“I Didn’t Notice It Was You”: How the Oscars Walked Right Past Whoopi

Whiteface: Whoopi as Queen Elizabeth, 1999 OscarsIf you’re an adult Black person, you’ve probably had the following experience more than once:

You’re walking down the street, or a supermarket aisle, or an office hallway, when you recognize a white friend or colleague—someone with whom you’ve had fairly regular or even recent contact—coming towards you from the opposite direction. Your face warms expectantly as you get closer to them, only to have them go right past you, often after glancing directly at you in your face.

You then turn around and call out their name. They stop, look at you, then burst into smiles and recognition. “I didn’t notice it was you!”, they apologize.

Sound familiar?

As I’ve stated, this kind of relative invisibility seems to accompany Blackness; it seems coupled to it. Indeed, American literature’s most formidable and highly esteemed work on race, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, marks Black inconspicuousness as titular; topically fundamental. In her 1978 book, Invisible Man‘s Literary Heritage, scholar Valerie Bonita speaks of white society, as expressed within Ellison’s purview, as casting “a shadow” that obscures the Black person, thus making him unseen.

This invisibility is not the Black man’s fault, but a condition he must learn to live with. Standing in shadows, Blacks cannot be seen by whites. Dr. Vet accurately tells “P”: “‘You’re hidden right out in the open.’”

These were thoughts that went through my mind, particularly the “approaching friend” illustration, when I heard that Gil Cates, long-time producer of the Academy Awards, had apologized to Whoopi Goldberg yesterday. He did so for not including any footage from her four stints hosting the show—in 1994, 1996, 1999, and 2002—as part of the “montage of 80 exciting moments of the Academy Awards,” which is Cates described it on People.com, and how it was presented on the broadcast. (It was at the 1999 event that Goldberg memorably appeared in whiteface as Queen Elizabeth I of England, above. She was affectionately digging at Cate Blanchett’s lead, Oscar-nominated performance in the 1998 film Elizabeth: The Golden Age—a double nominee that year—and Whoopi’s appearance brought down the house, though it clearly didn’t jog Cates’s memory last week.)

A Monday morning discussion about the previous night’s apparent slight took place on ABC’s The View, where Goldberg is a co-host. The talk left the actor briefly choked up, particularly as fellow host Sheri Sheppard noted that Goldberg had been the first woman, the first African-American, and the first Oscar winner to host the ceremony—did Cates not recall any of this?—and View creator/co-host Barbara Walters brought up the Elizabeth spoof. “Undoubtedly I pissed somebody off yet again,” Goldberg said. That was enough to make it news.

Cates phoned Goldberg on Tuesday to apologize, something she noted on Wednesday’s edition of The View. Relaying their warm conversation, Goldberg, who referred to Cates “a great gentleman,” was told by the producer that her omission “was a mistake” and “an oversight”…which, when they walk past me and are brought up on it is, more or less, what my white associates say, too.

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