The Illusion of Black Patriotism

Header image description: Olivia Pope, the main character and anti-heroine of the ABC show Scandal, stands in the Oval Office. She wears a red and black shawl and black pants and has her arms crossed over her chest. To her right there is a navy blue flag bearing the seal of the United States, and in front of that flag is the Resolute Desk. She stands in front of a window with gold curtains.

After Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, many people — Black and white alike — believed that this country had finally become a postracial society. To them, his election to the highest office in the nation proved that Black people really could do anything we put our minds to. Thomas Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” had finally come true.

Except Thomas Jefferson was a white supremacist and Black people were still being murdered simply for being Black while Obama was in office — showing that America was founded on racism and continues to operate based on racism. The idea of America as a postracial society is and has always been nothing more than an illusion.

Postracialism is the myth that Black people have achieved social equality with whites, meaning that race is no longer a salient factor in social relations and we no longer have to worry about racism. The disproportionate violence faced by Black people in this country has shown that postracialism is a total fabrication; however, this hasn’t stopped writers, showrunners, filmmakers, and others from peddling this fairy tale to the American public.

Over the last decade, über-patriotic Black political characters have become a staple in American media. This makes sense when you remember that Obama’s meteoric rise to political fame hinged on him proving to “Middle America” (AKA, centrist/right-wing white people) that he’s just as proud to be American as they are. Emblematic of this trend is Hamilton: An American Musical, which casts nonwhite people to play the founding fathers onstage. This musical has led to problems — more specifically, white people thinking they can’t be racist because they like a musical with a mostly nonwhite cast — but I’ve already talked about this quite a bit. There were also the characters of David Estes, a CIA higher-up on Homeland, and David Palmer, a Senator and later the president on the series 24.

Even more popular was the ABC show Scandal (2012-2018), which featured Olivia Pope, a Black woman who worked as a “fixer” for the rich and powerful of Washington, D.C., no matter their political leanings. Less mainstream but very well-known in its own right is a Hamilton fanfiction entitled Quid Pro Quo (known by fans as simply “QPQ”), which presents the characters from the musical as political figures in modern-day D.C. Both Scandal and QPQ include Black protagonists who love their country and fall squarely within the seemingly dichotomous two-party system. But, as I’ll explain, these characters just…don’t make sense.

Image description: A promotional photo for Scandal which shows many of the main characters lined up, apparently at the Lincoln Memorial. They wear all black, except for Olivia, who is front and center. She wears a black and white coat, black pants, and carries a black purse. Credit: ABC

I’m sure y’all know about Scandal, but here’s an overview just in case: Olivia Pope is a Black woman who, through PR expertise, makes problems disappear for her influential clients. Before the start of the series, she was the Communications Director for President Fitz Grant III, who is white, male, and a Republican. She’s also having an affair with Fitz, which is the titular scandal. Olivia is self-assured to the maximum and gets what she wants from everyone she asks something of, from her employees to powerful white men. Her race is rarely brought up onscreen. Cheryl Ann Lambert said that “Scandal presents an environment with no discernible sociocultural identity…The minimization of race in Scandal tends to normalize the idea that post-racialism is realistic and desired.” 

Before I get into QPQ, I have to explain how Hamilton fanfictions work. (Also, I’ll refer to fanfictions as “fics” because, TBH, nobody ever says the whole word.) The difference between a Hamilton fic and a regular American Revolution fic (which, yes, those do exist) is that in the former, you’re supposed to imagine the historical figures as how the actors in the original Broadway cast of the musical look. So, instead of imagining George Washington as some old white dude with dentures, he’s supposed to look like Chris Jackson, who originated the role in the musical. Make sense? Cool.

The very short summary of QPQ is that George Washington (who, again, is Black) is a preeminent U.S. Senator and Alexander Hamilton is one of his staffers and also his sugar baby. Political shenanigans ensue. That’s basically the entire plot. Now, QPQ isn’t just any Hamilton fic — it is the Hamilton fic. It is the most popular work in the “Hamilton — Miranda” fandom on Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction site, if you sort by “bookmarks” (the function by which users save works to their personal library). If you sort by “kudos,” or likes, it’s the fifth most popular work in the fandom. It has over 100,000 hits and counting — basically, if you are or ever were a Hamilton fan, it’s virtually impossible to have never heard of QPQ.

