Thursday, June 24, 2004

23. Did 'Idol' expose racism?

Even though the idea did not originate in America; American Idol is truly American. Having ended its third season, American Idol has many of the elements of what makes America, well America. It can be a rags to riches story, demonstrating to what extent talented people can go unnoticed in this country simply because they do not have money or the right connections. It is about a diversity of judges each with their own style of evaluating talent, and the manner in which they communicate their evaluations. It is about underdogs, those so bad that their effort and spirits nonetheless wins our affection. It displays the inability of many to accept criticism and exemplifies the "me" generation that thinks the world revolves around them. More seriously, it identifies the racism still present in our society, and just as serious, the misinterpretation or misunderstanding of exactly what racism is. In the same manner, the nation witnessed tremendous local, regional and ethnic support. Finally, it brings to reality what it takes to be successful. For it takes more than just talent, and more than just deserving it. It takes personality, luck, charisma, and skillfully weaving through the political web that infiltrates any competition.

Any of these elements could warrant an entire essay on their discussion; however I would like to focus on the controversial fan voting that plagued the competition from time to time. I could truncate the essay by noting that we elected George Bush, thus our expectations of the voting public shouldn't be too high- but that is both the easy way out and untrue (if you remember, Bush lost the popular vote). However, it does demonstrate that a lot of factors go into any type of competition decided by a vote (or evaluation), whether it is a presidential election, Olympic figure skating or student council.

Race is a factor, similar to many other factors that could swing a vote one way or another. People are drawn to individuals for a variety of reasons, depending on both the type of competition and the position people are competing for. For example, if I am selecting a council member, I may vote for the most accomplished, most educated, or the one that best represents my values. However, on American Idol, in which the winner will have little or no impact on my life, I might swing my vote to the hard luck story, the single mom, or the least attractive. Conversely, I might vote for the cutest, or the one that sings the kind of music I enjoy the best. Is this right; is this in the spirit of the competition? Not really, for I guess in the perfect world people would set aside all of these "outside" factors and vote for the most talented. But, to many, this is a vote of entertainment, not a job interview. Thus, the question becomes, whether or not if one votes for the cute Caucasian who sings country music over a more talented African-American singer (or vice versa), is he or she guilty of racism? I would answer "yes" and "no."

Since the concept of the show is to select the next American Idol, many could argue by definition. "American Idol" could mean not necessarily the most talented, but the one you would be willing to pay to see (believe it or not, many would be willing to pay to see William Hung). In this way, those who voted for the girl with pink hair may not be guilty of racism, rather basing their vote simply on preference.

Taking the issue further, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between racism and supporting those of a similar background. In this manner, the Hawaiians that voted for the young lady from Hawaii may have been doing so out of support for her and their cultural background, not conscious racism. It is hard to accuse them of racism just as it would be difficult to accuse African-Americans of reverse racism for not voting for Clay Aiken last season.

Because of these factors, it might be too easy to immediately cite racism as the reason that more talented African-Americans were voted off before other less talented performers. And therefore, in the voting out of "preference" or other factors, assuming that a majority of African-Americans voted for African-Americans and others did not, it makes statistical sense at certain points in the competition that the African-American vote would be spread too thin among the three African-American performers- making them vulnerable.

I think for it to be accurately defined as racism, there has to be a conscious (or subconscious) effort to discriminate against a person because of his or her race. Did racism occur- absolutely, and it is pathetic. There has never been a place for it in the history of humanity. Moreover, many individuals may have subconsciously used their "preferences" as a mechanism to conceal their inherent preferences to individuals of their own race and defy their obligation to vote for the most talented performer. This too is probably racism. I believe the spirit of the competition is born out of selecting the most talented performer, regardless of superficial features and preferences. And, thus, in this competition, those who understood the competition as the selection of the most talented performer, and voted for anyone other than, probably did so in the midst of some sort of discrimination- despite their preferential, definitional, cultural and subsequent statistical defenses.

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