Several years ago, I was attending an academic conference with a group of colleagues from Toronto. As we gathered one evening for dinner, a male friend observed that the women in attendance were “so lucky” that we “got to” have so many different options for how we could dress for potential events, whereas men were sadly restricted to the uninspiring “business casual” option of blazer and slacks. Unsurprisingly, the women in the group quickly assured him that this state of affairs was not a gift to us, but a deeply sexist social structure which invariably guaranteed we would somehow be inappropriately dressed for any event we attend. Fortunately, the man in question is (still) a very good friend with a good sense of humor, so he took our outrage in stride and appreciated why his observation might have been a touch oblivious with respect to the lived experience of the women in his acquaintance.
I recalled that conversation last night as I (for some reason) watched the 88th Annual Academy Awards. It is no secret that for two years now the Oscars have come under criticism for the omission of black actors and filmmakers from nominations. Host Chris Rock did not disappoint when he confronted the #OscarsSoWhite movement head-on in his opening monologue. Honestly, I’m not sure what was more entertaining — Rock’s monologue itself or the awkward laughter from the audience as they were forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about the ingrained racism of the film industry. Perhaps most brilliant was Chris Rock’s articulation of what he dubbed “sorority racism”:
But here’s the real question. The real question everybody wants to know, everybody wants to know in the world is: Is Hollywood racist? Is Hollywood racist? … Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. No, no, no …
… Is Hollywood racist? You’re d*** 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.”
This is an excellent observation of the deeply systemic racism that continues to exist even in the “nice” corners of the world, as Rock describes in his monologue. The corners of the world which are happily progressive and liberal, yet still poisoned from the toxic well of White Supremacy that has been the consistent undercurrent in our nation’s history. We all agree that overt discrimination should be illegal, but we remain uncomfortable seeing people of color in iconic roles or positions of authority. As Lupita Nyong’o recently observed, this type of insidious racism is harder to fight because it is a “battle of the mind,” not a legal battle.
So as honest, and as necessary, as Rock’s observations on the racial dynamics in Hollywood may have been, it nevertheless angered me to see him miss the mark so completely on Hollywood sexism. Even as he skewered the marginalization of black actors, Rock made an entirely unnecessary crack at “not being invited” to Rihanna’s panties–effectively reminding the incredibly accomplished performer that she remains little more than a sex object. Even more troubling to me, though, were the closing lines of his monologue when he took issues with another popular Oscars hashtag, Amy Poehler’s infamous #AskHerMore campaign. The movement challenges Red Carpet reporters to ask women questions about their acting craft or the characters they have chosen to portray, not about their appearance. Observing that “men all wear the same thing,” Rock brushed off the movement with the crack that “not everything is racist, not everything is sexist”:
There’s this whole thing, “Ask her more. You have to ask her more.” You know it’s like, You ask the men more. Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism.
They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits, O.K.? Every guy in there is wearing the exact same thing.
You know, every guy there might be wearing the same thing — because they know they will not be held up to public scrutiny by the media like every woman who has the audacity to set foot on a red carpet. It’s true no public figure will get it right on every issue all the time. And, honestly, I wasn’t looking for Chris Rock to take up the feminist cause in his monologue. The issue of racism in Hollywood is one that needs to be confronted without a bunch of white women (like myself) jumping in and saying “Look at me!” But the fact remains Rock DID address the issue. He, as a man, perpetuated in the same sort of systemic oppression he was calling out in his monologue. Yet, maybe in so doing he provided the perfect example of how all of us are complicit in so many varied forms of oppression. We must indeed always be vigilant regarding how we can support those struggles which are not our own and be open to correction when we inevitably fail.