What Olivia Pope and QPQ’s version of George Washington have in common is that they’re highly successful political figures in twenty-first century D.C. who happen to be multiply marginalized Black people (a Black woman, in the case of Olivia, and a Black gay man, for Washington). They live in high-end areas of D.C. that have very few Black residents — Olivia lives in Georgetown, which is only about 6% Black, while Washington lives in Cleveland Park, which is about 9% Black. Both characters seem to be unconsciously isolated from their Blackness, even if other people around them recognize that they are Black. I have a running note on my phone of the times Scandal actually brings up race; in the 47 episodes of the first three seasons, Olivia is explicitly mentioned to be Black four times. In 34 chapters and 123,027 words of QPQ, Washington’s Blackness is mentioned only once.

Image description: A photograph of some of the core members of the original Hamilton cast; namely, Daveed Diggs, Chris Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Leslie Odom Jr. All of them are Black except for Miranda, who is Latino. When reading Hamilton fics about the founding fathers, this is what they are supposed to look like. This photograph actually inspired part of QPQ. Credit: The New York Times

In “Divas, Evil Black Bitches, and Bitter Black Women: African American Women in Postfeminist and Post-Civil-Rights Popular Culture,” Kimberly Springer wrote that professional success for Black women is often to the detriment of not only their self-esteem, but also their racial identity and affiliation. In other words, Black people who climb the professional ladder seem to forget they’re Black. Due to respectability politics, desire for white validation, and the general lack of Black people in fields such as medicine, tech, and national politics, the Black people who do “make it” either sacrifice or are forced to give up connections with the larger Black community for their career.

In Scandal, Olivia has a few Black people around her, but no Black community. There’s her father, Eli, who is often her onscreen enemy; her on-again off-again boyfriend, Senator Edison Davis; two of her employees, Harrison and Marcus; and a White House security guard, Morris. The most Black people she’s ever been around was in a 2015 episode called “The Lawn Chair,” where a cop shoots and kills a Black kid in a Black neighbourhood. Olivia goes to said neighbourhood just to try to ease tensions on behalf of the White House; she has zero connection to any of the Black people or the neighbourhood itself and shows no interest in forging connections with them. Her Blackness is secondary to her relationship with Fitz and his administration. In QPQ, the only Black people in Washington’s life are his wife/”beard,” Martha, and two of his employees, Aaron Burr and Lafayette. (There’s also Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, fellow members of Congress, but they’re political and personal rivals, not friends or supporters.)

D.C. has historically been known as “Chocolate City” due its high concentration of Black people and culture. I go to a PWI in D.C. and Black students here still manage to connect with the Black culture of the city, including attending Howard’s homecoming every year. I mean, shit, even Frank Underwood, a white Congressman in House of Cards, manages to go to a BBQ restaurant regularly and is ostensibly good friends with the shop’s Black owner, Freddy. How do Olivia and Washington somehow have no connection to any Black community in one of the Blackest cities in the country?

Image description: The signpost of Freddy’s BBQ Joint, a fictional Black restaurant in D.C. in House of Cards. Frank Underwood, a white Congressman and House Majority Whip on the show, regularly visits the restaurant and has a personal connection to Freddy, the Black owner of the shop. Credit: Netflix

Despite rampant gentrification, Black people remain the largest racial group in the District at 47% of the population; we face disproportionately high violence from law enforcement. According to The Guardian, in 2016 — the year QPQ was written and Scandal was in its fifth season — D.C. law enforcement killed five people, all of them Black. Black people are at even higher risk for violence from law enforcement in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) area because it is under the purview of multiple local, state, and federal agencies. In QPQ and Scandal, however, Washington and Olivia fully trust these agencies and are unconditionally protected by them; their Blackness is never an issue with cops.

In his paper about the pitfalls of a white liberal approach to racism, Nicholas Oviedo-Torres writes: “White liberalism requires some form of denial of the reality of one’s full role within the racial hierarchy, which includes a denial of one’s full role as an oppressed member within the hierarchy.” When Black characters such as Olivia and Washington deny their reality, they “view other Black people as ‘the other,’ despite never being accepted by white people.” In Season 2, episode 11 of Scandal, Cyrus, the white male chief of staff, says to Fitz — while Olivia isn’t around, mind you — that his mistress “is not exactly a hue that most of your Republican constituents would be happy about.” Basically, Olivia’s race is relevant to others, even if it’s not relevant to her.

