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At the Oscars, a Force Stronger Than Explicit Racism Explains Lack of Black Nominees

Non-conscious biases largely to blame for nominees' lack of diversity

This article originally appeared in Reuters on February 26, 2016.

By Destiny Peery

No people of color are nominated in the 20 major Academy Award categories this year, an omission that led to the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite and a renewed conversation about diversity — and racism — in Hollywood.

Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, Snoop Dogg and Michael Moore have said they’ll boycott the broadcast on Feb. 28 in protest. Al Sharpton has asked people not to tune in. Last week a Reuters poll found that 23 percent of Americans support a boycott.

Is the Academy racist? Are people blowing things out of proportion? The answers are no and no. More likely, Academy members’ desires to judge performances objectively are not enough to overcome an insidious type of bias that they may not realize exists.

Non-conscious biases are those that can operate automatically and without intention, and which are rooted in our stereotypes about social groups like blacks and whites and men and women. They can seep into our judgments in ways we don’t realize.

We may think we’re objectively judging what’s in front of us, not realizing the ways that these stereotypes shape how we evaluate the performance of a black actor compared to a white actor. We develop these biases beginning as children, through exposure to well-known stereotypes about groups shared through media representations, the views of adults around us, and experiences (or lack thereof) with people of different groups.

A study of orchestra auditions, for example, found that evaluations of musical talent and skill were biased based on gender: male musicians were significantly more likely to be hired than female musicians. Only when the judges listened to the auditions without looking at the performers did the disparity between men and women begin to erode — and representation of women more than doubled.

We don’t have to believe that a particular stereotype is true in order for it to influence our judgments. Research using the Implicit Association Test — a computerized test that measures how strongly we associate good and bad with social categories, like race or gender — has consistently shown that even those who believe people are equal along racial and gender lines may hold stereotypes about these groups.

The stereotype of the “serious” actor as a white man, for example, means that we must be aware of this type of thinking — and then actively try to block it out – in order to consider black and female actors in the same category. Because of these stereotypes, women and people of color have a significant hurdle to overcome when judged against a standard that not only considers skill and talent, but also often unconsciously considers whether someone is the type of person we tend to think of as a good actor.

Hollywood isn’t the only place that needs to be concerned about racial bias, non-conscious or otherwise. It’s evident in many other arenas. In the business world, race can affect employee reviews or consideration of job candidatesResearch has shown that even when presented with exactly the same credentials and backgrounds, white job applicants are more likely to receive an interview and a job offer than black applicants.

In the legal world, outcomes of cases can be influenced by the race of the judge and plaintiff. White judges are more likely than black judges to throw out a race discrimination claim from a plaintiff of color. And these stereotypes are powerful; research shows that minorities are often influenced by the same stereotypes as white people.

One way to counter stereotypes is to expose the public to a wider range of people. While it is not a silver bullet, diversifying a business or the legal profession, like diversifying the entertainment industry and the Academy, at least increases the likelihood that a diverse set of perspectives and people will be represented. And diversity of representation reaps many benefits, including increasing market exposure, spurring creativity and driving innovation.

Diversifying the field can also mean there are more people to choose from for recognition. If the Academy, for example, increases its representation of people of color by 2020, as promised by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the likelihood that a person of color will be considered for the most prestigious awards increases.

But part of the #OscarsSoWhite problem starts long before the Academy elects its members. If the entertainment industry as a whole doesn’t deal with the under-representation of people of color across all positions – from leading men and women to movie executives choosing which screenplays to pick up — not much will change.

The key to overcoming this bigger problem of under-representation in the entertainment industry lies in the industry as a whole, and society more broadly, overcoming the same stereotypes that drive judgments about who is and is not Oscar-worthy. That requires not only increasing the representation of people of color throughout the pipeline and giving them access to more nuanced and powerful roles, but also recognizing that it’s good that they’re there.

Destiny Peery is a professor of law and psychology and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law.

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