In 1940, Hattie Mae McDaniel received an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. The Los Angeles Times praised McDaniel’s work as “worthy of Academy supporting awards,” and indeed McDaniel went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Many people viewed this as a turning point for the Oscars. However, they fail to mention that McDaniel was not allowed to sit at the table with cast members, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable but had to sit at a table near a far way wall because the Ambassador Hotel, where the ceremony was held, had a strict No Blacks policy. The film’s director, David O. Selznick, called in a favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building. Her final wish, to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery was denied because “the cemetery practiced racial segregation and would not accept the remains of Black people for burial.”On one hand Hollywood might appear progressive during that time in awarding McDaniel the highest award in their industry, on the other hand, her honor was still undergirded by racism. In fact, it would take over fifty years, for a Black woman, Whoopi Goldberg, to accept an award for Best Supporting Actress again.
April Reign started an #OscarsSoWhite movement in response to the lack of diversity at the Oscars, but it speaks even more to the scripts that are being greenlit in Hollywood. Women of Color cannot win awards for roles they are never allowed to have. Roles that are never written with a Women of Color in mind. Stories that are never told about Women of Color. And indeed, Women of Color have a myriad of stories. Stories that are bubbling up inside of them, waiting to be told.
However, those that control who tells the stories, share the stories that they desire. So seeing the cover of LA Times The Envelope, doesn’t shock me because White women are the default when it comes to most things in this world. White women are held up and presented as the standard. So when the LA Times decided it was going to do a story on “A Shift In Focus: Actresses Call For A Change In The Way Stories Are Told” and placed all White women on the cover and only enlisted the voices and opinions of White women, to them this is acceptable. Because White is the standard, they cannot even see the irony of the title of the article in juxtaposition to the photo. How many People of Color are on the staff of the LA Times? How many People of Color have power and influence at the LA Times? How many People of Color, write the stories at the LA Times? How do you write a story about the hit movie Get Out that challenges people to listen to Black people more and then do a article about shifting focus that is only centered around White women?
One of the actresses, Jessica Chastain, said in the article, “I’m open with my opinions because I’ve only been in the industry for six years. I started pretty late — 2011 is when my first film came out. I’d already had the great fortune of growing up out of the industry. I don’t know how to not speak out. ”
Jessica has even posted about the “unseen women” issue on Twitter. If Jessica was ever going to speak out about unseen and unheard women, during this interview and covershoot would have been a great time.
All it would take is for ONE of those women to stand up and say, “Because we are talking about telling a new story, we should have a more diverse selection of women to tell their story in this article.” That is how you change the world. That is how you show intersectionality not just in word but also in deed. However, when everything around tells you that as a White woman you are the standard, it is difficult to notice when someone isn’t being represented. It takes making a CONSCIOUS DECISION TO CARE ENOUGH TO EVEN NOTICE AND THEN TO ACT. How could someone like Annette Bening, a legend in Hollywood, shift the entire focus of the article, if she stood up and said, “There are people missing from this discussion.” She has influence, USE IT. One of the BENEFITS of having power is to USE IT for those that do not have it to impact their lives.
Representation matters. Seeing yourself reflected to you, can alter the course of your life because you start to believe that what the world has told you was impossible is in fact, possible. As a Women of Color, I am always looking for someone that looks likes me in a space. For someone that I believe will represent me and issues that impact Black women. For someone that can tell my side of the story in a room that I may never have the power or influence to be in. And when it is not represented it is glaringly apparent. However, it is oblivious to people who more than likely never have to think about being “the other.” For instance, when Princess Michael of Kent wore a blackamoor brooch to the queen’s annual Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace some considered the brooch racist. In her apology, she said, “She has worn it before, and it has never caused any controversy.” Just to make that statement shows how the world makes White the standard. I am going to assume in her social circle she is around people that look and think like her so naturally, it would not be a source of controversy. When you have always been the standard, you see nothing wrong with wearing a brooch that many consider similar to blackface. She never has to think about it; it is just normal to her.
When it comes to how we tell stories, I challenge White people, particularly White women, to take themselves out of the center and then ask themselves:
1. Am I making myself the center of this story?
2. Who is telling the story?
3. Are there Women of Color that should be telling this story?
4. Who benefits from this story?
5. Whose voice isn’t being heard in this story?
6. What agenda is centered in this story?
7. Who is or isn’t being represented in this story?
8. Are White people the default in this story?
9. How are People of Color portrayed in this story?
10. Have I thought about “the other”?
Seeing the La Times The Envelope cover, I was reminded of Viola Davis’s Oscar speech:
“Thank you to the Academy. You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place and that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist—and thank God I did—because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”
I became a writer to tell the stories and perspectives of Black Women. I want to read about characters that look like me and speak like me, that understand my “slang” and do not chastise me for my differences. I want to read stories where I am the center, where issues that impact me are the focus. I want to see me all around me. As my friend Kiara said, “The world is so much more beautiful when you can see yourself in it.” I became a writer to put those stories into the atmosphere and to use my words to challenge people to tell a new narrative. All people have a story, and they deserve the right to tell their story. Open up your eyes and be amazed at how much more rich, glorious and full this world can be if the voices of all people are heard.
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