Stacey Dash made headlines this week for disparaging “racist” activities such as the airing of the B.E.T. Awards and the celebration of Black History Month. Although she has been vilified as a cooning, sell-out, Uncle Tom figure, I want to try to take her statements seriously. Her point seems to be that since white people are excluded from the B.E.T. awards, black people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from the Oscars. In other words: is there something hypocritical and racist about having an all-black awards show, and a month devoted to black history?
My answer to that question is “no” for two main reasons. First of all, no other accolade in the industry has the prestige and power of the Academy Award. So, being routinely excluded is inherently career-limiting. Secondly, separate institutions for black people arise out of necessity, not bias.
Here are a few examples of separate institutions and why they arose:
- Black beauty was considered an oxymoron. Although the Miss America contest began in 1921, it did not admit its first black contestant until 1970. The first black Miss America was Vanessa Williams in 1980. She was also the first Miss America to receive death threats. Thus arose the need for local all-black beauty contests.
- Blacks were excluded from many colleges. Even the American Medical Association prohibited black members until 1950. When blacks were finally admitted to colleges as a matter of law, there were few support systems to help them navigate the overwhelmingly hostile or indifferent environments, so Historically Black Colleges and Universities were created. Incidentally, HBCU’s have always admitted anyone, regardless of color.
- Most people on dating sites are white, and tend to request other white people only – or they will specify “only white, Asian, or Latino.” Therefore, black dating sites sprang up.
- Black history month was created because the accomplishments of black people were often ignored, hidden, or lied about in the mainstream history books.
I could go on and on. Separate institutions began and continue out of necessity, not “reverse racism.” Racism, unfortunately, is not dead. Just recently I heard a black female producer recounting a tale of professional racism. She and her white business partner were pitching a science fiction series whose main characters were black. Before they had even completed the pitch, the producer interrupted and rejected the idea. His reason: black people don’t watch science fiction because they don’t see themselves in the future. First of all – what?! Second of all, how would he know? In any case, the lady and her partner went on to develop the idea on their own, and it’s doing quite well as a graphic novel series.
It should be plain for any thinking person to see why there are separate institutions. In order to maintain our self-esteem and dignity, we transform rejection into new opportunities. Robert Johnson created BET in 1980 due to the types of frustrations mentioned above. When he sold it in 2000, he became one of the first black billionaires. Not bad.
Besides, Stacey Dash is wrong. The BET awards do not exclude white people on any level. First of all, the channel is now owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV and VH1. Moreover, you do not have to be black to win an award. The awards go to individuals and works of art that appeal to B.E.T.’s version of The Academy. Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, Eminem, Mindy Kahling, and Erik Valdez are a few examples of non-black nominees and/or winners. It is a niche award show. And just like the People’s Choice Award, or any of the other niche award ceremonies, such as the Cinema Audio Society awards or the Costume Designers Guild Awards, the focus is specific. Separate award shows complement – but do not compete with or replace – major award shows such as the Oscars or the Grammy’s.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that awards and accolades are not the primary motivators of true artists. We do what we do out of love and passion, not for statues and labels. And – artist or no artist – you should never wait around for someone else to appreciate you. Look in the mirror and appreciate yourself. Awards can be wonderful, career-enhancing (not career-defining) things. But they should have no effect on the love we have for our work, or the effort we put into it.
Let’s make this week a week of gratitude for the gifts and talents we have, and our ability to express them – whether or not we receive any praise.
*Movie Recommendation: Dope (2015), directed by Rick Famuyiwa*