Ethnic diversity and Christian faith

March 8th, 2016

Movie fans and celebrity watchers expect memorable moments from the Academy Awards. This year’s Oscars proved memorable long before the first statuette was handed out. For the second consecutive year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) didn’t nominate any performers of color for a major acting award.

In 2015, several movies with mostly black casts — including Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Chi-raq and Beasts of No Nation — proved critically and commercially successful. Actors such as Will Smith, Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, and Samuel L. Jackson turned in widely acclaimed performances in those and other films. But when the Academy announced this year’s nominees, it recognized only white actors and actresses.

For many people, the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite expressed a sense that this controversy was about more than whether specific black performers — let alone directors, producers, or on- and off-camera members of AMPAS’s other branches — deserved recognition this year. As journalist Maurice McLeod commented about the official group photo of the nominees, “Seeing a line of grinning white faces makes it much harder to break the debate down into one about individuals.” Instead, to many observers, the past two years’ nominations revealed the degree to which the American film industry doesn’t adequately reflect racial and ethnic diversity in America.

Reflecting the American mosaic

Speaking at a recent leadership conference, Halle Berry — who in 2002 became the first African American to win Best Actress — said actors and filmmakers “have a responsibility to tell the truth. And the films … coming out of Hollywood aren’t truthful … They’re not really depicting the importance and the involvement and the participation of people of color in our American culture.”

Demographics underscore Berry’s recognition of America’s diversity. Although non-Hispanic whites currently make up around 62 percent of the US population, by 2044 the Census Bureau predicts that “no one racial or ethnic group will dominate the [nation] in terms of size.” Among U.S. children and teens, this change will occur sooner, around 2020.

Today’s America is more a mosaic than a melting pot, suggests Gary Weaver, a professor at American University: “In a mosaic or a tapestry, each color is distinct and adds to the overall beauty of the object. If you remove one piece from the mosaic or one thread from the tapestry, you destroy it.”

It’s this beautiful, colorful society that Halle Berry and others believe American entertainment must represent.

Valuing diversity

Some people inside and outside the film industry point to pragmatic, economic reasons for recognizing and celebrating racial and ethnic diversity. Darnell Hunt, who directs UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies, says it will soon be harder for Hollywood studio heads to “pretend there’s not this demographic earthquake happening. At some point, it’s not going to be sustainable. They’re going to have to start making movies that people of all colors will want to see.” In fact, the Bunche Center’s research shows movies starring diverse casts earn “the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment.”

But making money isn’t the only or most important reason for Hollywood to value diversity. More movies written by, directed by, and starring blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other diverse talent means more stories can be told than any one ethnic background can provide. Audience members will more likely hear voices that don’t necessarily echo their own and see life from vantage points that may otherwise be unavailable to them. They may not like what those voices say or agree with conclusions drawn from other viewpoints — but in a society full of differences, exposure to those differences is critical.

“Diversity enhances creativity,” Katherine Phillips, professor of leadership and ethics, writes in Scientific American. “It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving … Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think.” As America faces increasingly complex problems that demand creative, collaborative solutions, the benefits of valuing diversity in every arena, including popular culture, become clear.

And when makers and consumers of entertainment value diversity, we value some people whom society often does not. Film critic Ann Hornaday told PBS NewsHour that “the most profound cost” of nondiverse mass entertainment is the “psychic” one, “when young people are going to the movies and they see this sort of monolithic, monotone, monochromatic version of what it is to be human.”

In 2012, Communication Research published a study that tracked nearly 400 black and white 7–12-year-olds from Illinois for one year. This study found that the more TV white boys watched, the more their self-esteem rose. In contrast, the more TV black boys and both white and black girls watched, the more their self-esteem fell. “Regardless of what show you’re watching,” explained researcher Nicole Martins, “if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for [people who look like] you. You tend to be in positions of power … with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there. If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles. … They’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there. Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that [there are few] good things that you can aspire to.”

Entertainment isn’t the only factor influencing self-esteem. But when society values rich and full representations of what it means to be human on its screens, it’s also valuing rich and full human lives. As Lupita Nyong’o said in her 2014 Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech, “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

A call from culture to church?

In a statement addressing the nominations controversy, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — the first African-American to hold the office—said, “While we celebrate [the nominees’] extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”

In this cultural moment, should the American church hear a call to examine, again, the extent to which it does and doesn’t value racial and ethnic diversity?

“Christians should be the first to get upset when they see something purporting to be a reflection of the world that’s absent of diversity,” writes film critic Chris Williams in his blog. “We shouldn’t tolerate it in our own congregations, and we should speak about it whenever we see it elsewhere, even with something as seemingly trivial as the Oscars.”

The God whom Christians worship delights in diversity. “O Lord,” the psalm-singer exults, “how manifold are your works!” (Psalm 104:24, NRSV). The human race — in strict scientific and theological terms, the one human race — is one of God’s astonishingly diverse works and is diverse in itself. Perhaps that diversity is part of what being created in the image of God means since God is diverse in God’s own self, living the triune life of the distinct but united persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although we can experience God in diverse ways, we believe we meet God most fully in Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Palestinian Jew who, though fully human, was very different from modern Americans, especially those who are privileged and comfortable. He paid attention to and valued those his society overlooked and undervalued, promising them the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3-10; Luke 6:20-26). 

No doubt your congregation, like an Academy Award nominee, has some extraordinary achievements worth celebrating to its credit. Are achievements in valuing diversity among them? When have you and your congregation felt heartbroken and frustrated about a lack of inclusion? When have you had difficult but important conversations about racial and ethnic diversity? What big changes have you made — or might the Spirit be calling you to make in the increasingly diverse mosaic that is America?

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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