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By Rebecca Koerselman
It’s the twenty-first century and Americans have realized that racism is bad. To me, the most telling evidence of this realization is when people start a sentence, “I’m not a racist, but…” and then the person says something incredibly racist. I have heard this a number of times, and the statement always puzzles me. It shows me that people realize it is bad to say what they are planning to say, so they need to explain they aren’t actually racist, but they still want to say something out loud that is quite racist.
A few months ago I watched the Academy Awards. The Oscars generated some publicity because there were no people of color nominated for Academy Awards this year. Some prominent African American actors and actresses boycotted the “#oscarssowhite” and expressed their disappointment that in the year 2016, the highest honors for film overlooked people of color.
Chris Rock hosted the Oscars and addressed the issues head on (see his opening monologue here). I noticed a great deal of nervous white laughter during his often uncomfortable and funny monologue. Rock pointed out that the Oscars have historically been racist and only recently began to recognize and reward the work of African Americans in film. Rock explained, through skilled comedic satire, that Hollywood is full of very liberal and very nice white people. Rock made the statement that white actors and actresses get access to good parts regularly – why don’t the excellent African American actors and actresses also receive good parts on a regular basis? Rock called them “sorority racist,” where casting directors and producers like African American actors and actresses, but conclude that they just weren’t quite right for this role.
Rock is hitting on something significant here.
Racism in the US in the twenty-first century is, most of the time, quite subtle. We don’t call someone the n-word. That could be cause for dismissal since all know that racism is bad. Calling someone a racist word is not publicly permitted by most Americans. This makes racism much more difficult to point out. For example, instead of saying that a candidate in a job interview is “too black,” or “too Asian,” or “too Native American” (or “too” fill-in-the-blank), search committees might say that the job candidate “just doesn’t seem like they will fit very well with this team”–nothing racist about that statement. Sometimes, race in America so tricky. Other times people will say something about “that different kind of culture,” or need for “law and order,” phrases that say nothing overtly about race, but contain a commentary on race. Subtle. If you say something overly racist, after all, depending on the context, there will likely be some repercussions. Americans code their language so that people know what they mean, but without saying anything that anyone could actually identify as racist language.
Many people weighed in on the all-white Oscars controversy and the most thoughtful commentary that I heard pointed out that it wasn’t entirely the Oscars that were at fault – that racism in Hollywood (or, everywhere else in the US), happens at the beginning, not at just the end product. If African American actors and actresses, directors, cinematographers, editors, musicians, etc. are not considered “right” for this particular role or function when the film is at its beginning stages, then they will not, of course, be a part of the end product that will be judged worthy of an Academy Award.
I am no expert on film, casting, or production. But I think Rock called out the often subtle version of racism in the twenty-first century US. At a basic level, racism demonstrates a deep discomfort with someone who seems to be very different from oneself. Overt racism is easy to point out and condemn, as many of us have done. But subtle racism is so much more difficult to root out.
It is refreshing to see that Americans have come a long way in the late twentieth and twenty-first century. They have, by and large, seen the racism and judged it to be negative and worked to eradicate it. But has it worked? Or has it just become more subtle and crafty?
How can one root out this more elusive form of racism?
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.