Long-standing racial biases in awards shows calls for changes in nomination processes

March 5, 2020 — by Kaitlyn Tsai
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The 2020 Golden Globes included several jokes about the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry from comedian Ricky Gervais, who hosted the ceremony.

“What the f*** does Beyoncé have to do to win Album of the Year?” singer Adele asked backstage at the 2017 Grammy Awards after winning the award — which she snapped in half to share with Beyoncé.

Although Beyoncé later said on Instagram that she didn’t feel disappointed about the loss, a wave of outrage rippled over her fans as they felt her album “Lemonade,” widely acclaimed as one of the decade’s most powerful and culturally relevant works, was snubbed at the Grammys. Many blamed the Grammys’ biases against black artists — accusations that were not without ground.

In 2018, hip-hop artist Jay Z received no Grammy awards despite having eight nominations, and Kendrick Lamar lost album of the year despite winning a Pulitzer Prize for music three months afterward.

“For the Pulitzers to get it right and the Grammys to get it wrong says a lot,” Troy Carter, a former Spotify executive, said in a New York Times interview.

This lack of diversity extends beyond the Grammys. Hollywood was founded in 1853 by a white man, and today, four of the Big Five film studios — The Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Paramount Pictures — are headed by white men. Since the inception of the Oscars in 1929, over 95 percent of nominees have been white, according to a 2016 study from Forbes

Diversity saw an increase at the turn of the century, with a total of 41 minority actor Oscar winners from 2001 to 2013. But in 2015, for the first time since 1998, every nominee except director Alejandro González Iñárritu was white, provoking a slew of #OscarsSoWhite posts on Twitter. Despite this backlash, the 2016 Oscars also saw another year of all-white acting nominees, which sparked another #OscarsSoWhite movement.  

In response, the Academy swore to double its numbers of female and minority voters by 2020. According to the USA Today, the percentage of members of color has indeed doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent. 

However, the Oscars still remain largely biased against racial minorities. Studies from the Washington Post revealed that black and Hispanic nominees haven’t matched proportion of the U.S. population, with other minorities like Asians even more underrepresented; only three Asian actors have been nominated in the past 25 years. 

Inspired by these blatant racial biases, the 2020 Golden Globes included several jokes about the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry from comedian Ricky Gervais, who hosted the ceremony.

“We were going to do an In Memoriam section, but when I saw the list of people who had died this year, it wasn't diverse enough,” Gervais said. “It was mostly white people. And I thought, ‘No, not on my watch.’”

Despite these jokes, many categories had all-white nominees, including those for both Best Actor and Actress in a series, miniseries or TV movie. Moreover, nominated film dramas and TV comedies centered on white people.

The Tony Awards, however, took a different approach to responding to the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2016. That year, the Tonys saw one of their most racially diverse groups of nominees and winners, including Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” a musical in which Hispanic and black actors portray America’s founding fathers while a white actor plays King George III. 

Still, Broadway tends to underrepresent Asian and Hispanic actors, said Pun Bandhu, a spokesman for the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, in a New York Times interview. And despite this one year of increased diversity, the Tonys seem just as white as the Oscars — the Forbes study revealed that 95.3 percent of Tony nominees are white. 

This lack of diversity can be attributed to the way the nomination and voting processes work. For example, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which selects Oscar nominees, consists of approximately 9,000 actors in Hollywood, 84 percent of whom are white. And questions over the legitimacy of the Grammy nomination process continue to linger after the Recording Academy’s former CEO Deborah Dugan claimed the show is full of professional and financial conflicts of interest.

With this corruption in the entertainment industry, award shows should reconsider their nomination and voting processes to include smaller, more diverse panels of professionals with actual experience in judging — not merely actors, like in the Oscars’ Academy. These elite groups should also have connections to nonprofit art worlds to avoid financial or professional conflicts of interest.

Ultimately, minorities must remember that overturning the deep-rooted racist systems in America’s entertainment industry takes extensive time and patience. And until changes like the aforementioned become implemented, minorities should try to adopt the mentality Solange Knowles had after her sister Beyoncé lost the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2017.

“Create your own committees, build your own institutions, give your friends awards, award yourself and be the gold you wanna hold my g's,” Knowles tweeted.