Race and My Favorite TV Show

So one of my favorite shows on TV currently is called Scandal. It’s about this incredibly powerful and intelligent black lawyer named Olivia Pope. She’s a “fixer” so it’s her job to fix problems specifically as it relates to high ranking government officials or other people of power. She only takes high profile cases and usually if not always kills it with grace and beauty. In addition, she’s having an affair with the white President of the United States and is constantly surrounded by white people on the Hill asking for her services and grabbing classy drinks with her.  Race has come up a few times in the show for the obvious (unfortunate) reason that she is one of the only black women on the show who has a pretty predominant role in the white house. But nothing like one of the most recent episodes.

This episode which you can watch here (      Season 4, Episode 14 The Lawn Chair(43 min)     ) centers around the story that seems to have taken over American news stations in real life: that of the white cop killing the young black man. A young black man in shot and his father then comes forward and refuses to let the cops take his son’s body until the cop who shot him comes forward. He also has a gun. Thus, because Olivia Pope is the “fixer” she is called upon to come and handle this situation. In addition to it being a heart breaking episode filled with racism and unbelievably sad moments, the question of Olivia’s race comes up. The father asks Olivia at one point which side she’s on. She’s black and thus shouldn’t she be fighting for black rights, so why is she at the beck and call of her white president?

First of all I was fascinated that the network chose to not only make an episode about this touchy subject but so blatantly point out that Olivia Pope is black and fully functioning in white space. I think that says something about the network at least in terms of opening up discussions about what it means to have a powerful black woman on television and what these “race riots” or white cop vs. black men means.

On a deeper level, for me this idea brought up a lot of thoughts and questions about self identifying that we had mentioned a while ago in class but still feels important to me. Not only this self identifying but also how that affects how certain people inhabit certain spaces. Olivia is doing her job but what happens when suddenly that job is construed as a white job and she is betraying her own race. How does she balance that? I also translated this idea in the reverse to our own class and my role in the discussion of race. As a privileged, white woman, how can I enter into a predominantly black space, such as scholarly discussions of race? Would it take a complete self-destruction of what it means to me to be white as Lopez calls for in White By Law?

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7 thoughts on “Race and My Favorite TV Show

  1. I actually have heard about this episode! My friends are avid Scandal watchers and after this episode they seemed to have a lot to say. Interestingly, they all seemed to agree: Olivia did what was right. In the episode, she joins the black protest to “Stand up” and “Fight back”. Olivia can no longer ignore the primacy of personal participation or her own blackness and therefore challenges the white establishment she often serves. However, the cop is arrested he says something along the lines of “What is wrong with you people”, referring to Olivia and the black community. He acts as if Olivia is pushing her own agenda, not for equality and justice. Nonetheless, the cop is put behind bars and the idea of justice is left in the Scandal watchers memory.
    My friends loved the episode because of its promise of possibility. They argued that because the cop was put behind bars and justice was served, this is something that is possible. It is something we should strive for, and something that can happen with support. They appreciated the show because it gave people a chance to really see what the black community was going through. It makes the happenings real and allows its viewers to truly feel the pain of the black community through television.
    My one friend who did not appreciate the show was scared. It was not that she did not agree with the storyline, or the outcome. Rather, the idea of this actually being a reality terrified her. It was suddenly very real. She is a white female, from a safe suburban neighborhood. These realities do not phase her. They are a far off story that does not happen. I think the episode made her uncomfortable. It made her realize the injustice minority communities are served. To me, it just attests to the idea that norms of the white social reality are vastly different than the norms of the black.

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  2. I think you bring up a really good question Leah. I have to ask myself the same question, how can I enter conversations about race, but from a different point of view. Being half-black, many “full” black people, when notions of race and the injustice in predominantly black communities come up, accuse me of not being “a real black person”, and thus not equipped to discuss matters of racial injustice. How interesting is that, because I’m not an active member of the BSU, yet am seeking to pursue a law degree to fight for civil and human rights, that I can be excluded from conversations about race because I’m only…half black!

    In your case, you’re no kinda black. LOL, but what you are is racially aware, humble, moved by inequality and injustice, and willing to learn and make a difference. I feel like it is people with those attributes that need to enter discussions about race and inequality in our nation, regardless of what kind of background they come from. Some people may underrate you initially because you are white. But as greater numbers of privileged white women and men seek to be educated on minority experiences, trusting these experiences and not disregarding them because they are not true to their own experiences, I feel like minority communities will start to embrace people of all races even more, and it will hopefully become less of a “our side” and “their side” as distinguished by race, and more of an issue of justice, because the side of “justice” will have people of all colors. I see that happening already. What do you think?

