This past week media has reminded us that racism is alive and well. From teenagers to Billy Crystal, it sometimes feels we’re hearing a perpetual resounding “No” in response to the absurd notion that Obama’s presidency means we’re post-racial. Sunday night at the Oscars we saw Billy Crystal not only bring back his 1980s blackface impersonation of Sammy Davis Jr., but he used comedy to strangely address and dismiss race issues in media all at once. This, all after a month where a white teacher used the n-word for what he deemed “educational purposes,” a couple of white teens posted a racist video on YouTube, and Juan Williams and Pat Buchanan got together to lament the backlash against their bigotry in media. The Oscars seem to have summed up this month of racism in media all in one night, reminding anyone who wasn’t already aware exactly how far we have to go.
Certainly it’s a complicated issue and as various writers have outlined different takes on the Oscars’ black jokes, I often feel we’re treading water when it comes to race in media. It’s a bit mind-boggling to me that not only are white people still doing blackface, but that in 2012–thirty years after Crystal’s impersonation of Sammy Davis Jr. was popularized–we still think it’s excusable. What’s perhaps more disconcerting is that Crystal appeared in blackface just as Justin Bieber, loved by tweens all over, graced the screen. I’ve read and heard so many dismissals of this act, from “Well, he did it in the 80s” to “It’s not really blackface, it’s an impersonation.” Americans (white, especially) need to understand that the history of racism around painting your skin and reductively reenacting someone of a different race makes blackface, just like the n-word, totally off limits. As Michael Le from Racebending points out, “The offense implicit in blackface is NOT about specificity and never has been. It’s about the historical abuse of blackface portrayals to reduce and control how people of color are viewed in media and society.” Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore put it into perspective in 2009 and four years later people are still asking the question he so intelligently answered.
As for Crystal’s black jokes around Octavia Spencer’s win and Viola Davis’ nomination, the Root suggests that, “Maybe public acknowledgment of these limited opportunities (even if by a white male [Billy Crystal], and even if through humor) means a change is in store.” While I appreciate their optimism, these jokes around serious issues of race in media were contrasted by the whiteness of both the audience, the nominees, and the Academy itself, by the sentimentality of the evening that did not include these issues of race in film, and backdropped with Crystal’s blackface. The utter ignorance and lack of self-awareness of the evening gives us a peek into why race and gender disparity exists in film, in the Academy, in media, and in American society itself. Crystal’s jokes were lost on me, and I was left wishing for honest and serious words spoken about the state of people of color in film during the ceremony, a request that shouldn’t be out of reach. While half of me knows I set my expectations too high, my only hope is that we’ll get to a place where racism is not tolerated in media.