When Black Women “Make History” At Awards Shows, There’s Always A Catch

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
The story coming out of the 63rd Grammy Awards is about women. It’s the narrative that makes the Recording Academy and their choices look positive. I heard a morning show host exclaim, “What a night for the ladies!” One of the most popular Grammy recap headlines: “Who Run The Grammys? Women.” Of course, it’s a play on a Beyoncé song and also, presumably, a nod to Beyoncé becoming the winningest woman in Grammy history with 28 wins, tying legendary producer Quincy Jones and putting her 3 wins behind late conductor Georg Solti who has 31. The two biggest awards of the night, however, went to two white women: Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, respectively. 
The morning after the Grammys, the 93rd Academy Award nominations were announced and again, the results were immediately touted as a win for women. For the first time, two women are nominated in the Best Director category. Viola Davis earned her fourth nomination for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, making her the most nominated Black woman in Oscar history (in contrast, Meryl Streep has 21 noms). But, like most achievements awarded to Black women by notedly racist white institutions, these “historic” moments come with a caveat. These supposed victories for Black women who are now getting their due — from the same governing bodies that have historically overlooked and disrespected them — are more about the Grammys and the Oscars patting themselves on the back for “diversity” than they are about honouring Beyoncé or Viola Davis. It’s more about good publicity than it is about rightfully rewarding Black women — because if it were, Beyoncé would be a multiple Album of the Year winner, Megan Thee Stallion would have won Record of the Year, and Regina King would be a Best Director nominee. 

Does the Recording Academy not understand that Beyoncé is a historic winner despite their efforts, not because of them?

There were a few particularly cringey moments at the Grammys (which was an overall tightly produced and surprisingly entertaining show) but the one that stands out is when host Trevor Noah stopped Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion as they were walking off stage after accepting the Grammy for Best Rap Song. Standing beneath them, Noah triumphantly announced that Beyoncé had made Grammys history with the win. Beyoncé, who declined performing at the show and was rumoured to be skipping the broadcast altogether, looked like she cared more about getting back to her little working lunch with her husband than the trivial milestone.
Sure, maybe Beyoncé was just uncomfortable because Virgos don’t like surprises, maybe she showed up just to support Megan Thee Stallion and didn’t want the attention, or maybe I’m projecting my disdain for the Recording Academy, which has yet to give Queen Bey its highest honour (AOTY), but it’s no secret that this awards show has not given her the accolades she deserves. How can someone be the most winning artist in a show’s history and be shut out of all of its major categories? Of Beyoncé’s 28 Grammy wins, only five of them have been  outside the R&B or “urban” groupings that Black artists are continually relegated to. And two of those wins are in the Music Video categories. Does the Recording Academy not understand that Beyoncé is a historic winner despite their efforts, not because of them? 
The same can be said about Viola Davis. She is the most nominated Black Actress in Hollywood history and yet, in a viral clip of Davis at a Women In The World conference I’m sure you’ve seen, Davis explains that even though she’s hailed as the “Black Meryl Streep,” she’s not paid what she’s worth or offered the roles she’s worth. She definitely doesn’t have Streep’s hardware. She’s only won one Supporting Actress Oscar. Halle Berry is still the first and only Black woman to win in the Best Actress category. That was 20 years ago. In the non-acting categories, only two Black women have ever won Oscars: Hannah Beachler for production design and Ruth E. Carter for costume design. Once again, when we pull back to examine the most coveted “best of the best” awards, Black women are barely represented if at all. A recognition for Regina King for Best Director for One Night In Miami could have changed that fact this year, but they decided that one woman of colour in the category (Chloe Zhao for Nomadland) was enough progress for one year. 
Davis “making history” at this year’s Oscars isn’t a win for women, and certainly not for Black women. And even though there are other big banner moments for diversity in the nominations (the most Asian actors nominated, the first Pakistani actor nominated, and the first time two Asian-led films are up for Best Picture), celebrating these superficial accolades without critique does a disservice to the structural issues that are still entrenched in these organizations — and those issues are the worse for Black women. 

These organizations — the Recording Academy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — do not deserve to be exalted for the exceptions they made in the past 24 hours.

These organizations — the Recording Academy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — do not deserve to be exalted for the exceptions they made in the past 24 hours. Especially when those exceptions are lauded as progress, rather than simply, the facts. Beyoncé and Viola Davis are two of the greatest artists in their respective fields, the GOATs in my personal opinion, and they are still underappreciated by these white institutions that use their wins or nominations for clout (the Grammys conveniently televised Beyoncé’s solo Best R&B Performance win for Black Parade when most of the rest of the “urban” categories were relegated to the pre-show) without actually levelling the playing field or making any real structural changes. It’s why every year we question the relevance of these shows, or why there’s an inevitable thread about divesting from these institutions because “representation won’t save us.” It won’t, and in a perfect world, we could burn both organizations down and say f-ck your table, we’re building our own! but it’s not a perfect world. The tables are still very much assigned, and the seating charts are labelled by the same gatekeepers who greenlight projects and hand out record deals. Demanding equity in the field in which you work does not mean you are succumbing to seeking validation from your oppressor. It just means that along with attempting to dismantle every aspect of white supremacy, we’re pushing for the representation and recognition owed to Black artists. Representation is just one step on the long ladder of liberation.
Neither Beyoncé, nor Megan Thee Stallion, Viola Davis or Regina King need these awards, but if the governing bodies are going to aggrandize themselves in the name of faux feminism and ride on the PR high of celebrating “history-making women,” they should examine their own histories of exclusion. The Grammys shouldn’t need Billie Eilish and her white guilt to awkwardly point out how messed up it is that “Savage” didn’t win, and the Academy should know better than to boast about nominating Viola Thee Davis for only two more awards in her entire career than Scarlett Johannson got in one year, or for nominating Mank over literally anything, but especially One Night In Miami
As Beyonce proved last night by showing up late to collect her awards and casually making history, if these awards shows don't wake up, they are rightfully going to get exactly what they're giving us – absolutely nothing.

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