It’s clear that both Olivia and Washington comply with a neoliberal approach to life and politics for the sake of their careers. In the singular mention of Washington’s race in QPQ, he says: “I’m a black Democrat from Virginia…I can’t be a radical if I want to stay in office.” The blurb for the fic describes him as “a war hero”; he is very proud of his military service and it’s even mentioned in Chapter 2 that he voted for the PATRIOT Act. In Scandal, Olivia will do anything for “the good of the republic,” from rigging presidential elections in favor of a Republican candidate to literally killing people. Her one guiding moral is to ensure that the American experiment lasts as long as possible. Both of these characters are unequivocally patriotic, and, like Obama, proud to be Americans, despite the racially unjust foundations of the United States.

Image description: The first inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. He wears a red tie and black suit; his right hand is raised and his left hand rests on a bible held by his wife, Michelle, while he takes the oath of the office of the President. Credit: Los Angeles Times

The history and present of this country show that being both Black and patriotic is more than a bit contradictory. When he wrote about his concept of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois posits Blackness and Americanness as diametrically opposed. He calls these identities “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” In sum, to embrace Blackness is to be un-American, and to be truly American is to be anti-Black. Sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Du Bois wrote this in 1903; I’m sure he never imagined a Black person becoming president a century later. However, I believe his words remain true, despite the social and political progress that has been made. In a 2017 article called “The Paradox of Black Patriotism,” Micah E. Johnson wrote about “potential tensions and nuances between allegiance to race and allegiance to nation”; I agree with this sentiment.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a bit of #BlackExcellence here and there. However, I often wonder what the costs of success are for Black people who are making waves in their respective fields. Black faces in high places seem great at first, but, as many people have written, mere representation won’t save us. Trying to prove that we’re just as American as white people won’t save us either, as the advent of the Movement for Black Lives under Obama’s presidency demonstrated.

It’s not surprising to me that both Scandal’s Olivia Pope and Quid Pro Quo’s George Washington were incredibly popular Black characters who were incredibly patriotic and lived in a seemingly postracial society. Nevertheless, I think postracialism and Black patriotism are not only inefficient, but unnecessary. I’m real tired of this trope; Black people shouldn’t need to love an imperial nation to attain success. Thanks, Obama.

Git Back, Git Back, Git Back: The Nonexistent Racial Politics of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy

Header image description: A promotional photo for season 2 of The Umbrella Academy, which shows the seven adopted Hargreeves siblings standing in front of a black background with a white vortex. They each wear sunglasses that reflect an image of what they’re dealing with that season. Allison, the lone Black sibling, stands on the far left; her yellow sunglasses depict a civil rights rally, and you can see a Black person holding a poster that says “FREEDOM NOW.” Most of the others are white; the two other nonwhite siblings are Diego, who is Latino, and Ben, who is Asian. [Credit: Netflix]

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Umbrella Academy.

A few notes: (1) This article is about the racial politics of the television adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, not the original comics. (2) I asked friends and colleagues to contribute their thoughts to this piece before I wrote it; they are all nonwhite. I didn’t ask specific questions; I just asked for their thoughts about the “racial politics” of the show. (3) This article has been updated to reflect the gender transition of the character Viktor Hargreeves, formerly known as “Vanya” in Seasons 1 and 2.

Now I want you to tell me brother

What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

Now if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, could stick around

But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

Big Bill Broonzy, “Black, Brown, and White” (1938)

Once I finished my finals in December, I had exactly six weeks for my winter vacation; like any good twenty-first century college student, I spent the entire break binge-watching television. I managed to get through The Wilds on Amazon Prime, season 4 of Riverdale, Shondaland’s Bridgerton, and even rewatch Avatar: The Last Airbender for the fifty-leventh time.

I also watched both seasons of The Umbrella Academy. As a *ahem* “reformed” emo kid, I’d been meaning to read the original comics for years now, and when I heard that Netflix was creating a TV adaptation, I was determined to watch it at some point. (The comics were written by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance fame.)

