I keep realizing that I will be remembered because of the love I shared, the compassion I showed, how much of my time and efforts I gave. And if that’s the legacy I leave, I can’t say I’ll be too terribly disappointed.

Because we were made for so much more than golden statues, awards that will fade, and the recognition of those who, like us, will one day return to the dust.

We were made for love. We were made to love. We were made so, so worthy, and so, so loved.

So day by day, I’ll try to let God take me by the hand to my golden statue, and maybe another day, I’ll let God stand by my side as I make a fire. And maybe eventually, I’ll let God hold my hand as I lower the idol into the flame, and perhaps one day still, I’ll get to see the thing that’s held so much of my life burn to molten gold. And then together, we’ll start working through the molten mess to make something beautiful out of it.

I finished reflecting. I said my thanks. I returned to my room and under the covers with Sparky curled up on my chest.

And finally, I had rest.