Oscars' lack of diversity contributes to wider racial bias, experts say

The lack of diversity among this year's Oscar nominees is an issue that not only affects the film industry, but society as a whole, experts say.

Film industry's racial values tend to be assimilated by public, social psychologist says

Black actors are absent from the 2016 slate of Oscar acting nominees, some of whom are pictured in this compilation of file photos. Director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith have led calls for a boycott of this year's Academy Awards to protest a lack of diversity. (Reuters)

The lack of diversity among this year's Oscar nominees has prompted a barrage of criticism, and it's an issue that affects not only the film industry, but society as a whole, experts say. 

"People who care about racial and gender justice really should care a lot about the [Oscar] nomination process and what's valued in Hollywood," said Phillip Atiba Goff, an associate professor of social psychology at UCLA specializing in race issues.

Millions of people watch movies every year, he said, and the representation of racial diversity in films affects their "implicit biases."   

Our brains are constantly storing and accessing information based on how the social world is represented, Goff said, leading people to form stereotypical associations about people of different races.
Social psychology expert Phillip Atiba Goff says the value Hollywood places on diversity can affect people's racial biases. (Phillip Atiba Goff/Twitter)

"Those automatic associations, they come from someplace," he said. "When we get right down to it, they frequently come from media."

Implicit racial biases are often formed unconsciously, according to the American Psychological Association. 

"You don't need to believe the stereotype to be influenced," Goff said. 

'On the outside'

​Andrea Davis, an associate professor specializing in cultures of the Americas at York University in Toronto, agrees that the absence of racially diverse Oscar nominees, including black actors, has a broader influence on society. 

"It's not just a literal absence … it's a kind of silencing of certain representations of black people," she said.

"[Mainstream organizations] continue to send the message that people of colour are still somehow marginalized, that no matter how accomplished you are … you're always kind of on the outside waiting to be invited in," Davis said.

But she emphasized that the diversity issue is not that people should have been nominated simply because their race is underrepresented, but that black and Hispanic actors were excluded despite giving nomination-worthy performances.

Andrea Davis, a professor focused on black culture in the Americas, says members of the academy 'should consider whether or not you're really fulfilling your responsibilities in a way that's equitable.' (Supplied)

"It should be about merit … because there are black actors who do deserve it," Davis said. "I don't think we have to go down the road of just saying, 'Oh … include a person of colour ... because they should be there to round out [the nominees].'"

Although she believes that more diversity among members of the academy, the majority of whom are white, "would certainly help," Davis said the problem extends far beyond the Oscar-granting institution. 

Echoing director Spike Lee's comments earlier in the week, she said a lack of diversity is pervasive throughout the film industry and that black actors don't get many opportunities to play a wide variety of characters.   

"I think that black actors continue to be typecast into certain kinds of roles," Davis said. "There are less roles for people of colour that are nuanced." 

"It is telling," she said, that Denzel Washington won best actor in a leading role for Training Day in 2001, when he played a stereotypical role of "black hypermasculinity," but Will Smith wasn't nominated this year for his portrayal of "a really sensitive bright African immigrant" in Concussion.

"I think the academy just isn't sure what to do with that representation of black masculinity," she said. 

'Barely moved an inch'

Davis said another problem is the perception that we now live in "a kind of post-race era" since the election of a black U.S. president, leading some to be complacent when it comes to awareness of racial inequities. 

"We think that we're dealing with diversity — in fact we think we've mastered it," she said. "We think we don't have to talk about it anymore."

But despite some progress in the movie industry, such as a shift from mostly black women playing domestic servants in the mid-20th century, we have "barely moved an inch from 50 years ago," Davis said.