The TL;DR premise of the show is this: at noon on October 1, 1989, forty-three women around the world gave birth, despite not being pregnant before that morning. Reginald Hargreeves, an eccentric billionaire, adopted seven of these children and trained them to use their superpowers so that they could save the world from evil. Instead of naming them, Reginald numbered the children from one to seven; they eventually received names from their mother (who is an android). The basic rundown of the siblings and their powers is as follows:

  1. Number One — AKA Luther — super-strength — white man
  2. Number Two — AKA Diego — metal telekinesis — nonwhite Latino
  3. Number Three — AKA Allison — mind control — Black woman
  4. Number Four — AKA Klaus — able to commune with the dead — white man
  5. Number Five — no AKA — able to jump through time and space — white teenage boy
  6. Number Six — AKA Ben — able to turn himself into a monster — Asian man — died as a child in a mission, but Klaus summons him regularly
  7. Number Seven — AKA Viktor — believed to not have powers for most of season 1, but in reality can bend and control waves of energy — white man

In the comics, all of the Hargreeves siblings are white; this was changed for the show. I guess Netflix must have a bit of sense, because they didn’t make the same mistake as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (You send golden tickets all over the world and only white kids find them? C’mon, now!) Still, most of the seven siblings are white, including the group’s leader, Luther.

Of course, the leader character was gonna be a white boy. They wouldn’t dare have a PoC [person of color] be a lead in what they hope is a show that will bring in majority white audiences…In fact, when we look at the folks who get the most screen time, or the longest plots, Diego, Allison, and Ben get crumbs compared to Five, [Viktor], Luther, and Klaus.


In season 1, which is set in 2019, race is never mentioned. I assumed that it would be like most colorblind adaptations, where race isn’t a thing. As I said in my last blog post, I like a good colorblind production — emphasis on “good.” I’m not saying The Umbrella Academy handles race badly, but they certainly don’t handle it well. The show’s racial politics are simply nonexistent.

Image description: A season 1 promotional photo. The siblings, from left to right, are Viktor, Five, Allison, Luther, Diego, and Klaus. Ben is not pictured. [Credit: Netflix]

The showrunners seem to have made certain characters nonwhite without much thought; namely, Allison, Diego, and Lila (who I’ll get to later). Or, as my friend Heejin put it, nonwhite characters were “slapped on for the Netflix version and it really shows.” It doesn’t really matter in season 1, because race never comes up. (Though, as Heejin sardonically noted: “ah yes…their multiracial adoptive family that has no racial tension because racism-is-over™.”)

The show is very clearly written by white people and the diversity of the cast isn’t necessarily bad in my opinion (unlike Hamilton), but there’s nothing substantial that the show attempts to say. It just feels like the new characters of color are tools for a white writer to say “look, diversity!”


However, race comes to matter in season 2 because the siblings have gone back in time to 1960s Dallas. As soon as Allison lands (literally) in that context, she unknowingly walks into a whites-only restaurant and is subsequently harassed and chased by a group of white men. She finds refuge in a Black hair salon that doubles as a meeting spot for the Southern Justice Coordinating Committee (SJCC). [Side note: is this the Hollywood version of “just change the answers a little bit so it doesn’t look like we cheated?] In the two years between her arrival in Dallas and the start of season 2, Allison has become an integral part of the civil rights movement in the city. Or, as Klaus very dismissively puts it: “Allison has been very involved in local politics.”

Before I move forward, it’s important to be aware of the fact that Allison, as a leader of this civil rights group, is light-skinned; as my classmate Aiyana said, the latent colorism is “its own mess.”

Also, throughout seasons 1 and 2, Allison and Luther seem to be romantically interested in each other. (Yes, they are brother and sister, and refer to each other as such.) This swirl incest storyline was brought up by four people who contributed their thoughts to this, and we’ve all agreed it’s weird AF. Jenna has a theory as to how the showrunners approached this little plot point:

Luther and Allison’s relationship can go to hell. They knew damn well if Allison was white they wouldn’t try it. Black women and white men have the most distance from each other socially so they hoped the audience would be virtually incapable of perceiving them as siblings.

Image description: A screenshot of a gif from the season 2 finale, which shows Luther giving Allison CPR. In this particular fan-made gif, the creator slowed it down and isolated it from the context of the episode, so it just looks like Luther is kissing her. We’re not gonna talk about it, we’re not gonna talk about it… [Credit: Netflix, vanyahargreaves on Tumblr]

A former classmate said this about season 2: “At first I thought we were supposed to suspend belief that racism existed…but one of the plot points was the Civil Rights Movement.” Another friend said that because this is a fantasy show, she didn’t think it would tackle any complex or serious storylines; it was weird for civil rights to become a “focal point” of the second season. As that classmate said, there’s a “disconnect” between the colorblindness of season 1 and the focus on race and racism in season 2.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: the civil rights storyline is incredibly clumsy. Zan, a former classmate, accurately pointed out that the civil rights movement in the show is an idealized and glossed over version of the actual, historical campaign. The refrain of the SJCC is “honor and dignity”; in other words, “don’t beat these crackers’ asses even though they deserve it.” My friend Khalid noted that “the show disregards other movements for civil rights that weren’t as nonviolent.”

