Sean Penn’s Comment an Example of #OscarsSoWhite

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.

  1. 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”.

Tim Haydock (he/him/his)
After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Communication from Fresno Pacific University and a Master’s in Theology and Film from Fuller Theological Seminary, Tim returned to his hometown community in Fresno. He spent over 5 years teaching courses on media production and theory at Fresno State University and Fresno Pacific University and was the academic advisor for the Fresno Pacific University student newspaper.

Tim joined his passions for storytelling, education and social justice in January, 2014 when he started running The kNOw Youth Media in Fresno. In May of 2016, Tim became Director of YouthWire, where he led four youth media programs across the state. In the two years Tim was director, YouthWire printed over 200,000 newspapers distributed in dailies across the state, sent reporters to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, was featured in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Fresno Bee, KQED and The New York Times’ Race/Related newsletter, and led storytelling training for over 75 youth from at least 12 different communities in California.

Tim currently serves on the journalism advisory board for Fresno City College and was a New America CA 2017 Fellow, the first from the Central Valley.

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