Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dear white people (and Nancy Lee Grahn): There is no criticizing Viola Davis' beautifully human Emmy speech

What is it with daytime soap actresses I love putting their feet in their Twitters? Several years ago, it was Days of Our Lives' Melissa Reeves defending the right of the powers that be at Chick-fil-A to hate gay people.

Now General Hospital's Nancy Lee Grahn has tried to turn what was a beautiful historic Emmy moment -- How to Get Away with Murder's Viola Davis becoming the first black actress to win Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama Series -- and turn it into something ugly.

I will admit that for one moment, the one where Viola was quoting Harriet Tubman, I was a bit perplexed. Wait, when were beautiful white women reaching out to you from across the great divide? I wondered. But once she attributed the lovely quote to Tubman, I recognized it for the amazing analogy that it was.

I was right with her for the rest of the speech. I'm pretty sure I must have stifled a tear. I was surrounded by colleagues at work. I didn't want them to see how touched I was. I try to be tough like that in public, but had I let the waterworks flow, I'm convinced they all would have understood.

Thank God, I don't work with Nancy Lee Grahn. She probably would have been rolling her eyes while crafting her tweet in her head.

Here's what she ended up writing:

"I wish I loved #ViolaDavis Speech, but I thought she should have let @shondarhimes write it. #Emmys"

Of course, you can't go there and just run away. NLG didn't. She wrote a succession of follow-up tweets criticising Viola for singling out black women and not making her speech about all women. She griped about Viola getting better roles than she does, paid her some backhanded compliments, then delivered the zinging kicker:

"She has never been discriminated against."

Whoa! I thought as I read her series of tweets, wondering how it was possible that she could have survived the half hour-plus it took for her to write them without any oxygen getting to her head.

But after Matt Damon's lesson on discrimination last week -- he had the nerve to tell a black director that it doesn't matter if you have diversity behind the camera as long as there's diversity in front of it -- I'm convinced that when it comes to racism, white Hollywood (including many who consider themselves to be hyper-aware liberals) just doesn't get it.

Unless you know what it's like to be denied opportunity because of the color of your skin, to be denied jobs and housing, to be told you are not as good as everyone else, as beautiful as everyone else, because you happen to be a minority, you simply cannot tell me how racism works.

Yes, there is discrimination against women in Hollywood. But Viola Davis is not contractually obligated to speak for all women. (And didn't Patricia Arquette already cover that -- painfully so -- after winning her Oscar earlier this year?) Nancy Lee Grahn is a fantastic actress -- one with a pair of Daytime Emmy Awards, by the way -- and I certainly think she's talented enough to be a major movie star. Why she isn't is a discussion for another night.

But on the night when Viola Davis becomes the first black woman in history to win an Emmy Award in her field, yes, I think the discussion needs to be about black actresses, not actresses in general. (P.S. Since The Jefferson's Isabel Sanford won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981, she, Gimme a Break's Nell Carter, and The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad have been the only black women to be nominated in that category, the last black nominee being Rashad in 1986.) Despite what NLG sees as her professional deprivation and Viola Davis's privilege, this is an award for which women, most of them white, have been competing for decades, and it took decades for a black woman to finally win it.

What does that say about the Academy? What does it say about Hollywood? What does it say about the United States? For all the discrimination against women in general, the fact remains that white women have it much better than women of color. Yes, they don't receive the same pay as men. Yes, in Hollywood, they struggle to find work after turning 40.

But black women have a tougher time climbing over that brick wall. How often do we see them headlining movies, being cast as the romantic lead, being cast at all in roles that aren't specifically written for a black character? Things have gotten much better on TV in recent years, but Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to female minorities.

In the 13 years since Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a leading actress Oscar and Denzel Washington became the second black leading actor to take the prize, two black men (Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker) have won, but there have been no follow-up black female winners and only three black female nominees (one of which was Viola).

Viola Davis may be highly employable these days, but she was no overnight success. How dare NLG tell her that she has never been discriminated against? She is a 50-year-old woman who has only just begun to hit her stride in film and TV. As NLG said in one deleted tweet, she herself has been an actress for 40 years, and she's been a gainfully employed one since the 1980s, well before anyone had ever heard of Viola Davis.

Unless she's actually walked in Viola's shoes, how can she say what Viola has experienced? Unless NLG has experienced racial discrimination firsthand, how can she address it with any real expertise? Rather than using a landmark moment to bemoan her own status or perceived lack thereof in the industry, perhaps she should have put her hashtagging effort to better use and congratulated Viola.

A win for black women is a win for all women. Who knows? If NLG had put aside her sour grapes and really listened to what Viola was saying, she might even have learned something.

Later NLG apologized for her comments, but she kept defending herself at the same time, proving she hadn't actually learned anything at all.

Dear white people: Stop wigging out and getting so defensive when black people start talking about racism. If you're not racist, bravo. But it's not just about you. So shut up and listen. You might learn something about us. You might learn something about yourselves, too.
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