The Oscars needs to do more than make jokes to address its diversity issue

I knew what I was going to get when I tuned in to watch the 2020 Oscars on Sunday night. No, I wasn’t going to find women, Black people, or people of color equally represented as each categories’ nominees were listed. Again. Yes, when a winner was announced I knew I was going to see more white men than any other kind of person, each taking the stage to give their thanks as if it was a foregone conclusion, their birthright. And I knew there’d be a few on-the-nose jokes, empty acknowledgments of #OscarsSoWhite that do nothing to actually ensure more equitable representation. 

The Oscars have been consistent in their messaging year after year: Will you see a whole bunch of white people on stage? Yep. And I see you’re upset—again—so here’s a freestyle rap filled with humorous little quips about our total lack of diversity and inclusion! Here’s Janelle Monáe beginning the show with a song about diversity, calling the Oscars “so white” from the start. We know it’s a problem, and we’re laughing with you!

Is it important to call out systemic racism and sexism where it exists and persists? Absolutely. But Black people, brown people, women, and other marginalized communities’ frustration with the whitewashing of the most prestigious award show in the world will not be assuaged by seconds-long showtime acknowledgements. A carefully placed joke here to a necessary admission of stolen Indigenous peoples’ land there is, simply put, not enough.

Highlighting the conductor who led the band during Best Original Score—a woman—doesn’t erase the atrocity that is failing to ever award an Oscar to a Black person for Best Director. Booking Chris Rock and Steve Martin to make jokes on stage about what was “missing” in the Best Director category (Chris Rock responded with, “Vaginas?!”) doesn’t change the fact that in 89 years, the Academy has only awarded 39 Oscars to Black actors and actresses, has only had one woman win an Oscar for Best Director, (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker), and has seen just 1% of nominations go to Asian actors and actresses. 

Parasite becoming the first non-English film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture didn’t gift every single actor from that film an Oscar (not a single actor or actress was nominated for their now-historic performances), nor did it magically leave an Oscar on the bookshelf of every Black director who has been overlooked time, and time, and time again.

Incorporating humorous admissions of guilt—while arguably cathartic and good for a few seconds of reprieve for those of us who’re still waiting to see ourselves equally represented on the Oscar stage—will not change the lack of representation in Hollywood and beyond. And for every actor working to bring attention to the issue—Natalie Portman wore a cape embroidered with the names of women directors she believed to be snubbed by the Academy, for example—there’s a guy like Donald Sylvester thanking his wife for sacrificing her own career as a sound editor so he could win an Oscar for Best Sound Editing. We need more than meme-worthy speeches and politically charged fashion choices. We need action.

For example, in his speech during the BAFTA  awards, Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix called out the lack of diversity, saying, “It is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it.” While this is a nice sentiment overall, it means nothing if people like Phoenix—people with immense privilege, who are the defacto Oscar-nominees in the room simply because they look like the winners of years past—do nothing. Like Phoenix admitted in the same speech, he is part of the problem.

In 2015, close to 8% of the 8,500 Oscar voters were people of color. Five years later, people of color make up 16% of the voter population. And like the jokes, acknowledgments, and passing moments of solidarity on the Oscar stage, that minor increase in representation simply isn’t going to bring about the change needed for equal representation.

It’s not enough for the Oscars to throw viral moments our way, as if a 30-second speech or an embroidered cape will do the trick. Our collective surprise that a non-English language film won Best Picture—the first time ever, something no one should be able to say in the year 2020—perfectly encapsulates how little we expect and require from the Academy. The United States is more diverse than ever before, yet long-standing institutions are making those of us who contribute to that diversity feel like Oliver Twist—our hands stretched out, our eyes, big, and our voices timid as we politely ask, “Please, sir, I want some more.” 

But the days of politely asking to be included in the story of our own lives are long gone. In 2019, women accounted for 40% of the protagonists highlighted in film—a historic high. But we’re still not satisfied, especially because in the same year the percentage of Black females in speaking roles declined to just 20%, women only account for 12% of directors, and only 7% of all women characters were Asian. Women-led films outperformed male-dominated films at the box office, so the choice being made here is a consciencience one on the part of Hollywood to not have films reflect the diversity of its audience.

If the Academy truly wants to show awareness of its lack of diversity and inclusion, it must do the work as arguably the organization with the most power to advance the art of entertainment. As April Reign, the managing editor of and founder of #OscarsSoWhite, told The Washington Post in 2016, “more structural and systemic change must occur, not just within the Academy but Hollywood as a whole. The decisions about what films to green light, who tells those stories and how they are told must also be inclusive of marginalized communities.”  

And that inclusivity requires more than asking Utkarsh Ambudkar to stand on stage and rhyme “colorblind” with “a sign of the times.”

So yes, during the 92nd Academy Awards, I knew those responsible for the Oscars would try to give me a taste of how inclusive the show could be if they treated every actor equally. And I knew, long before I turned my television off, that I’d end the show hungry for more. While that hunger doesn’t take away from the monumental accomplishments of Bong Joon Ho, the director of Parasite, or any other nominee and Oscar winner, it does highlight the need for more women, and more people of color to be acknowledged as well.