The latest Academy Awards ceremony was filled with fail for Latinos. The host, Seth McFarlane made fun of Salma Hayek, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz on the basis of their accents; Lupe Ontiveros was left out of the “In Memoriam” segment; and Ben Affleck was rewarded for whitewashing the lead character in his movie Argo. Irritants, one and all.
But the biggest fail of the night — the one we cannot let go of — happened in the twitterverse, where the satirical magazine The Onion was tweeting about Oscar-related doings. At some point during the night they tweeted about Quvenzhané Wallis — the 9-year-old African-American Oscar nominee who dazzled audiences with her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild — by saying the young girl was a c*nt.
The twitterverse exploded, both with those decrying the vile tweet and though it is hard to imagine this, a not insubstantial number of people defending as satire or comedy or transgression-to-make-a-point.
This moment of fail was broad enough to hit a lot of people, then narrowed as it went deeper to reveal an endemic failure of our society: our racism. At its widest and shallowest, The Onion chose to use terminology that is always used as a gender slur against women, sexualizing and turning them into a body part. The insult narrows and deepens with the fact that the sexualizing slur was flung at a child, whose very youth is likely to make this an emotionally damaging and demoralizing incident.
But it doesn’t stop there. At its most profound, The Onion’s tweet was deliberate damage done to an African-American little girl. As many African-American women pointed out on twitter, nothing comparable ever occurred to the young (and white) Tatum O’Neal, Abigail Breslin, Drew Barrymore or Anna Paquin, and if it had, the outrage would have been much greater and more uniform
There is a pattern in which we, as a society, deliberately vilify or insult young African-American girls. Think not? Here are two recent examples:
• When the movie the Hunger Games was about to be released, there was a bit of buzz about commentary on the casting. Some fans of the book expressed public horror at the fact an African-American girl was cast in the role of Rue (a secondary character whose death is one of the most affecting moments of the book). They went so far as to baldly state that the death no longer affected them the way it had when they imagined the character white and blond, and even created a fan trailer to suit their vision.
• We watched the American women’s gymnastics team at the past Olympics, and subjected Gabrielle Douglas — the sole African-American young woman and the first member of the team to medal as an individual — to incessant critiques of her appearance. We were staring down undeniable accomplishment and talent and all we saw were the days when her hair was bad. Her hair. We did nothing even remotely equivalent to her teammates.
Many of those criticizing The Onion’s tweet placed it in the context of a long history of sexual violence and abuse toward African-American women and girls.
Predictably, among The Onion defenders are those who are saying the uproar is political correctness gone mad, and those who insist it is all within the realm of humor. When the web site Latino Rebels posted something about it on Facebook, they were asked by one of their followers what it had to do with Latinos.The excuses and the blinders are almost enough to make us want to throw up our hands.
But if we are unwilling to step forward to protect another’s child from harm ... if we are unwilling to raise our voices to decry a child being used and abused, even when it is not our own child ... if we are unwilling to celebrate every child’s accomplishments, and bless their dreams with open hearts ... how exactly do we face our own children? How do we ask them to grow up to be kind and just and engaged adult members of society when we have abdicated exactly those qualities?
The Onion did in fact post an apology the day after the Academy Awards. But the apology doesn't mitigate what this incident calls us to do. Can we commit to neither be participants in, or make excuses for, this kind of verbal assault and vilification? Can we work to strengthen the bonds between the African-American and Latino communities so that if something like this occurs again, we decry it in one voice, together?
Our much vaunted, newfound Latino political clout isn’t worth a damn unless we’re willing to have it stand for justice. And for the legacy — both in words and action — we leave for all children.
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