to represent and repress them

I did not watch the Colin Kaepernick documentary on Netflix but I, like many other, saw a clip of the limited series on YouTube. In the short video, Kaepernick describes his problem with characters like Steve Urkel from Family Matters, Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place. “White people love these dudes. From the way they dress, the way they talk…even the way they dance. It’s all so non-threatening,” he describes. “These characters have come to be known by the term ‘Acceptable Negro.’ The Acceptable Negro is a Black character who inhabits white characteristics who makes white people feel comfortable. The Acceptable Negro is a white man’s creation. Thing is, white people don’t get to decide who’s acceptable to us.”

And I strongly agree with him. White people don’t get to decide what’s acceptable to us Black people. This is part of a bigger problem I have with representation of Black characters and faux diversity. They often aren’t given the same attention when it comes to writing as their white castmates.

They don’t get to mess up and make mistakes. Some writers might pet themselves on the back for avoiding ‘stereotypes’ when writing characters, but don’t actually take the time to write a round character.

A few examples of this are Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham) from The Vampire Diaries, Ashleigh Howard (Amber Stevens West) from Greek, and Lacey Porter (Kylie Bunbury) from Twisted.

Bonnie’s treatments throughout the eight seasons of the show were especially horrendous and Julie Plec didn’t even try to hide her anti-blackness and racism with the way she handled the character. Bonnie’s entire arc on the show can be summed up into being put through the wringer in order to save her friends. The three main romances she got in the show were either boring, rushed, or miniscule. Her first onscreen boyfriend cheated on her with a ghost, her second love interest was her stepbrother, and her third love interest was killed in front of her because there’s nothing the writers loved more than putting Bonnie through pain.

Unlike Caroline, Elena, and Tyler, she didn’t have an arc dedicated to her newfound supernatural powers. She was barely allowed to explore who she was as a witch. Bonnie was noticeably absent whenever there was a large event, such as the Mikaelson Ball in season three, but she was always there to help her friends when they needed someone to perform a spell.

Bonnie always offered her friends a comforting shoulder but was rarely given a chance to grieve and lean on others for support. Her character is the embodiment of the strong Black woman and Black best friend trope.

I am happy that Kat Graham is far away from that show and that evil white woman.

I enjoyed Greek way more than I did the Vampire Diaries, but it is not without its issues. Ashleigh did not go through any physical pain or trauma on Greek, but her character still mostly existed in the shadow of her white best friend. She’s introduced as Casey Cartwright’s (Spencer Grammar) ditzy best friend. The first episode featuring her as part of the main plot is tied into a plot about her terrible boyfriend which turns into her having a fight with Casey who doesn’t back her up when their sorority sisters try to bully her into breaking up with him. Their fight, then, turns into Casey’s plot and we don’t hear from Ashleigh’s awful boyfriend again after she breaks up with him. I was excited for Ashleigh to do more than just offer Casey advice about her romantic dilemmas when she’s voted to be the new sorority president. What could have been an interesting story arc about Ashleigh taking on some responsibility becomes about Casey having a grudge that her best friend was happy over that. It’s been some time since I watched, but the only other arcs I remember Ashleigh having is secretly hooking up with the sorority’s [check position] who goes on to cheat on her twice and briefly dating one of the professors after she has graduated and returned to college because her job proved to be too much for her. We get to Casey learn, evolve, and grow beyond college but Ashleigh is not awarded the same luxury.

Lacey goes through a similar thing in Twisted. The show started off great and just got progressively worst. For those who never watched, Twisted revolves around three characters who used to be the best of friends before one of them, Danny Desai (Avan Jogia) got sent to juvie for murdering his aunt. They get thrown back into each other’s lives upon Danny’s return and subsequent belief to be involved with the death of another student. Lacey’s character is given much more to work with than the others. She gets a meaningful romance, a solid plot, and good characterization but it is obvious that she is placed below Jo (Maddie Hasson) in the character hierarchy. It becomes clear with two scenes. While investigating her friend’s mother, Lacey and the others find a hotel that belongs to the person might’ve done it and Danny uses it as an attempt to repair Lacey’s and Jo’s broken friendship. Things went bad after Jo found out that Lacey told a girl not to invite her to a birthday party when they were thirteen. Lacey’s reason was that Jo would’ve brought everyone down because she was difficult to be around after what happened. “I was traumatized too, I just didn’t want to talk about it all the time. God, Jo, I was thirteen. I just want to have fun,” Lacey explains. Jo turns it around on Lacey and accuses her of cutting her loose to protect her perfect image. The scene plays it like Lacey is in the wrong and we should feel sorry for poor Jo. If ‘Poor Jo’ sound familiar, it’s because it’s the hashtag used when Jo finds out Lacey and Danny are dating after a video of them kissing (and alluding to more happening) is recorded without their consent and spread throughout the school. Lacey doesn’t get a chance to reflect on how this affects her, no it’s all about poor Jo and how hurt she must be over her unrequited crush. The second half of the season isn’t even subtle of its sidelining of Lacey Porter.

It’s not enough to just have Black characters in your show. You have to give them the same treatment that you do every other character. They deserve grand romances and storylines. Representation matters.

In the same light, you have to be careful with how you pick and choose how to represent people. All-American is a great show and I will always praise it. When the main character, Spencer James (Daniel Ezra) is shot and a few doctors at the hospital are hesitant to treat him because they don’t if he’s on something, their automatic assumption that he’s on something is telling of their racial bias. In a later part of the episode, another doctor praises his talent as a football player and a straight-A talent while the doctors who ordered the tox screen are well within earshot. I know what their intent is, but Spencer wouldn’t have been any less of those things if he wasn’t a star student athlete.

All-American often praises Black excellence which I love. This is not a criticism of the show, but some of it messages come off like respectability politics which still operates on the basis of whiteness.

Characters can be messy, or they can perfect. There are a multitude of Black people with distinct personalities and they each deserve to be seen. It doesn’t mean if they’re a future doctor or high school dropout, every story deserves the same opportunity to be told.

Representation is about seeing your seen portrayed authentically onscreen. Shouldn’t everyone be given equal chance to see themselves shine?

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store