The Oscar Scandal: Sean Penn, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Responding to Racism | Sojourners

The Oscar Scandal: Sean Penn, Alejandro Iñárritu, and Responding to Racism

Oscar statue karenfoleyphotography /
Oscar statue karenfoleyphotography /

“Sean Penn’s ‘Green Card’ comment may have ruined the entire Oscars.”

That was the headline from the Huffington Post. I didn’t watch the Oscars, but I’m always curious about pop-culture scandals. What could Sean Penn have said that was so egregious that it threatened to ruin “the entire Oscars?”

Penn delivered the award for Best Picture, which went to Birdman. After Penn opened the card, he took an awkward moment to gather his thoughts about how he would introduce the winner, whose director happened to be his long-time friend Alejandro Iñárritu.

That’s when Penn delivered the scandalous introduction, “And the Oscar goes to … Who gave this son of a bitch his green card? Birdman.”

The 2015 Oscars had already been dubbed “The Whitest Oscars Since 1998;” Hollywood didn’t need more confirmation of racism. The Twittersphere was certainly scandalized by the comment. Many pointed out that no one made comments about British directors and actors not having their Green Cards. Many shared Mario Lopez’s sentiment when he tweeted, “And great job Sean Penn. Ruining a fantastic moment with a green card ‘joke.’ #Tacky.”

Some have defended Penn. Matt Apuzo of the New York Times tweeted, “Sean Penn is friends with the guy! Classic Oscar move: an easy to misinterpret inside joke about a sensitive political and ethnic issue.”

Unfortunately, there are no inside jokes when it comes to “sensitive political and ethnic issues” when 34.6 million people are watching. It was a stupid comment that reminded me of high school bullies who made fun of classmates and cowardly hid behind statements like, “I was just joking.” No. You weren’t. You were being a racist jerk.

I hope you clearly see how I feel about Sean Penn. Like many others, I’m scandalized by his racist comment.

As I prepared with many others to sacrifice Sean Penn as our next pop culture scapegoat, I was struck by Alejandro Iñárritu response. He was surprisingly un-scandalized by Penn’s remark. In fact, he diffused Penn’s racist “joke” with his own brilliant humor, “I don’t want to talk … Oh my God. They want me to talk because I’m the worst English speaking guy here. Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules to the academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that’s suspicious, I guess.” And then he directly addressed the issue of immigration:

I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.

I was very impressed with Iñárritu’s response precisely because he remained un-scandalized by Penn’s comment. His response was important because scandals are problematic. They distract us from the real issue. Sacrificing Sean Penn with our hatred won’t solve the problem of racism or the need for immigration reform. In fact, our hatred will only add to the hostility that already surrounds these “sensitive political and ethnic issues.”

The best way to respond to racist comments is to follow Iñárritu’s lead by becoming un-scandalized. Don’t focus on Sean Penn. Don’t fall into the cultural trap of scapegoating another person. Directing our hatred against an individual might make us feel good, but it distracts us from the real issue. Instead, work for justice by focusing on the issue, not by demonizing individuals. And then, as Iñárritu suggests, treat everyone, including those with whom we disagree, “with the same dignity and respect.”

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Oscar statue karenfoleyphotography /