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Last week, amidst Oscar fever, emerged an unexpected story of Marlon Brando and how he rejected an Oscar in the name of diversity.

It was 1973, the year after he played the oft-quoted Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Brando’s career had recently taken a hit — the highly-acclaimed role was just the transfusion he needed to revive his career.

But the day before Hollywood’s most glamorous awards ceremony, Brando announced that he would be boycotting it. Should he win, he said, he would send a young woman called Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. It was a move to highlight and defend Native American rights.

Littlefeather was herself an actress and the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.

Brando did go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor that year. The New York Times printed his statement the next day, in which he wrote:

“The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children…see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”

When, during the awards ceremony, a very nervous Littlefeather took to the stage to explain why he would not accept the award, she was booed loudly. This was then overtaken by cheers — a large portion of the Hollywood community rose to the occasion and drowned out the scorn.

Watch Sacheen Littlefeather here.

An awards show meant to celebrate achievement in storytelling descended — for a moment — into drowning out one of America’s most important narratives, that of its native peoples.

Over 40 years later, a few weeks ago, Coke came out with an ad in which they assembled a range of people to sing America, The Beautiful in a several languages. It was a subtle, moving depiction of the diversity that is America today.

The reaction was shocking. Thousands and thousands of comments, tweets and other remarks on social media called for the boycott of Coke, saying that it had strayed from American values.

While Coke had articulated an America of many different voices, an overwhelming number of people viewed that with great resentment.

Ready and willing inclusion remains elusive, and public discussion is predominantly between those who would seek to protest diversity and those who would protect the right to free expression — even if the expressions are ones of hatred. Ironically, this is “the land of the free”. Everyone is from somewhere else and not all from Anglophone nations.

Watch some brilliant commentary on the Coke ad here. 

It may be tempting to cast these reactions as evil. But the same diversity, so eloquently and bravely spoken for by both Brando and Coke, must also allow space for those of other views — no matter how unpalatable those views may seem.

One wonders: if these had both been local incidents, how would the public have reacted? Would we have been vocal? Would we have stayed on the sidelines? Most of all, would we have allowed for other views, disagreeing if we must, but always with empathy and good manners?

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