Chris Rock did it. He used the ‘R-word’.
‘Here’s the real question,’ he said on Oscar night. ‘The real question everybody wants to know…: Is Hollywood racist? Is Hollywood racist?’
He said it twice. And then he answered it.
‘You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, “We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa. That’s how Hollywood is”.’
Chris Rock didn’t just say the Oscars were white. He said they were racist. And in the process he broke an unwritten law, that racism must only be spoken about in code. Instead of multiracial we say multicultural; instead of non-white, we say ethnic; instead of black we say urban; and then there’s the word of the moment ― diversity.
There’s nothing wrong with the word per se. We do need diverse books and films, in terms of class, region, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Diversity enables literature and cinema to better reflect society, leads to greater feelings of inclusivity, helps us to understand one another better. Problems arise, however, when we use the word diversity instead of discrimination and, in the context of ‘racial’ diversity, instead of racism.
Diversity is the outcome, the last link in the chain, but by focusing only on diversity we’re behaving as if the rest of the chain doesn’t exist. In reality, the chain moves from racial prejudice, to racial discrimination, to a lack of racial diversity. If we only speak about diversity, we run the risk of permanent confusion.
Take Charlotte Rampling who claimed that the OscarsSoWhite campaign was ‘Racist to white people’. ‘One can never really know,’ she said, ‘but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list.’
It’s impossible to say what motivated Rampling’s comments, but it does seem that she did not believe that the Oscars were racist. As such, she believed the protestors were merely, to use Clint Eastwood’s word, ‘crying’, like children asking for more though they’ve done nothing to deserve it. As Michael Caine put it, ‘In the end you can’t vote for an actor because he’s black… He’s not very good, but he’s black.’ The subtext is that the current state of racial under-representation has arisen naturally, meritoriously, that actors of colour are under-represented because they’re not as good, not because they’re being discriminated against.
Had the campaign been called OscarsSoRacist, this problem would not have arisen. The trouble with using the ‘R’ word, however, is that the debate instantly becomes combative, violent, personal. People don’t like to believe that their advantages are due to accidents of birth rather than their own qualities. They don’t like to feel these advantages may be taken away from them. Furthermore, talk of racism often elicits guilt, an emotion so painful it can provoke angry, abusive responses.
The R-word then, is unpopular and can provoke sharp conflicts. The answer, however, isn’t to turn it into a taboo, because by doing so we perpetuate the myth that racism itself is a myth. If we are to dismantle racism, we need to talk about it. We have to use the R-word, whether it’s angrily, humorously, gently, conciliatorily, lovingly, or neutrally. By now Chris Rock’s speech has been critiqued to death, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that he turned a ‘diversity row’ into a ‘racism row’ and, if significant change is going to come, this is how it must continue.
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Rajeev Balasubramanyam is an award-winning novelist, and the author of In Beautiful Disguises (Bloomsbury), The Dreamer (Harper Collins), and Starstruck, which will be published in May by the new multi-mediate digital platform thepigeonhole.com. He is the winner of the Betty Trask Prize, Ian St. James Award, and the Clarissa Luard award, and was longlisted for the Guardian First Fiction Prize. He is a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge universities, and has a PhD in Black British literature. He is currently a fellow of the Hemera Foundation for writers and artists with a meditation practice.
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