Why are award shows so white!?
A look into the prevalence of racial bias in award shows
Every spring, we look forward to glamorous artists, in dazzling red carpet events, with buzzing excitement, who’s going to take away the big awards this year. Being one of the most well-known events in pop culture, it is held in high esteem and regard by the entertainment industry as well as the general public. But often, esteemed award shows like the Grammys and Oscars are surrounded by controversy, ranging from the snubbing of actors of colour at the Oscars to the lack of transparency of the selection processes.
A controversial past
There have been several instances in the Academy Awards, which multiple people have alleged, were cases of racial privilege. In 2016, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending and highlighted the rampant lack of diversity in award shows, along with numerous instances of people calling out the Recording Academy and voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Since the inception of the Grammys in 1957, only a dozen black artists have been awarded Album of the Year. In addition to this, several wins have been questioned by critics and brought into the spotlight. Some of the most prominent controversies involve Beyoncé’s loss to Beck for Album of the Year in 2015, and to Adele in 2017, Kendrick Lamar’s defeat to Taylor Swift in 2016, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall failing to be nominated.
As for the Oscars, only five persons of colour have been awarded Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role, and many critics claim that these awardees were also acknowledged attributing to the stereotypical nature of their roles. 3 of the awardees portrayed famous people in their respective biopics (Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin).
There are also arguments that in the Grammys, non-white artists usually win in the racialized, smaller categories like rap and R&B. An example being Beyoncé who has most of her 28 Grammys within categories such as rap and R&B.
An unbiased selection process?
Award shows are often criticized for the lack of transparency in the selection processes and the criteria behind nominations. The process for the Grammy Awards begins with members and record companies submitting entries, which are then screened for eligibility and category placement. The Academy's voting members, then participate in
(1) the nominating process that determines the five finalists in each category; and
(2) the final voting process which determines the Grammy winners.
The Recording Academy also maintains that they form special committees to overlook the entire voting process, to ensure quality, but this has been considered very controversial, as the members of the committee are kept anonymous and hold great power and influence over Grammy selections.
The Oscars selection process is similar to the Grammys’. Each person belongs to one of 17 branches. Each branch nominates for its own category — e.g., editors nominate editors, actors nominate for the four acting categories. Everyone gets to nominate the best picture. For the final voting of the winner, all branches vote for everything.
Critics pointed out that the Academy’s Board of Governors is a quite homogenous group of people and having them review the applications would skew the composition of the members of the Academy. Diversity is an issue of concern for many within the cinema industry.
Will the show still go on?
Since the OscarsSoWhite movement, there has been a lot of reform to the system. 2019’s nominations included Parasite by Bong Joon Ho, the only movie out of the nine best picture nominees that did not feature a majorly white cast. The Academy has stated that they are on track to achieve their diversity targets and continues growing its membership since 2015, however facts and statistics still say the opposite.
The Grammys have faced a lot of backlash for snubbing deserving artists of their awards for decades now. The 2021 Grammys saw multiple artists and fans boycott the whole show. Pop star The Weeknd stated he would “no longer submit to the Grammys” following snubs and alleged corruption in the committee. Zayn Malik stated in a controversial tweet that he did not believe the show was fair and called to boycott it.
Soon after the 2021 Grammys ended, fans of K-pop group BTS were quick to call out the Recording Academy for inviting the Korean boy band to perform but snubbed them at the ceremony. They took to Twitter and called the Grammys as “Scammys” and alleged that the Grammys did not do them justice. In a Forbes article, it is highlighted that the Grammys once again performed the “bare minimum” for a promising act.
Various celebrities have criticized these institutions and believe that these are nothing but secret ways of discrimination. Even though they have taken initiatives to further diversify their voting committees, there is still a long way to go until true representation is achieved.
Kavyaa Kannan and Aziz Khasamwala
Sources: The Washington Post, Vox, Oscars Official Website, Grammys official website, Variety