#OscarsSoBlackAndWhite and the Myth of Black Privilege

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins accepts the award for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins accepts the award for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

It’s become an annual late-January Twitter tradition to examine, cheer and/or mock the diversity (or lack thereof) of the Oscar nominees ever since writer, activist and media critic April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015. But as the derivative hashtag #OscarsSoBlackAndWhite rears its ugly head once again this year, it’s worth revisiting a countertradition: the anti-black resentments that bubble up from nonblack people of color who blame black people for their own communities’ underrepresentation.


With high-profile nominations going to Mudbound’s Mary J. Blige, The Shape of Water’s Octavia Spencer, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele, and Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s Denzel Washington, conversations on Oscars diversity have now turned to the admittedly poor showing for Asian and Latinx actors this year (while the question of Native American underrepresentation continues to be sidelined).

It’s true—this makes the sixth year in a row that no Latinx actors have been nominated for an acting Academy Award, and only 1 percent of Oscar nominations have gone to Asian actors in the past 89 (!) years. And yet the vitriol and rhetoric of #OscarsSoBlackAndWhite make clear that the hashtag is about more than addressing (nonblack) Latinx and Asian underrepresentation: it’s an outlet for anti-black claims that black people are “hogging” all the diversity.

It comes down to a pervasive and wildly ahistorical belief that black people wield privilege and power over nonblack people of color because of their (hyper)visibility in conversations about race and racism. As Shanice Brim writes, “A lot of nonblack people feel that black issues take up too much space in the racism discussion.”

We see it all the time in mainstream media—from the Master of None bit in which Aziz Ansari’s Dev Shah complained that “people don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff ... you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about black or gay people,” to Salma Hayek’s shutting down Jessica Williams’ critique of anti-blackness in white feminism by interjecting with an account of her own experience as a (light-skinned) Latina in Hollywood.

It takes ignoring the singular, ongoing history of racial slavery and the violence of hypervisibility to pin the problems of nonblack people of color on black folks. But it happens again and again—and not just in the world of Hollywood.


For years, “going beyond black and white” has been a catchphrase of nonblack Asian-American and Latinx advocates looking to spotlight their communities’ unique struggles against white supremacy. But as critical race theorist Mari Matsuda has warned, anti-blackness often underlies the rhetoric of moving past the “black and white binary.”

Matsuda explains: “When we say we need to move beyond black and white, this is what a whole lot of people say or feel or think: ‘Thank goodness we can get off that paradigm, because those black people made me feel so uncomfortable. ... Thank God I don’t have to take those angry black people seriously anymore.’”


The myth of black privilege has real consequences, fracturing interracial coalitions and making black people the scapegoat for the violence white supremacy enacts on Latinx and Asian-American folks. Behind the thousands of Chinese-American protesters who declared that killer cop Peter Liang was a “sacrificial lamb” to Black Lives Matter is the belief that, as one protester put it, “white people [are] first-class, black people [are] second-class. ... Chinese [are] no class, or the last class.” Likewise, beneath claims that a “Latino Lives Matter” movement is being stifled by “black and white” conceptions of race is the twisted notion that black people are somehow responsible for a black-white binary that white people created to enforce their legal status as property.


That’s why in 2016, after nonblack people of color asked why Academy Award host Chris Rock wasn’t mentioning Asian-American or Latinx underrepresentation, Mikki Kendall created the brilliant and incisive hashtag #NotYourMule to critique the expectation that black people will do the work for nonblack communities of color that often don’t return the favor.

While the hashtag is new, the sentiment isn’t: It’s a paraphrase from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. And critiquing the demand for black activists to ally with nonblacks similarly has a long history.


In 1967, Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton discredited the expectation that Black Power activists should align with “groups [that] accept the American system and want only—if at all—to make peripheral, marginal reforms in it.” Addressing anti-blackness among nonblack people of color means confronting that same question: Do we want coalitions with black folks only until we can join white people as agents of anti-black and settler-colonial violence? Or do we seek, as Ture and Hamilton wrote, “the total revamping of society”?

If we are to build meaningful coalitions with black activists, we don’t have to start from scratch: There is a long tradition of interracial solidarity movements—from the Chicano and Asian-American activists who stood with Black Panther Party members to free Huey Newton, to recent Black Lives Matter solidarity efforts in which nonblack POC have shut down federal buildings, confronted their family members and fought to hold nonblack POC police officers accountable for the murder of black people.


This ongoing history of solidarity teaches us that when we come together to honestly confront our unique but intertwined experiences of oppression, we can unlearn the capitalist belief that justice is a limited resource.

But when it comes to mainstream media representation, it’s easy to feel like we are fighting for scraps. Too often, that leads to nonblack POC using anti-blackness to try to steal the spotlight—like when a group of Asian Americans “borrowed” the #OscarsSoWhite tag for a panel at SXSW without inviting, or even consulting, its creator.


Meanwhile, though April Reign has every right to say that #OscarsSoWhite is indeed by and for black people alone, she has taken every opportunity to insist that Hollywood still needs to do better by nonblack Asian Americans and Latinx folks, declaring after last year’s nominations saw an uptick in black nominees that “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”#OscarsSoBlackAndWhite is just another reminder that the labor and leadership of black women too often go unappreciated.

Ultimately, the demand for black people to build political coalitions with nonblack people of color is a demand for unreciprocated black labor. Our work to confront Asian-American and Latinx media underrepresentation—and the countless violences our communities face outside of Hollywood—is cut out for us. But let’s be clear: It is our work.





Hello Mark. Thank you for this piece. Non-Black people of color have to stop putting the burden of labor on Black people. Period. It is our work. It is not our work alone, but it is ours to lead. We as non-Black POC are quick to point out discrimination but then really dont show up or show out. Instead, we let Black people do the work for us and expect to reap the fruits of their labor. I also think that non-Black POC need to acknowledge that in our own cultures, be it Latinx or East/South/Southeast Asian or Native American, there exists anti-blackness. We can no longer ignore how white supremacy has shaped our identity in contrast to Black people. Let’s put in the work and then we can talk.