We all witnessed a bit of history last night at the Oscars, with the chaos of the Best Picture announcement. The aftermath of any historical event provides us with the opportunity for education, to learn something that was not known before, so we may be better equipped for the future ahead.
After the confetti of the 89th Oscars had settled, I realised there was only one thing to be learned from it: white people in the arts are completely unprepared for the tidal wave of talented people of colour bearing down upon them all, unprepared for their genius to finally be given the limelight. It’s like when you realised that Cordelia is actually a really smart and cool character, but Buffy and the rest of Scoobies refused to ever acknowledge that fact to their own detriment (I realise the irony of using a very white TV show to make this point).
You could see this in the way that host Jimmy Kimmel joked about Oscar winner Mahershala Ali’s name, and what he would call his newly-born daughter ‘given his name is Mahershala’. Something normal, you know. I know I would love main focus of comments after I’ve just made history being the first African-American Muslim man to have won an Oscar to be something about weird my name is, what a fun way to be reminded that no matter how astronomical your achievements might be, if your name’s not directly lifted from the Bible (New Testament only) or the list of names you’re allowed to call your children if you’re going to send them to private school (I’m looking at you Casey, but with minimal eye contact because you’re terrifying), you will always be treated like an outsider.
Anyone with a name that doesn’t appear on Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 knows exactly what this feels like. If I had a dollar for every time a white person asked me how to pronounce my full name I’d probably have just enough to buy a 7-Eleven frozen slurpee, because that’s how many times people have taken the time to acknowledge they’re unfamiliar with something foreign, but that they are willing to learn and are cool about it.
On the other hand, a dollar for every time I’ve had to grin and bear someone mispronouncing my name or wondering aloud about how ‘different’ it sounds would mean I could afford a plane ticket to a place where I wouldn’t have to hear that shit any more. I even wrote a whole show about how I sometimes call myself ‘Michelle’ because it’s just easier than having to deal with white people (or their permeating cultural supremacy) not being able to handle anything slightly outside their well-patrolled borders.
There’s a difference between acknowledging difference and using it as a weapon, wielding it like a blunt sword to make terrible jokes because that’s the only way you know how to deal with the unfamiliar. Jimmy Kimmel’s continuous allusions to what is and isn’t an acceptable name last night – oh yeah there was more than one, is sad and unfortunate, but in the way that it makes me worried about white people. Yes, I’ve progressed from being angry to feeling sorry for them, like my feelings for Kevin Rudd, or the cast of Married at First Sight.
Jimmy Kimmel is the deer in the headlights of progress, and while the long-maligned non-white, non-straight, non-Christian folk are busy collecting awards at one of the most prestigious celebrations of the arts in the world, Kimmel handles it by acting like he’s been living under a nice rock while progress and globalisation were happening right outside. You clearly missed the ‘always be prepared’ memo at Boy Scouts, Jimmy.
But it wasn’t just Kimmel either. What happened before the cast and crew of Moonlight were finally allowed on stage to accept their win for Best Picture was unfortunate, but it also went on for far longer than it should. The La La Land crew milled about stage for a good while even after they were told “no you didn’t win, this was a mistake”, Warren Beatty saw fit to ramble about how this mistake actually happened, even though it really wasn’t an explanation, but rather an exoneration for himself, all while the true winners of the night – who should’ve been up there from the start – had to patiently wait their turn.
It was pretty clear that even when they’re told “this space is not meant for you any more”, privileged people feel pretty comfortable taking their own sweet time with moving out of that space. It’s like being told to leave the squash court because other people want to have a go, but they can’t believe other people also play squash (yes this is the whitest game I could think of).
And I don’t blame them – it’s what they’re used to and have always known. But what happens when they realise other people not only like playing squash, but that they have been doing so for ages and are actually really awesome at it? What happens when those scales start to be tipped, as they were last night?
I know people of colour are prepared to deal with whatever may happen – be it the backlash or the adulation and rewards that they’ve always known they deserved – because unlike the privileged, we’re always prepared; we’ve always had to be. Whatever happens, it’s obvious that we’re not going anywhere and wins like this will only become more common. I can only hope that people like Jimmy Kimmel can get used to it, and soon.