Only rednecks are racists. How progressive are we?! We elected a black man President of the United States. Hello, Post Racial America! Did you see all the black actors nominated this year of Academy Awards? Bye Bye, #OscarsSoWhite.
Only partially tongue in cheek, the three statements above are examples of the three racial fallacies – Individualistic, Tokenistic and Fixed – that I will analyze in my paper. As an African American woman and independent screenwriter in Hollywood for the past 20 years, I have personally encountered racism during my career. Granted, it wasn’t the burning crosses, wearing white hood kind of racism that Hollywood has heroically rallied against in films since D.W. Griffiths’ love letter to the Klu Klux Klan, “Birth of A Nation.” Instead, Hollywood’s brand of liberal Northern racism – which is just as systematically oppressive as its southern conservative sibling – is subtle, polite and one could argue increasingly damaging due to its far-reaching influence though film, television and digital media.
Only Rednecks Are Racists – An Individualistic Fallacy
Sociologist Joe Feagin, a leading researcher of racism and author of more than 60 books on the subject (Yancy & Feagin, 2015), once said, “Racism is not in society. Racism is of society.” Simply put, this means that racism doesn’t exist outside of human beings that comprise society, but that racism exists within human beings that comprise society. Fewer places is this truth illuminated more than Hollywood. A reflection of American society, La La Land has yet to honestly deal with the complex issue of racism. Instead they’ve built a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry on what anthropologist would call an ethnocentric belief that their liberal, “colorblind” way of life is better or more correct than their racist southern counterparts’.
Whether this is true or not depends on who you ask. As is the norm, sociologists, psychologists and pollsters use surveys to learn how people feel about race. Often, white southerners are forthcoming with their answers, which allows researchers to determine their opinions, biases and beliefs more accurately. White northerners, on the other hand, possibly plagued with feelings of “white guilt,” tend to be less honest with their responses (Masket, June).
This contradiction while casting doubt about whether southern white folks are more racist or just more honest about their racial biases – isn’t the point, however. Hollywood – ala President Donald Trump tweeting facts without proof – continues to perpetuate the myth that southern rednecks are the only true racists. And they are the enlightened heroes in films such as “In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Mississippi Burning (1988).
As explained by sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer in “Race in America,” this is an example of Individualistic Fallacy (Desmond & Emirbayer, 2015). By Hollywood investing in the false belief that only rednecks are racists, it enables them to ignore their own inherent biases and perpetuate the mistaken notion that racist and prejudiced thoughts are only rooted in “bad apple” individuals. Buying into Individualistic Fallacy also emboldens Hollywood powers that be to keep turning a blind eye on their racist hiring practices, development/production nepotism towards white heterosexual men and socially stratified meritocracy rampant in the industry.
Hello, Post Racial America – A Tokenistic Fallacy
Full disclosure: I almost missed the moment Barack Obama became the first Black President of the United States.
I remember like it was yesterday. My husband and I were home watching something on our DVR – I don’t remember – when suddenly we heard a cascade of cheers coming through our living window from our neighbors’ homes. Immediately, we switched to live television just in time to see the impossible – Senator Barack Hussein Obama had been elected the 44th President of the United States!
I must confess, we never thought POTUS Obama had a snowball chance in hell at the Oval. But when it happened, we couldn’t have been more ecstatic or proud as his soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama was when she said during Barack’s run for the Democratic nomination at the 2008 Wisconsin Primaries, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country (Thomas, 2008). Republicans had a field day with Mrs. Obama’s heartfelt remarks, but liberals, particularly their friends in Hollywood understood and came out in droves to financially support and campaign for their new favorite “magical negro” to take the White House
Coined by sociologists during the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, the “magical negro” is a post-modern folk culture figure invented by white liberals to help alleviate their guilt about the historical ramifications of slavery and their perpetual role in continuing racism in American society (Ehrenstein, 2007).President Obama is by no means the only magical negro in our past or recent history. In fact, Hollywood perpetuates this profitable myth further by clinging desperately to what Desmond and Emirbayer define as a Tokenistic Fallacy, the false belief that one person of color succeeding means that there are no more racial obstacles (Desmond & Emirbayer, 2015). Plainly put, people who suppose a Tokenistic Fallacy are prone to believe that racism no longer exists, because black celebrities like Oprah, Beyonce and Denzel are millionaires and mega superstars. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth, because it completely ignores the systematic and institutional racism that blacks and other people of color are still experiencing in the United States.
