It’s often hard to resolve broad statistics and scientific findings with our own, everyday, anecdotal evidence. Take, for example, illness and death. Statistics will show us that our chances of death are influenced by a lot of things: genetics, eating habits, exposures to certain toxins, and age, to name a few. We know, for example, that smoking is bad for us, but you’ll sometimes hear someone trot out the somewhat tired “my (grandfather/grandmother/person I heard of once in a story) lived to be (90/105/336), and he/she/they smoked a pack a day” line to justify or excuse their habit. This is occasionally coupled with a line like “non-smokers get cancer every day, so it’s obviously a craps shoot, anyway.”
A craps shoot is a perfect analogy, actually. Let me explain why, using Dungeons and Dragons (bear with me, it will make sense in the end):
When a D&D character tries to do something, say avoid death, the player must often roll a dice (typically one with many more than 6 sides) to determine the outcome. They compare their roll to a “target number” for success. If my character wants to cross the street, perhaps I have a target number of 3, and use a 10-sided dice. If I roll 3 or more, I make it safely; if I roll a 2, I might get hit by a car. If I roll a 1, I have an epic failure, get hit by a car, knocked in front of a bus, and thrown into the air. I end up impaled on a fence post. Epic fails are ugly.
Let’s apply this same logic to sickness and death. Let’s say every day you wake up and roll a dice. This dice has a LOT of sides–let’s say 100 for entertainment’s sake.
For your average, healthy young person, your target number is 5. If you roll 5 or above, you make it through the day. If you roll a 4 or below, you get fatally ill, and perhaps a 1 represents a gruesome accident, like the aforementioned hit-by-a-car scenario. Following so far? Good.
Now let’s adjust your target number for a few factors: add 10 for every decade you’ve lived past 20; add 20 if you’re obese; add 20 if you’re a smoker, or live with someone that smokes around you. If you exercise regularly and eat properly, take 10 back off (though 5 is a minimum, and 95 a maximum).
How does your target number look now?
My point is that no one is safe–even a healthy 20 year old in the best shape of their life and with no bad habits can have a bad roll and crap out–it happens. On the other side of the equation, a 90 year old that has smoked and weighed in over 300 lbs since he was 15 may cheat death another day because dumb luck is on his side. It’s a game of chance, but a lot comes down to controlling your level of risk.
Now wait here, Sean. What the hell does this have to do with the Oscar boycott? Is this just some ruse? Some clever attempt to trick me? A clickbait headline?
No. The logic holds, if you’ll bear with me.
Chance and target numbers also happen to be a handy way to explain things like white privilege, and equality.
Let’s imagine for a minute that we get beyond our daily dice roll for life. Now we’re looking at a dice roll to determine success, and not just scraping by, but top-end, peer-applauded success.
Bring in that healthy 20-year old again, and situate her in the U.S.A. Let’s give her back the dice and set a target number. Using a 100-sided dice, she can start with a base 90 target number for true glory and success (it’s not nearly as easy as just surviving day-to-day, now is it?). Let’s say she studies really hard and learns as much as she can about her craft: decrease the target number by 10. Let’s say she wants to go into acting, and she has a natural charisma and a good voice: subtract another 10. Let’s even say that she has a great opportunity just fall into her lap: subtract another 10. While we’re at it, if she grew up middle-class, and has supportive parents, let’s take off another 10. Hey! A 50 is a tough target, but at least there’s a glimmer of hope, right?
Now take off another 20 if she’s white.
Why, you ask? Because the director/producer/casting director is white. Because she has a nice, familiar-sounding name–the same as the director’s (niece/daughter/student/friend).
“Wait just a minute,” you say, “not all directors are white, and not all white people have those biases.”
You’re absolutely right. And some obese, 90-year-old smokers that eat bacon every day can keep hitting that target number…but on a broader, statistical level, it doesn’t happen all that often. And so a rethinking of things is necessary. Perhaps measures need to be taken to level that playing field. If we know that some factors are raising target numbers for certain groups, maybe we can offset that through incentives and advantages of a different kind.
“Now just a minute!” you say. “You’re not talking about equality! You’re talking about privileging one race over another, by giving them opportunities others don’t have. You’re a racist!”
Here’s the funny thing about equality: it only works when everyone has the same opportunities and starts from the same position.
If one person has an inherent advantage in starting position, then offering them all the same opportunities doesn’t result in equality–it results in imbalance. In contrast, if your goal is equitability, you recognize that not everyone is starting in the same place, so some will need a bit of a boost to attain an equal result.
This is similar to how runners are staggered in foot races (think the Olympic 400 metre dash, for example). The closer a runner is to the centre of the track, the farther back he/she will start, because otherwise he/she would have a shorter distance to the finish line and the race wouldn’t be fair. The starting position doesn’t change how hard each runner has to run to get ahead–those that work harder will end up ahead, no matter what; it just ensures that everyone has an equal distance to the finish line.
So what does this have to do with the Oscars?
Let’s just put this out there: the Academy that chooses Oscar nominees and winners is largely populated by old, white men. The Los Angeles Times released a study in February of 2012 that determined the Academy at that time (and remember, that’s only 4 years ago, and membership is both invitation only, and for life) was 86% age 50+, 94% white, and 77% male. That is the panel responsible for determining who will be nominated, and ultimately win, an Academy Award–considered the most prestigious peer recognition of an actor’s talents.
Women have been protected from academy discrimination, to a degree, by the very prejudiced categories the awards set out–male and female actors (once upon a time–and still by the academy–referred to as actresses, as though they are something unique and different from actors) compete for different awards, and so the academy was forced to give women some of the awards. Minorities, not so much.
So while it’s possible for a minority to attain an Oscar nomination (Will Smith has been nominated twice), they start at an inherent disadvantage. Actually winning an Oscar is even more difficult. That is what has put the noses of a number of notable, high-profile celebrities out of joint.
Sadly, this inequality isn’t confined to something as comparatively frivolous as the Oscars. It affects all varieties of success, from basic hiring and job advancement (those with “white names” are statistically more likely to get hired, and most management–and nearly all CEOs–are white males), to how one is treated by the justice system (non-whites are more likely to be charged, tried, and convicted in both Canada and the United States–and they generally receive harsher sentences).
In order to balance the scales, governments have put programs in place–many half-heartedly, or in poor faith–to improve equitable treatment. There is still much to be done. The ongoing dialogue around things like the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women inquiry in Canada and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is essential to bringing the ugliness within our society into the light and working toward equality–real equality. The Oscar boycott, while it may seem frivolous by comparison, has a highly public nature that gives it the capacity to move the discussion forward and bring better understanding about the issues at hand. That is why it’s important–because if we don’t keep talking about it and trying to move toward something better, nothing will change, and we will all be worse off for that.
Perhaps one day, our target numbers will line up.