Aaron Paul, Kristen Bell, Sarah Paulson & Others Show the Limitations In Celebrity Activism in the Problematic “I Take Responsibility” PSA

Psych Central is ending. So I have decided to pull over some of my favorite articles where I got to discuss more than celeb fodder into this blog so that they can live on.
Originally Posted June 15th, 2020 by Quay Bowen For Psych Central.
Some original links may be disabled.

In the latest example of tone-deaf celeb activism, several celebs including Julianne Moore, Sara Paulson, and Kristen Bell took part in an NAACP-backed anti-racism PSA wherein they “took responsibility” for various forms of racism including:

  • Laughing at racist jokes
  • Explaining away or turning a blind eye to police brutality
  • Ignoring racism and blatant injustice
  • Generally remaining silent on the issue of racism

They then go on to a not-so impassioned plea for other white people to understand the plight of African Americans and to no longer be idol bystanders as their black family and friends suffer…to no longer allow racist moments to go unchecked and to no longer turn a blind eye to the racism in the country.

They then run through the many, many instances where black people were murdered by police that have recently made headlines such as going for a jog (Ahmaud Arbery), sleeping in their own bed (Breonna Taylor), shopping in a store (John Crawford) while stating the obvious fact that such actions should not be a death sentence.  Aaron Paul closes out the video exclaiming “killer cops must be prosecuted, they are murderers” and telling fellow white people that it’s time to call out hate, step up, take action.

The video concludes with a link to ITakeResponsibility.Org where interested people can donate or sign petitions to police reform campaigns like Reclaim the Block and #8CantWait…that is after checking boxes for what type of racism they are taking responsibility for and how the interested persons plan to make racism all better.

On the surface, this all seems like a pretty commendable effort and it’s clear that everyone who participated meant well. Unlike the painfully cringy celeb rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine which went viral for all the wrong reasons early in the COVID social distancing, the I Take Responsibility Video doesn’t just stroke the egos of the celebs who took part as they put themselves at the center of attention during a crisis.

The I Take Responsibility video calls for action and highlights very real issues that affect the African American community in the US (and quite frankly, indigenous communities in the US and around the globe).  The problem with the video, is it’s not what’s needed right now…

First and foremost is the fact that kind of makes the celebs who took part in it look like they were pretty racist before suddenly realizing it was wrong. As a black person, it kind of hurt my heart to think that Justin Theroux would laugh at a racist joke or that Deborah Messing would ignore something super racist happening in front of her because it was easier

Secondly, the video readily triggers White Guilt, the concept that every white person should feel responsible for the horrible actions of others, both historical and present day. The idea that by just a factor of being white, every white person is somehow responsible for racism. Even in visiting the website, a white person seeking to take action must first admit that they are in some way racist or have at least at some level have been complicit in perpetuating racism.

That is enough to turn any “right-leaning” white person off to the issue and prevent them from ever looking into it further. For example, my 16-year-old son’s white grandmother does not need to take responsibility for every act of police brutality to hit the news so frequently that it terrifies my son to the point that he has nightmares of being killed by police.

But, if she can acknowledge the racial injustices in law enforcement, maybe she would be inclined to take steps to protect my son and other brown/ & black kids from experiencing it.  Maybe she would be moved to demand police accountability, research instances of police brutality that may have occurred in her rural Georgia hometown that didn’t get widespread media coverage, maybe then she’d talk to her church group about it, maybe even have a talk to his half-siblings about the very real reality that they can get away with things in life that may result in their brown sibling being sent straight into the criminal justice system so that they grow up aware of the injustice. She wouldn’t do any of that if asked to be responsible for every bad deed done by someone who shares her skin tone. She’s not racist. Why should she take the blame for racism?

People of Color are not asking for anyone to take responsibility for systemic racism. We’re asking for it to end. I know this may sound counter-intuitive, given one cannot fix a problem without first acknowledging that it exists. But the keyword difference here is acknowledging. Acknowledging does not mean accepting blame or taking responsibility for an issue that is much larger than any individual. If the solution starts with awareness, we cannot achieve that by turning people off to the issue by alienating people coming out of the gate. We have to work together to create lasting change, otherwise, the problem will continue to fester.

Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, Hollywood is wrought with institutional racism that silences voices of people of color at every corner of the industry. This takes place in many forms: from whitewashed casting that would have even seen Julia Roberts playing Harriett Tubman; to the white co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians being paid far more than the Asian Female writer (and then Asian female writer being treated as expendable on the project after asking for more money); to token ethnic characters that exist only to further the storylines of the white protagonists; to nepotism-driven deals that exclude content creators of color from ever having the same access as their white counterparts to tell their own stories.

Don’t understand what I meant by that last part? Tell me, can you name any movie featuring Native Americans made by Native Americans…other than Smoke Signals?

Even when People of Color do find their way to Hollywood success, their accomplishments are often ignored or diminished by the industry #OscarsSoWhite.  They are also asked to downplay or completely hide their ethnic traits to appease white audiences (see Connie Chung being pressured to get a nose job or Gabrielle Union being told her hairstyles are “too Ethnic” for America’s Got Talent).  Sure, white actors and actresses have needed to change their hair color or have been told that they’re now “too old” to play the love interest. But one would be hard-pressed to find stories of Caucasian actors being told to literally change their ethnicity-linked physical features to appease audiences, not even when cast to play people of color.

Simply put, it’s not enough to just “take responsibility,” especially when working in an industry that’s wrought with racism and tokenism at every level. As Michael B. Jordan stated in his #BlackLivesMatterLA speech, we need a commitment to diversity. That is more than just having NBC and HBO doing an annual contest for diverse writers to clamor for a shot at getting a foot in the door. It’s way more than arbitrarily steering blockbuster movies into Hong Kong or Tokyo for a random scene or two to “capitalize on the Asian Market.” It certainly means more than having a token sassy black woman or sassy Latina in an otherwise white-dominated sitcom. Tokenism for the sake of diversity is not equality.

A commitment to equality by Hollywood means… committing to giving POC equal access to jobs in the film and television industry: from the PA to the Director, Grip to Producer, Writer to Sound Editor, Assistant to Development Executive, Day Player to Top Billing Star. It’s about Equality. Not blame. Now, I am a proponent for the role media plays in creating social change, but until that commitment is made Hollywood doesn’t really have a leg to stand on in calling for social justice in other areas of society. Simply put, you cannot take a stand against white supremacy while you’re directly benefiting from it.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

Published by quayz180

Burrito Connoisseur. Twitter @Quayz180 Facebook: @TheQuayz180

One thought on “Aaron Paul, Kristen Bell, Sarah Paulson & Others Show the Limitations In Celebrity Activism in the Problematic “I Take Responsibility” PSA

  1. You are so right about white guilt! There has to be a way to teach about racism and start the process of healing old wounds without making white people all apologize for stuff we had nothing to do with

    Liked by 1 person

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