So, pervasive is the slow burn of this Tokenistic Fallacy that it influences creative, casting and hiring choices in Hollywood. Already infected with the delusional Individual Fallacy that they are not racists, Hollywood executives subconsciously believe that as long as they cast a token black in the lead role or if they are particularly keyed on diversity, hire at least one African American to their production crew, then they are doing their part to stave off racism. A 2015 Diversity report from UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies, however, reports that there’s still much work to be done both in front and behind the camera (The Bunche Center, 2015).
Bye bye, #oscarssowhite – a fixed fallacy. As a child, I dreamt of one day winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Although I didn’t know what a screenplay was at the time, I did know that writers wrote them and you couldn’t make a move without one. Graduating from college with a journalism degree, my childhood dream still burned hot in my heart, so I turned down four newspaper job offers and went to Columbia College Chicago for graduate film school. Then, four years later with my thesis film in the backseat, I drove cross country to L.A. to finally set my Hollywood course to win my Oscar.
Twenty years and numerous screenplays later, I haven’t gotten my Oscar yet and I – like an “Unsung” singer who’s been rejected by the music industry – couldn’t bring myself to watch Hollywood’s most exclusively coveted award show in years. Then, activist April Reign, reacting to no non-white actors being nominated for Oscars for the second straight year in a row, tweeted #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 (Workneh, 2016). And I, along with the rest of the world, started paying attention. Spurn on by liberal and social outcry, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also responded by diversifying and doubling the Academy class who vote on the films (Gray, 2016). And this year, the changes were pointedly noticeable with more black and brown actors and filmmakers nominated for Oscars. Anxious to pat themselves on the back, they quickly dovetailed into the Fixed Fallacy that racism is getting better in Hollywood. But as Desmond and Emirbayer point out in “Race in America,” the question of things getting better or worse can’t legitimately be considered without accounting for the altering factors of racism (Desmond & Emirbayer, 2015) – something liberal Hollywood does not want nor has been forced to do.
When I set out to write this paper, my goal was to define three fallacies, give real life examples of the mistakes being made because of those fallacies and present information to counter and disprove each fallacy. Additionally, I chose Hollywood as my focus subject, because I have a love-hate relationship with this industry and it mirrors the push and pull I feel as a black woman in my home country of America that is still struggling with race and racism. Can Hollywood go to rehab and kick its dependency on Individualistic, Tokenistic and Fixed racial fallacies? Perhaps. But only after America checks into Betty Ford first and preferably before I win my Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Desmond, M., & Emirbayer, M. (2015). Race in America. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Ehrenstein, D. (2007, March 19). Obama the ‘Magic Negro. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/la-oe-ehrenstein19mar19-story,amp.html
Gray, T. (2016, June). Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs: New Members Represent a ‘Major Step’ in Oscar Diversity. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2016/film/awards/new-oscar-members-cheryl-boone-isaacs-1201806211/amp/
Masket, S. (June, 25 2013). Is the South more racist than the North? Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2013/06/25/symbolic_racism_may_be_taking_over_the_south_partner/
The Bunche Center. (2015, February 25). FLIPPING THE SCRIPT. Retrieved from http://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/index.php/2015/02/2015-hollywood-diversity-report/
Thomas, E. (2008, March 12). MICHELLE OBAMA’S ‘PROUD’ REMARKS. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/michelle-obamas-proud-remarks-83559?amp=1
Workneh, L. (2016, February 27). Meet April Reign, The Activist Who Created #OscarsSoWhite. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/april-reign-oscarssowhite_us_56d21088e4b03260bf771018
Yancy, G., & Feagin, J. (2015, July 27). American Racism in the ‘White Frame’. Retrieved from https://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2015/07/27/american-racism-in-the-white-frame/?referer=