In the third episode, Allison’s [Black] husband, Raymond, is being beaten by a racist white cop after a failed sit-in at the same restaurant Allison accidentally walked into earlier. When Allison uses her mind control powers to get that cop to leave him alone, Raymond sees her in a negative light despite the fact that she literally saved his life. Zan said that besides being unrealistic, this only serves to further the belief that Black people aren’t even permitted to use force in the name of self-defense.

Throughout season 2, the other Hargreeves siblings actively ignore the fact that Allison, their sister, is facing racist violence. Adora, a student at my university, said it was unrealistic that her siblings would be “walking [around] freely while Allison is fighting for her life.” The lack of involvement of her siblings — or any non-Black people at all — in the SJCC’s campaign implicitly tells viewers that fighting racism is the onus of Black people and Black people only. Besides being irresponsible to signify such (especially considering that this season premiered in the summer of 2020…), it’s also completely ahistorical: the real life Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the organizing home of leaders such as the late John Lewis) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the organizing home of Dr. King) were intentionally multiracial coalitions.

Image description: A screenshot of a gif of season 2, episode 1; it shows the characters Lila Pitts, who is South Asian, and Diego Hargreeves, who is a brown Latino. [Credit: Netflix; shesnake on Tumblr]

The second season of The Umbrella Academy also includes a conversation about proximity to whiteness that, while unintentional, is emblematic of our society’s racial mores. Though Allison is not the only nonwhite character, she is the only one who faces racism. (This is just more fuel for my theory that when the race war finally does pop off, it won’t be white people versus “people of color”; it’ll be niggas versus errbody else.) Her brother, Diego, is a nonwhite Latino; however, his race is rarely mentioned, despite the fact that they are in the American South in the Sixties. In episode one, a newspaper calls Diego “a man of Hispanic descent,” while in the season finale, a news anchor mistakenly refers to him as a “Cuban exile.”

At the beginning of season 2, Diego is institutionalized in a mental hospital (the staff of which regularly harasses and violates its inmates) because he’s been stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, trying to stop him from shooting JFK. Two things: (1) since when do nonwhite people go that hard for the Kennedys? (2) The normalized ableism endemic to this show…whew, chile. That’s a whole other article right there.

In the hospital, Diego meets Lila, a South Asian-British woman whose sexual tension with him from her first onscreen moment is cringe-y, to say the least. (I have thoughts about this relationship too, but I’ll just sum them up with this: while searching for images of Diego and Lila to use above, I mostly found shipping fanart and gifs. My face was set in a grimace the whole time I was scrolling.)

As far as viewers can see, the hospital has no Black patients; yet, somehow, a nonwhite Latino and a South Asian woman can be there. Later in the season, viewers also see Lila at a bingo game with a bunch of old white people (in Texas! In 1963!); she is the lone nonwhite person in attendance. Nobody comments on her presence. Yes, legalized racial segregation in the United States very specifically targeted Black people; however, it also applied to non-Black people of color. Acting like these characters would be sharing facilities with white people is plain incorrect.

Diego, Lila, and their sexual tension get into hella misadventures during the season. As my friend Kodie said, “literally Lila [is] darker than Allison, running amok [in] the early 60s, and Diego was clearly brown too.” Many people I spoke to brought up the fact that the total lack of discrimination faced by the only other brown main characters is ludicrous. Make it make sense, Netflix!

Diego and Lila freely waltzing around 60s Texas?? Hello?? They are Not White. It’s like the writers knew they’d hit backlash for not bringing up race in the show so they used Allison & said, “Hmm, Black people…I think we’re good here.”

Image description: The Hargreeves siblings in the season 2 finale. From left to right: Klaus, Ben, Five, Viktor, Luther, Diego, and Allison. [Credit: Netflix]

I’m just scratching the surface of this show’s questionable handling of race. The people I spoke to brought up much, much more that didn’t fit in this article, but is no less relevant. The fact of the matter is this: we do not and have never lived in a postracial society; therefore, race, when addressed in popular culture, must have a clear, responsible, and contextual set of racial politics. Unfortunately, The Umbrella Academy falls quite short of this target.

As Big Bill Broonzy said more than eighty years ago, and The Umbrella Academy demonstrates in season 2, if you’s white, you’ll be alright; if you’s brown, stick around; but if you’s Black…you might as well git back.