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    1. I am definitely “no kinda black” and I definitely did LOL.
      Anyway, after this class I definitely do feel more well equipped to enter these conversations even if it’s just to say, “I know I’m not black..but please let me listen so maybe I can learn”. I feel like because racism is so institutionalized at this point it’s going to take everyone to make a difference. More than anything it is those people in power who can stand up and make a noticeable change. If you or I become civil rights lawyers and start making changes, everyone will win even though we’re different races. I’m getting like emotional writing this because it’s something that I hope people are realizing and I think you’re right I think our generation is realizing this.
      I really liked that you said I was humble because 1. HUGE compliment and 2. I think that’s something that our society really needs to put more value on. The ability to be humble and say, “I don’t know about this experience” and then sit back and listen is so important and I think people need to realize that IT’S ABSOLUTELY FINE TO NOT KNOW EVERYTHING. That doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything or change anything, it just means we have to work harder at it ya know?

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  3. Reading this made me think of a biography I have recently started reading. It’s called “Becoming Something” by Mona Smith and is about Canada Lee. Canada Lee was a black actor who became active in the Civil Rights Movement and then became a part of the infamous blacklist, actors whose careers were ruined because of supposed Communist sympathies. The thing to note about Lee, however, is not just that he was an actor, but he was a black actor who had leading roles in movies with other white actors. He was essentially Olivia Pope. He was the lone black actor in a white dominated field. Lee answered the question that Pope was faced with, who to side with?

    His answer is most likely why you have never heard of Canada Lee. He chose advocating for Civil Rights over a successful career in Hollywood and on Broadway. I bring Lee up in relation to Pope because I always wonder about the pros and cons of being the “token” minority. For certain mediums like professional sports, it is obviously incredibly beneficial because it breaks down a barrier. However, I wonder about the impact someone like Canada Lee has on a field like acting, particularly because movies and television shows continue to have white actors in leading roles while relegating minority actors to very specific and stereotypical roles. And the lack of participation and stereotypical placement of minorities in video productions continues to shape people’s beliefs. I personally find this incredibly troubling for our country’s future and hope this trend changes soon. I wonder what either of you think?

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  4. Scandal is also one of my favorite shows, and I was just as surprised as you were that they had such an emotionally-charged and realistic episode. In my opinion, Scandal usually operates in a fantasy world with unrealistic plots and dramatic characters with an unusual amount of power (Which doesn’t make me love the show any less!). However, I felt that the episode, “The Lawn Chair,” was one of its first realistic episodes, which is why it was so heart-wrenching. While I usually just sit back and enjoy Scandal, I was so quiet during “The Lawn Chair” as I sat thinking and pondering exactly what you asked. Why are there “sides”? What would I choose if I was Olivia Pope? How would I feel if I was Olivia Pope? Is there a “right” choice? I think what this episode highlighted the most is that racism and racial lines are just the beginning. It’s just one wire in the birdcage as Alexander states in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Thus, I think we need to start to alter our thinking. Rather than thinking of ourselves as white women going into a black space, we need to start thinking of ourselves as people helping people. We need to changing our way of thinking one person at a time. Though of course, this is easier said than done.

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  5. Leah, I love this! Mostly because I love Scandal. Also because this episode was very thought provoking for me, too. Olivia functions within white space for the majority of the show, and it’s rarely actually addressed. I think that you bring up good points on Olivia’s agency throughout the show, and how her having an affair with the white President and other instances could make her stereotyped as an agency-less black woman, but she is instead so in charge. Shonda Rhimes does some fascinating things with this show. But what really strikes me about your post, and about the show in general, is how it made me realize that very few television shows (especially not popular ones) address race straight up. Olivia is black, and powerful, and beautiful, but her race was if not ignored then not specifically addressed until what? The third season? Why don’t popular mainstream primetime television shows address social issues? And, if they do address social issues, as Scandal has done throughout its seasons, why is race usually shied away from?

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    1. Let’s just pause for a second and think about what it would be like if popular TV shows STOPPED MAKING JOKES AND STARTED ADDRESSING RACIAL TENSIONS.
      I’m sitting here trying to think about what that would be like and it’s blowing my mind.

      In some countries in South America there is a human rights office whose job it is to make sure that citizens know their rights. And a big part of that is educating children about the importance of human rights so there are commercials or TV shows aimed at children–and adults too–that specifically target this idea of making people aware. What if there were televisions shows about race? Or at least existing TV shows that addressed race in such a way that this episode of Scandal did?

      I think a lot of it goes back to the idea of people being scared to say ‘black’ or ‘white’ and call it like it is. It gets into murky territory when people talk around the issue and it ends up making it worse for everyone. Do you think that would actually be successful and make a change?

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