Looking over the past 11 months, I think it’d be fair to say that race hasn’t been such a hot button, in-your-face issue since the 1965 Selma March. Of course, racism, discrimination, and prejudice, have remained serious problems during the past 50 years, but never have they been addressed, in mainstream media in particular, as much as they have this year. And yet, there are some among us who still want us to believe “racism is actually rare.” Some like Will Smith, a black man who’s obviously been away from west Philadelphia where he was born and raised for too long.
Smith is one of six actors featured in The Hollywood Reporter’s actor’s roundtable issue alongside Benecio Del Toro, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, and Joel Eggerton. Naturally, the issue of race and prejudice arose with the mag asking the men whether prejudice has affected their careers. That’s when Smith replied:
My wife and I were just having this conversation, and we were going to the dictionary for “prejudice” versus “racism.” Everybody is prejudiced. Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another — it makes them prefer blond hair over a brunette; if you see somebody with dark skin walking down the street, you have a different reaction than you have [with] someone who is 5-foot-1 and white. But there is a connotation with racism of superiority: You feel that your race generally is superior. And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare — someone who thinks their race is superior. I don’t want to work for them. I don’t want to work at that company. And the times I have come in contact with it, you get away from those people.
Let’s pick that a part a bit. Smith is right, everyone is prejudice, but not everyone has the power to inflict consequence as a result of their prejudice. For some reason, in his quest to level the level the racial playing field, Smith failed to acknowledge that the prejudice that leads Hollywood directors to cast white actors and actresses instead of black ones and the ill-proven argument that international audiences won’t respond to black leads is all based in racism. And that, sadly, is not actually rare at all.
It’s the notion that certain anglo features are superior in beauty to that of people of color that is the very reason these types of questions are asked of actors every other day. If racism were as rare as he’d have us believe, we wouldn’t be begging for more diversity in Hollywood on a weekly basis, and you certainly wouldn’t have white magazines even starting to recognize it’s an issue.
It’s not enough that when asked whether he’s come in contact with racism, Smith replied “Oh, God, yes. Yeah, absolutely,” because of the inherent privilege in his first statement. How nice it must be to be able to “get away from those people” who treat him unfairly, or to have the means and power to decide “I don’t want to work for them.” Very few black people in this country have the luxury to decide not to work at a business where racism is not rare; hell very few black actors have that luxury!
Smith has earned a reputation as a blockbuster actor and the fact that he still experiences racism ought to be proof enough that the lack of diversity in Hollywood isn’t simply about prejudice, which he seems to view as semi-inconsequential as well.
What’s most unfortunate about this feature is time and time again we see stars like Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, who didn’t exactly contribute much to the conversation either, waste an opportunity to make white people listen up. A chance to stop adding credence to their claim that “things aren’t that bad” and call Hollywood out for how effed up and racist they really are. Instead, they downplay the prejudices that manifest themselves into downright racism, and use their marginal success as proof things are getting better. One Will Smith for five Michael Caines is not enough. We know why the ratio of successful black actors and actresses to white ones is as lopsided as it is, not to mention the number of respectable roles, and it’s not just personal preference. Whatever planet Will Smith is living on where racism is rare, I want to move to because it certainly isn’t planet earth, no matter what zip code or tax bracket you occupy.
Image: The Hollywood Reporter