Another year, another set of Oscar nominations. For the second year in a row, no black actors have been nominated. Sadly, many of us will read the #oscarssowhite controversy as just another news story triggered by disgruntled Hollywood actors who are outraged at having been overlooked for their talent.
Admittedly, Hollywood actors themselves, most of them white, have expressed indifference over the diversity in representation. And I hesitate to ask, perhaps this is because they have the luxury of not having to think about it?
For me this year, the Oscars controversy has struck a very personal chord, not because I am any more interested in what goes on in Hollywood than I was last year. But rather, because my 4 year old daughter came home saying last week that she wants white skin.
The day my daughter was born I lost the privilege of not having to think about race, identity, discrimination or inclusion everywhere we go. I am married to a Nigerian man and have three daughters who are multiracial. Identity is and will be a struggle my family will battle with their whole lives. And when you're a parent and all you want to do is protect your children and keep them from harm, shielding them from racism is a battleground.
As Globe and Mail writer Cameron Bailey put it, race is of course, a social construct. It's not any more real than movies are. But both race and movies have a long history of mirroring our real-world view. I envy those children and families for whom identity and representation is rarely an issue- where images of who they are and who they can be are commonplace. Mums who can go to the local book fair and choose the latest princess book featuring the blonde, white princess. Dads who can guarantee the Disney movie that just came out will undoubtedly have characters with mousy brown straight hair- perfect role models for their little ones. Even the books with aspiring girl pilots and mathematicians will rarely feature girls of colour. "Where are the brown, curly haired, Afro looking, Asian princesses?", I want to scream. Granted, we've had a few but not enough for my daughter to know that that's normal.
Yesterday my daughter's reception class was visited by two police officers who talked about what it's like being in the police service. Both were male and both were Caucasian. It follows two other visitors, a doctor and a priest who were also both male and white.
As my daughter struggles to determine who she is, her likes, dislikes and identity, it's harder for her when she doesn't see people who look like her in those roles. I find myself having to counter all of this imagery in a world where, even at the British Museum the only images of an astronaut are of white males. When I suggested that maybe she could be an astronaut someday, the suggestion seemed absurd for her. "That's for boys Mama", she retorted. She didn't even need to add, 'white boys'. I understood what she meant and I could see we have our work cut out.
The visit from the police officer wasn't even worth mentioning in her world. I found out about it through her teacher and the boys who were running around in police uniforms. I whispered to her that there were lots of women police officers but perhaps the moment of impact had passed. Having a real life one come to visit and tell them about what it's like to be black and/or a policewoman would have made it much more real.
As she grows, I find my conversations with my oldest as disturbing as they are enlightening as she struggles to 'fit in'. She longs for skin colour the same as mine and her peers and sometimes I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle.
In response, I recently found myself frantically ordering every diverse picture book I could find on Amazon following advice that we, as parents, need to counteract whatever they're seeing in society by exposing them to as many diverse images as we can. But no matter how many diverse images she sees and relates to outside of school, school is where she spends 6.5 hours a day and where her sense of identity will form. Movies, film, magazines and books will likely form the other part.
In response to the controversy, the Academy recently announced that it will double the number of ethnic minorities and women in their voting academy. These are not immediate solutions and they may do little to improve matters, but at least the academy is acknowledging the problem. When our children see the very roles and institutions by way of which we measure success do not include them, it closes doors very early on. More needs to be done outside the walls of the Academy to acknowledge that representation is key to children and audiences who desperately need to have role models. Representation is not a lot to ask.
So, we're faced with a choice. Continue as normal as some actors have suggested. "Wait until it's your turn"- thanks Michael Caine- or do something different. This year I'm not going to watch the Oscars, not because I think my boycott will or won't have an impact but because seeing the world through my daughter's eyes, I'm scared of the alternative.
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