Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In defense of the BET Awards: Is celebrating women in rock anti-male?

I've had it. I'm done. Let's move it along, please.

If I read one more comment by one more disingenuously slighted white person using the BET Awards as ammunition against the #OscarsSoWhite call for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood…

Let's just say, it's time to give that particular one a rest. Trying to turn the tables is futile. When it comes to the thorny race issue, the majority generally wields the power. That's why no one has ever been able to coin an anti-white slam as brutally effective as the N word (and no, neither "honkey" nor "cracker" comes close). And to those tit-for-tatters who carp, "Well, black people use the N word, too," the danger isn't in the word itself but in the hatred it represents and the painful history it recalls when uttered by anyone of the race that coined it,

Those shouting "Reverse racism!" over the Oscars boycott and the BET Awards can continue to do so if it helps them feel less guilty about being white and privileged, but the slights they allegedly suffer at the hands of black people don't begin to approach the level of disgrace and injustice blacks in America experience every day.

Personally, I consider the Oscars boycott to be ridiculously self-serving and misguided, but that's beside the point. The Oscars are beside the point. The point is a movie industry that's too narrow in its scope to spawn diversity during awards season. The un-diverse Oscar nominations and it lack of acting nominees of color are but a symptom of a much larger problem: a Hollywood movie industry that reflects the ongoing dismissal of minorities in the U.S. and the systemic white-is-better racism that's plagued the country since its inception.

Why do we need the BET Awards, and why aren't white performers invited to the party?

That's like asking why Adele's "Hello" isn't eligible for a Latin Grammy, even if Latinos love the song. Just as the Latin Grammys were created because a specific ethnic demographic wasn't being properly represented at the regular Grammys, the BET Awards were created to recognize talent that was also being overlooked at mainstream awards shows.

How is celebrating yourself because no one else will racist against the ruling privileged majority? (A similar case can be made for Black History Month, another target of some privileged whites who have likely never heard of the Harlem Renaissance or any other aspect of black history that, unlike slavery, doesn't revolve around whites and therefore isn't taught in school.)

Should we close down all of the gay bars and clubs because they may be construed as being heterophobic? Should we cancel everything that celebrates women because they might be interpreted as being man-hating? It's already a man's man's man's man's (Western) world - one in which straight white guys have a clear advantage. Forgive me if I don't cry for them because they occasionally feel left out.

White (male) power is a fact of life that cannot be refuted by the tired reverse-racism argument that too many white people, including an out-of-touch Charlotte Rampling, are grasping at to make those pesky black folks go away…or at least shut the hell up.

But getting back to the BET Awards, Black Entertainment Television put the BET in the BET Awards. The network came to prominence during a decade in which The Cosby Show was pretty much the only mainstream representation of black culture. All of the progress blacks had made in the '70s toward something resembling diversity had fallen by the wayside.

In music, MTV was created mainly as a vehicle for white artists, as there was an unofficial decree that videos by black artists were not to be played because even if audiences wanted to hear their music, they didn't want to actually see them. At least that was the ruling assumption. Things only changed when Michael Jackson's Thriller came along. The future self-proclaimed King of Pop, the world's biggest artist at the time, was able to reverse MTV's racist decree only because his record label threatened to pull all of its white artists from the network if it didn't play the videos by its top star.

Even after Michael Jackson became a video icon, all but the biggest crossover black artists were still largely ignored by MTV and Top 40 radio. If it hadn't been for BET's Video Soul and its host Donnie Simpson in the '80s, I might have entirely missed the incredible music being recorded by non-crossover artists like Stephanie Mills, Angela Winbush, and Miki Howard. I owe the balanced musical diet of my formative years as much to BET as to MTV's 120 Minutes and Bob Kingsley's Great American Country Countdown.


Meanwhile, as I've already mentioned, things had gone from decent to worse on TV in the '80s. Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Diff'rent Strokes, and What's Happening!! had all left the air. And even during the peak era of Norman Lear's lower-case black entertainment television sitcoms, Isabel Sanford, who played Louise "Weezy" Jefferson on The Jeffersons, was the only black performer ever to win an Emmy for best leading actress in a comedy series. To date, she remains the only black women to ever take this prize.


By the time The Cosby Show ended its run in 1992, the white status quo had a solid grip on the three major networks. If you wanted to see shows featuring blacks in prominent roles, you had to go to Fox…or BET. Black performers were largely absent from the must-see TV of the '90s and the early '00s. Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Mad About You, and Sex and the City, like Girls today, were all set in a New York City that was nearly 100 percent white.

Melrose Place, another '90s cultural phenomenon, had a token black regular for several seasons who was relegated to minor "black"-themed storylines until she was bounced completely. For black performers and people who wanted to see them in substantial roles, Fox and BET (and later UPN) were pretty much the only options.

The TV industry has come a long way since then, but in some ways, the movie industry still feels like TV in the '90s. I don't blame the Oscars for the dearth of black nominees, or nominees of color. I blame a movie industry that erroneously believes that the white majority isn't interested in black stories, or in diversity. It's actually less about racism than it is about ignorance.

Just one look at the music charts or the success of series like Empire, Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal shows that audiences are a lot more sophisticated than movie executives believe them to be. To paraphrase a Field of Dreams line spoken by a highly esteemed black actor, James Earl Jones, if you create diverse entertainment, they will come.

And they have, in TV and in music. The Grammys are fairly solid as far as black-and-white diversity goes, and the Emmys are still catching up. Last year Viola Davis became the first black actress to score an Emmy for a leading role in a dramatic TV series. It was a win-win, but it took us decades to get there. Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Oscar for a leading role 15 years ago, and we're still waiting for the second.

So despite the inroads made on TV and the progress made by the Oscars before the recent reversal, the BET Awards remain as valid and important as ever. They were created to recognize talent that would go largely unrewarded elsewhere, talent that continues to go largely unrewarded elsewhere. We need them as much now as we did 10, 20, 30 years ago.

No, whites are generally ineligible because it's Black Entertainment Television. But so what? They already get plenty of recognition everywhere else from voting bodies that present "white" awards in everything but name. Should blacks stop launching their own shows and their own movies and remain at the mercy of an industry run by white men? Should we stop creating our own opportunities as well as our own forums for recognition?

I can understand the frustration of white people who cringe whenever race comes up. It's not a pleasant topic, but ignoring it or trying to turn the tables on minorities isn't going to lead to progress.

To those who insist on closing their ears and their minds, I offer a suggestion: Rather than griping about the incessant "whining" of black people and making our experience all about yourselves, why not try to listen to us? You just might learn something. And knowledge is power…for everyone.
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