We’re coming up on the 60th anniversary of the television becoming a staple in American homes. And I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the spectacularly colorful fall line-up of shows this year.
Marvel’s Luke Cage (Netflix). Insecure (HBO). Atlanta (FX).
But I’m already fearful for these shows’ longevity. Because there are some who feel uncomfortable by their very existence.
Let me explain. Not only do these shows feature a black character outside of the roles we usually get relegated to — the funny side character with only a smattering of lines, the villain, or the talking animal — but they feature a cast that is primarily actors of color. And they’re directed or created or produced by a person of color.
Somehow, the lack of white faces has made some people shift a little in their seat and quietly turn off the show five minutes into the first episode.
And I get it. You’re not used to seeing so many of us at once. You’re not used to us having a real medium to make the jokes you don’t feel you’re a part of, or advocating against discrimination and racism you try to forget exists. Frankly, you don’t like it when we use our platforms to get “political.”
Luke Cage is literally a large black man who wears a hoodie and is bulletproof — if that isn’t a direct attack on all the Ken Bones of the world trying to justify Trayvon Martin’s shooting, I don’t know what is. Insecure’s Issa works for a foundation trying to improve the experiences of low-income schoolchildren of color, but she spends most of her time being undermined by her all-white team who insist they know better what the kids want or need. Atlanta’s Earnest (played by actor/rapper Donald Glover) is trying valiantly to manage his cousin’s rap career in a predominantly white music industry while also offering a tongue-in-cheek perspective on stereotypes surrounding the black experience.
And you may not get it. You may not understand the humor or the greater issues being addressed. You may think your only option is to avoid these shows altogether.
Well, you’re wrong.
Because we’ve had to do the exact same thing since the television was invented.
We’ve had to watch shows and movies with an all-white cast, and somehow feel like we can simply map our lives and experiences onto theirs.
Or hear directors like Tim Burton try to whitesplain away their lack of diversity in casting.
Or worse: we’ve had to endure characters of color written by white producers and directors, intended to only be complete caricatures or the butt of the joke. We’ve had to patiently explain why that Fox News segment in Chinatown was so egregious, or remind the world and Donald J. Trump that no, we don’t all live in hell where you can’t walk down the street without being shot.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that in the 88 Academy Awards held since 1929, only 18 black people have won an Oscar? How about the complete breakdown persons of color have when they actually win an award for TV or movies? (See, e.g., Viola Davis crying on stage as she accepts an Emmy for How to Get Away With Murder).
There was a heartbreaking moment in the new NBC show This Is Us where one of the male leads, a black man who was adopted at birth by a white family, admitted that as a child, he kept a notebook where he would place a tally mark for each new black person he would meet. The end of the episode flashes to a page in his little notebook with a pitiful 11 tally marks.
And I mean, the show could not be more aptly titled. This is Us. This is us putting a little tally mark in our notebook when we watched Friends and Gilmore Girls and rejoiced when a character of color got a line or was in more than one episode. This is us wondering if it would be strange to dress up as a white character for Halloween because we honestly couldn’t think of many recognizable black characters to go as. (Which is why when The Frog Princess came out, I milked it and was Tianna for, like, three years straight). This is us having to search for books in the “African American Literature” section of Barnes and Noble when the book has more than one black character. This is us avoiding discussions of cultural classics like Coming to America with our white friends to avoid the awkwardness on both sides when they have to admit they’ve never seen it and don’t really intend to.
If this election has shown anything, it’s that you can justify doing just about anything to someone and their way of life if you don’t understand it.
Somehow, miraculously, this fall we have ample opportunity to change that. This is your chance to take the time to see our lives as we see them. This is your chance to educate yourself, to ask questions and learn.
So I hate to be the one to tell you, but if you’re on the fence about watching these shows because they simply aren’t what you’re used to, we’ve played by the old rules for almost 60 years.
It’s your turn to try.
Charlene is a 3L and has been with BC Law Impact since her time as a 1L. Check out her posts on cultural competence and things she wishes she knew as a 1L, from day one to the last exam. You can reach her here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She recommends you try watching Jane the Virgin, Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish, and Luther, too.