An Interview With David Oyelowo
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The Dickinsonian sat down with actor and Poitras Gleim lecturer, David Oyelowo, to discuss race relations, the difference between racism and bias and what students can do to avoid distorting realities. The interview is below.
The Dickinsonian: You have maintained that you mostly choose to do movies that will impact the lives of people. How do you judge which films will have an impact or can you judge this?
David Oyelowo: You can’t really judge what films will have as great of an impact as you hope, but I think you can discern what films are potentially going to have an impact, sometimes by how hard they are to get made. You know there is real resistance to films being made that are about social justice, political injustice, racial injustice, films that have a black protagonist, films directed by women, there is real resistance because they are breaking the stasis quo… so often you don’t see black people at the center of stories in which they are empowered and they are empowering…[this] white savior syndrome is really detrimental to society because it perpetuates a stasis quo that is just not true, and puts walls around the minds of people of color in relation to what they feel they can achieve in their own communities, families and societies that they inhabit.
TD: In your previous interviews, you have talked a lot about the ‘minority mentality.’ Can you explain what this term refers to and why it is so important in today’s society?
DO: A minority mentality, in my view, basically is how in society…you are constantly facing the fact that as a minority your opportunities are less prevalent and, before you know it, you start accepting the fact that you are not going to be granted the same opportunities that society has to offer a white person. For instance, if you take that on, then what starts to happen becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The reality may well be that you have to work a lot harder than someone who is white or someone who is male, but if you make the decision that you are going to test society and challenge society to be its best self, if this country says that there should be equal opportunity for everyone, then I would argue that if you are part of minority then every day you should put that to the test.
TD: Dickinson College is a majority white institution with around 19% of students being students of color. In our own class discussions, considering that the majority of students are from the same demographic, how can we avoid distorting realities?
DO: I think prejudice is built on ignorance and whatever you do you have to be thinking about how can I learn about the other side of the aisle; how can I understand what it’s like to be a woman in American society, a person of color in American society…What doesn’t work is in a myopic way to all sit there all being white, all being male, or all being from the same demographic and talking about how you have a black best friend and that makes you progressive, liberal and understanding. If you know racial prejudice, that’s not going to work. You have to have a conversation where by your ears and heart are open to hearing the challenges that other people are facing and there has been such a desire to not be deemed racist that sometimes people don’t have ears to hear of when they are bias. There is a difference between being racist and being bias. We all have bias and sometimes that bias can bleed into things that could be termed racist by all of us you know on the bases of small decisions we make every day but I honestly think that the way to avoid that is to have an understanding based on doing more listening then talking.
TD: What can we do after we have listened?
DO: Well, it is going to be on the basis of what they learned you know that’s the things not generalized. It’s not just a generalized ‘oh I couldn’t get a job because I am black’, there is real nuance to this. You know when I tell you that… it’s the way someone looks at me, it’s the way I got served at that restaurant rather than the way you got served at that restaurant, or I had a girlfriend who’s from a different race, you had a boyfriend who’s from a different race but we were treated differently because you were with a black guy, I was with a white woman. You know there are nuanced differences with even that so there’s not like a blanket. That is where we have been going wrong, is that there is just this homogeneous view about race. You know what an Asian-American is dealing with is different from what an African-American is dealing with in terms of prejudice and stereotypes you know to be told because you are an Asian-American ‘oh you must be really good at math’ that’s something an African-American isn’t facing but both races are hurting in different ways so it really is the listening is the jump off and then you go from there.
TD: In 2012, following the reelection of President Barack Obama, you have maintained that this country has been progressing in terms of race relations. Keeping the current administration in mind, would you reaffirm this statement?
DO: When you look at the top 15 positions in the current administration’s cabinet and only two of the 15 are women and only two of the 15 are people of color, that doesn’t reflect American society. So, we’re just coming off eight years of an African-American president; that’s indisputably progress. The current administration, as it pertains to diversity even in the decision makers, represents a step in the wrong direction, in my opinion, and that seems to be the problem with society generally. We make these strides forward [and] we forget the mistakes we made in the past and [then] we make them again on the basis of bias on the basis of prejudice, on the basis of a pendulum swing of, we just had 8 years of a black president; we’re not having that again. So the pendulum swings. Instead of taking what was great about what we have learned in the past 8 years and moving the agenda forward. I’m really upset with the lack of representation of women and people of color in the current administration. I think it sends a very odd message to the next generation as to who in this society is of value.”
TD: Do you think everyday people, like students at Dickinson College, can do something to combat this injustice and change this misrepresentation?
DO: Yes, I think… the great thing about this country is it’s a country in which you can make your grievances known, whether it’s through protest or writing to the press, writing to the politicians or just being so great at what you do that you are going to be the answer to the very problems you see in society. That’s what can be done. Not to just complain about it but thankfully, you know unlike several other countries where you can complain about it but even complaining about it can get you killed… here you can complain about it and you can live a life, and build a career that hopefully one day you get to a have a say in how society can change.