Like many other folk, I was in my feelings after watching “The Lawn Chair,” episode of Scandal a few weeks ago. So much so that I spent the weekend offline pre-gaming season 2 episodes of House of Cards in preparation for a marathon binge of season 3 over spring break. It was because of my internet hiatus that I was not aware of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s racist video that surfaced that Sunday until Monday afternoon in my class when students brought it up during a roundtable panel on race. I was overwhelmed, trying to wrap my head around the out-in-the-open racism falling out the mouths of babes. On the heels of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a reminder that a mere 50 years ago white folk in the South openly spat on, attacked, beat, murdered and lynched black bodies without retribution, and in a context where I regularly have to combat claims that racism is a thing of the past and “if we didn’t talk about it so much, it wouldn’t be a problem” (this is a direct quote from a black male student in a class I visited…Lord help the children) I walked to my office contemplating the tears I captured in my hands after watching an episode of Scandal where these issues were neatly contained and corrected in less than an hour. Of course, I knew the ending of “The Lawn Chair” was problematic, but I got caught up in the hope it promised. I got caught up in the possibility that the things we imagine, pray and hope for might one day be possible, but then the reality of so much bullshit came spiraling back to me in the words of a racist chant sang in the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands.” I sat in my office with the renewed weight of knowing that racism isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and its existence will always threaten my existence. Racism is insidious like that, it’s ubiquitous like that, it’s everywhere all at once, like specks of dust in the air. You can’t help but breathe it in and get it on your skin.
The Ferguson-inspired episode of Scandal has been both praised and critiqued for its depiction of a “happy ending” to an all too familiar nightmare. In Shondaland, we are given a storyline where there is justice for a murdered black body lying in the street at the hands of the (in)justice system. In Shondaland, the white police officer who took his life is exposed and held accountable for his actions instead of being protected and shielded from responsibility. In Shondaland we are offered a temporary tale of what it would look like if black lives did matter by fictionalizing the continuous reality of black folk dying at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them and giving us the ending we keep hoping for but never getting. In Shondaland, race only matters sometimes.
In “The Lawn Chair” episode we see Olivia, who is generally racially ambivalent and “colorblind,” recognize and center her race, and seemingly, for the first time, understand the impact and persistence of racism, particularly by white men in positions of power (how this feels novel in this episode when she’s been knockin’ boots with the white POTUS for the past 4 seasons is another blog for another day, and yes I said knockin’ boots—I’m feeling nostalgic and bringing back the 90s slang) and particularly towards black men. Her sudden recognition of her blackness is instigated by black maleness (Brandon’s dead body underneath a lawn chair, Clarence, a grieving father, who is guarding his son’s body with his own, and Marcus, the protester who delivers the chair and helps organize the protest, giving Ms. Pope a race read when she implies race is a non-factor in the case).
Eventually connecting the tyranny of racism to the tyranny she experienced by her kidnappers, Olivia inspires the “good” white men (David and the POTUS) to hold the “racist” white men to task (the corrupt police officer and chief who hired her). Olivia finds herself on the side of the people, protesting the death of a black child and vouching for a black man who’s desperation for justice is not only met with justice, but leniency because of her influence. We know this to be fictional because in real life black folk, especially those trying to protect themselves or their children, are penalized and demonized if not imprisoned.
In the real world while black women are on the ground making things happen, they rarely have the clout to convince the powers that be to use their power for good. In the real world, the strongblackwoman myth absorbs the pain, tears and wails of black mothers (like Sybrina Fulton, Lucia McBath, Lesley McSpadden) whose children are snatched away by white supremacy, so Brandon’s mother, deceased from breast cancer, was spared the trauma of losing her only child to a gun shot wound. The narrative shifts to Clarence, a respectable black man, whose life was devoted his son’s survival, and is now left with nothing but a call for justice and a borrowed lawn chair. The visibility of a black man holding a gun is supposed to inspire fear, but Olivia Pope empathizes with Clarence and bridges the power gap making justice possible in the face of blatant racism.
While black men are centered in both the Scandal narrative and the SAE chant, it is important that we acknowledge that gender/sex does not preclude racism. Racism affects black women as much as black men, and it is important that we not mistake the media absence or reference of black women (and transwomen) in mainstream outlets to mean that they are somehow protected from racism (or murder). Racism against black men is racism against black women–and even if Olivia Pope can transcend race in her relationships and career, real life black women cannot.
White allyship is and has always been a necessary ingredient for institutional intervention. President Boren, for example, demonstrated white allyship and antiracism in the Oklahoma fraternity case by calling out the racism and bigotry, but he also had the power to back it up (immediately closing the campus chapter of the fraternity, evicting the fraternity members from their frat house, and expelling two students who were recognizable on the video). Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski decided to thwart the responsibility of racism away from white racists and onto black rappers in an attempt to mystify the meaning of racism and distract us from the fraternity members. They attempted to hijack the narrative so that it would seem that the racists are the victims. To them the narrative is about “the poor, white boys who made an unfortunate mistake, what about their future/s?” To me the narrative is about poor dead black boys (and girls), what about their futures?
In a world where black lives are stumped out, suffocated, and un(der)valued, the (re)centering of black lives and the scrutiny of racism remains imperative. It is important on the campus of the University of Oklahoma through protests and rallies, throughout the country where activist efforts continue in and beyond Ferguson, and in the public imagination, via social media and television shows, like Scandal. While the Scandal episode showed us what would happen in a perfect world, SAE showed us what happens in the real world. In a perfect world, black folk would not be killed in the street nor would racist chants about lynching exist within the confines of predominantly and historically white organizations. In a perfect world, all black lives, not only those recognized as cisgendered and male, would be privileged and acknowledged in public platforms. In a perfect world, racism would be fictional.
Scandal gave us hope. The progressive and antiracist reaction of President Boren (and his clear stance against bigotry) gives us hope. But we need not mistake progress for a panacea. Progress does not erase the egregious history and everyday experiences of racism that exists and manifests in the lives of people of color in this country, and progress does not erase the centuries old systemic racism that persists not only on predominantly white college campuses, and in urban neighborhoods, but in places we imagine to be progressive (a KKK recruitment flyer was distributed at a local Walmart this past weekend in the college town where I live). The persistence of antiblackness and racism require that we not get tired, that we not give up hope, that we keep fighting the good fight. One strategy is to centralize the reality of racism in our everyday lives and distinguish facts from fiction. Oftentimes, as in the case with blaming black rappers for the racist chant, there is an attempt to blur the facts in order to mitigate the seriousness of racism and claim it is harmless. When we refuse to see racism (sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.) for what it is, and call it what it is, we reiterate the lie that it can’t hurt us if it’s not visible, that it’s not real if it’s not tangible.
Truth is, twenty-first century racism hides in coquettish grins and well-dressed suits, it lives and breathes in the subtle justifications for injustice, and in the silent acquiescence of bystanders who marginally participate in racism by not challenging it, who smile at racist overtures and laugh at racist jokes but have a convenient one black friend; it cheers for black bodies on football fields, sells out rap concerts, and borrows black culture. 21st century racists may have voted for Obama, listen to Jay Z and may fuck (with) black people sometimes. Racism these days is mild-mannered, politically progressive, formally educated, well-spoken and intergenerational. It denies itself, distorts itself, and apologizes when it gets caught.
In a culture where racism often hides in plain sight, there are some things even Olivia Pope can’t fix.