Photo credit: AP/ Jordan Strauss
By Miguel Bibanco
Editor’s Note: On Sunday night at the Academy Awards, Sean Penn made a joke about the immigration status of Oscar winner and Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose FILM Birdman won four Oscars. Penn faced immediate backlash on social media. This year’s Oscars have been criticized for not honoring the work of people of color, with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite going viral.
Given Sean Penn’s progressive reputation and his claim that his green card comments were a joke among friends, some may think it reasonable to let the incident slide. But this incident deserves attention. Here are three reasons why this behavior is unacceptable.
- It’s offensive.
To some a joke like Sean Penn’s seems benign but there are many people who are constantly assaulted with similar “humor” in a way that is traumatizing. Many Mexicans (myself included) know what it feels like to be constantly reduced to a caricature of our entire culture and have our existence belittled with labels such as “illegal”. This type of behavior shows us how far away we really are from being treated with, as Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu said in his acceptance speech, “the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible, immigrant nation.”
2. It perpetuates negative stereotypes.
Penn’s comment only served to validate many stereotypes that people struggle to overcome. Commenting on the legality of someone’s status on such a large stage normalizes xenophobic behavior and is an attack on people who are working hard to overcome the prejudice and racism they face on a daily basis. If people think that Penn’s comment is acceptable, will they feel encouraged to treat others the same way? Not speaking out about this incident is a sign of approval and none of us should approve.
3. There’s no excuse.
Many have come to Penn’s defense by claiming that the joke was one between good friends. Being on such a large stage changes that dynamic considerably. Iñárritu might be able to let it slide but he doesn’t speak for the 40 million viewers of the award show. The real question is, “when is it ok to be racist?” The correct answer is “never”.