What Chris Rock Taught Us About The Black/White Binary And Prejudice Between People Of Color


It is fashionable to have something immediate to say when an event or incident or phenomenon takes place, if only for the sake of timeliness. That’s how the business of media works, and evermore so during the digital age. If you haven’t expressed next week’s news yesterday, you are late.

But with the desire to be the first to express commentary on the latest news, views, and subsequent analysis, authentic contemplation can be lost. It’s not that it necessarily is – it’s that it can be. Time taken to form thorough opinions is time lost, and the result is often half-baked, barely adequately researched perspectives. I know because I work in this world and I study it, and in spite of what I know, I have fallen prey to it.

The topic of interest that has been on the (pop) culture’s conscience this week – at least in part – was Sunday night’s Academy Awards, #OscarsSoWhite, and Chris Rock’s role in it. I did a short summary of his monologue the next day, Monday. I still have not watched the show in its entirety, although I have engaged many long highlights and skits from the show, read several analyses, and thought about the conversations that have ensued because of the event.

I will be frank: I don’t want to care about the Oscars, and I’m not sure that I actually do. I feel this way about most popular award shows, and especially where TV and film are concerned. This is partially due to the exclusion of minority groups that plagues the industry at large, and it is partially because I am uncertain of the significance of these shows in reflecting the art I care about, and am interested in; those two reasons are likely related.

Nonetheless, just because you or I don’t find something interesting, it doesn’t mean it is not important. The Oscars are important – that’s why I’m writing about it. That’s why people boycotted it. It’s why #OscarsSoWhite exists. You don’t boycott things you find inconsequential, and you don’t start entire movements if the primary emotion you feel towards the central issue is apathy.

Having time to think, and rethink Rock’s monologue, I am both a fan and a critic. Rock pointed out the need for more roles for black people in Hollywood and the type casting that plagues black people in film. He also pointed out how “sorority racists” plague the industry, and in so doing, reflects more than just an industry-wide problem in which racists are not the old-time bigots, so much as they are the colorblind, “not the right fit” power holders. Rock even argued for the injustice of several of his black peers telling him to boycott his position as the host, in his joke, “It’s always unemployed people who tell you to quit.” For all his star power, Rock is still employed in the industry by the powers that be, and he is still black.

But Rock’s comedy, as many have already pointed out, also lacked some nuances, and may have compared histories in a manner that upheld the privileged and powerful. In particular, his claim that “we have real things to protest” rubbed several culturally aware people the wrong way. Unless one has been living in oblivion or ignorance, police brutality has been at the center of constant cultural conversation, and by all accounts, is a “real thing” worthy of protest; as is the lack of opportunity for people of color in the arts overall, which is much bigger than Hollywood.

Notably, I use “people of color” and Rock didn’t – which brings up a major critic of Rock’s monologue, in that it played into the white/black binary. The white/black binary is the phenomenon in the United States, which plagues the framework of racial thought and conversation, where blacks and whites center the conversations while non-blacks and non-whites, including Asian Americans, (brown) Latino/a Americans, Native Americans, etc. are excluded.

It is a real problem and one that should be continuously addressed, and while Rock had the opportunity to be an avant-garde in that respect, it is unwise, if not wholly unfair, to discuss the problem as if Rock is not also the victim of the binary’s conversation structure, and doubly so because of his blackness. In so doing however, Rock missed the opportunity to talk about race in Hollywood outside of the black/white concept. But it doesn’t end there.

Rock engaged in explicitly Anti-Asian racism in bringing three Asian American kids in a skit in which they were accountants, described amongst other things as “hard working”. The combination of the stereotype of Asians being good at math, with the very real phenomenon of child labor in some Asian countries, left a sour taste in the mouth, to say the least. (It has also been confirmed that the children and their parents were not aware of the joke beforehand.) Self-aware, Rock, even demanded that those upset should “tweet about it”. Many did, and rightly so, in order to combat the “model minority” myth, which often includes Asian Americans as silent and agreeable.

Many Asian Americans on Twitter pointed out that using them and their identity as the butt of the joke was no more acceptable than racist jokes that often position black people as the punch line. Combined with Rock’s participation in the black/white binary, the racial conversation of the Oscars took a different turn other than #OscarsSoWhite, to #OscarsSoWhiteAndBlack, by some in the Latino/a and Asian American communities who felt ignored.

April Reign, the founder of #OscarsSoWhite, has continually said that the movement is about giving attention to all underrepresented minority groups. But this was forgotten in the heat of the response to Rock, and what ensued thereafter was a #NotYourMule conversation in which black women protested their perspective of always being asked to lead movements for change, for many people of color, while also facing anti-black racism and silencing by non-black people of color. Rock’s monologue, did exactly what he neither intended to do, nor actually did in the moment – it forced conversations of color beyond black and white. Despite the nature of its commencement, this conversation is a good thing.

The reality is the model minority myth of Asian Americans is prevalent beyond whiteness – black and brown people harbor it too. Along with positioning Asian American culture and people as ultimately existing outside of what it means to be American, engagement in anti-Asian prejudice and racism is perpetuated by non-Asian people of color. Cultural scholars often point out that the myth exists as a tool of whiteness to pit non-Asian people of color, especially black people, against each other, as Asian Americans are characterized as the “preferred” minority racial group, due to stereotypes of success under the mythological meritocratic system, and agreeableness.

(Brown) Latino/a Americans, and stereotypes such as the “illegal immigrant” categorization are held by more than white people – black people hold these stereotypes too, and sometimes engage in xenophobic behavior because of it. And of course, there is the reality that anti-blackness is rampant in Asian American and Latino/a American cultures, the latter of which has even historically practiced, “branqueamento” or race whitening – choosing light-skinned and white-skinned partners, with the aim of having lighter-skinned children.

Black people often note that in both history and the present, they have taken a leading role in achieving civil rights, and it has come at a high cost. While all people of color have benefited from these achievements, all people of color have not suffered equal repercussions in societal perceptions and in institutions, especially in the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of blackness.

This is all to say that just like the concept of race is beyond black and white, so is the concept of racism and bigotry and prejudice and stereotypes. Of course it must be said that even when the conversation of race is broadened beyond the binary, blackness is still at the bottom of the proverbial race barrel. It is also true that whiteness is the framework that makes this all possible as it defines itself by what it isn’t – the connotation of “color,” which has evolved over time and space.

It would be easy to oversimplify these series of events as “Oppression Olympics” as is often said as a joke, as well as in order to silence much-needed racial conversations in our time. But the heart of the matter cannot be ignored: by reflecting on prejudice between people of color – by addressing it from its manifestations of anti-blackness, to its othering of “others” in all its myths and stereotypes – the black/white binary comes under much-needed scrutiny.

I wager that this scrutiny will further complicate our conversations on race and space and identity. But these complications have the potential to give our historical and present racial frameworks a makeover, and one that is long overdue.