Am I still going to watch any and all future seasons of The Umbrella Academy? Absolutely. (And not just to thirst over David Castañeda as Diego, mind you.) Maybe it’s because I love messy television, but I’m still curious to see where this show goes in season 3. And, for some reason, I’m hopeful for Allison’s character in future episodes; she deserves better treatment than she’s gotten thus far.

Bridgerton Isn’t “Colorblind” At All, Actually

Header image description: A banner showing the main characters of Bridgerton in a garden. Two of the characters are Black, while the rest are white. They all wear the dress of the 19th century British elite, indicating their elevated socioeconomic status. Image credit: Netflix

If you’ve been on Twitter since Christmas, you’ve definitely heard about Bridgerton. The show is the newest member of the Shondaland empire and is the company’s first production following Shonda Rhimes’ deal with Netflix. Bridgerton is notable because it’s set in the high society of 1813 England and, well, Black people are included in that society.

On the surface, Bridgerton seems like a pretty typical example of a type of nontraditional casting known as “colorblind” casting, where the race of an actor is not necessarily considered in auditions. Well-known examples of “colorblindness” on the stage and screen include Hamilton: An American Musical, Riverdale, and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella (the 1997 version with Brandy).

Each of these productions does “colorblindness” differently. For Hamilton, the only aspect of race considered is that all of the main characters — except for King George — are intended to be nonwhite. In Riverdale, characters that were white in the Archie comics — such as Veronica Lodge and two members of Josie and the Pussycats — are played by nonwhite actresses in the show. In the 1997 Cinderella, it seems as if race was fully ignored in the casting process.

People have expressed a myriad of problems with “colorblind” casting. Obviously, racists don’t like it because they’re racist, but we can ignore them. Historians worry that nontraditional casting leads to misunderstandings of history and papers over historical racism, while many nonwhite people note that it often feels contrived or forced, that it can be dangerous to ignore race, and that this style of casting often seems to absolve production companies of social responsibility in regards to race.

Personally, I like a good “colorblind” production — emphasis on “good.” In my opinion as both a history buff and a nonwhite cultural critic, it can be fun to see a period piece with Black people in corsets and French-style military uniforms, type 4 hair done up in fancy, intricate styles. It’s fun because the audience is able to forget, even if just for a moment, the way nonwhite and specifically Black people have been excluded from so much of society. To me, it’s a respite from the status quo of lily-white productions of classic or historical tales. “Colorblind” casting doesn’t imply that race and racism don’t exist; it’s merely a twist on what is typically done.

Image description: the main characters of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. From left to right, you have Cinderella (played by Brandy, a Black woman); Prince Christopher (Paolo Montalbán, who is Filipino); Queen Constantina (Whoopi Goldberg, a Black woman); and King Maximillian (Victor Garber, a white man). Image credit: Disney

In my opinion, Bridgerton does not do the whole “colorblind” thing well — at all. Here’s the thing: any type of nontraditional casting is pointless if it just reinscribes stereotypes. And the show in question unfortunately does just that.

In the world of Bridgerton, most dark-skinned actors portray side characters and/or servants. One exception (kind of — he only appears in episode two) is the late Duke of Hastings, Simon’s father, who is played by a dark-skinned actor; he is pictured on the right here. However, he is irredeemably ableist, cold-hearted, and downright mean; all in all, an undeniable antagonist. The other exception is that Lady Danbury, a protagonist, is portrayed by a darker-skinned actress. All of the other Black main characters — Simon, Queen Charlotte, Marina Thompson, and Madame Delacroix — are played by light-skinned actors.

That’s all to say that Bridgerton isn’t really “colorblind.” Sure, it ignores race in terms of historical accuracy, but it certainly doesn’t ignore color — that is, skin tone. When nontraditional casting only uplifts the more privileged in a marginalized group — in this case, Black people who are privileged under colorism — it only serves to reinforce ideas about who is acceptable in that group.

Bridgerton further undermines their “colorblind” world when they inexplicably decide to explain why the racial mores of the show are so different from what we know was historically the case. In summary, Black people have been included in the high society of 1813 London because King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, is a Black woman. Somehow, by marrying Charlotte, the king integrated England, made interracial marriage and procreation okay, and totally destroyed racism, all in one fell swoop. If you can’t tell by my tone, their “explanation” doesn’t make sense at all.

Image description: Queen Charlotte’s court in Bridgerton. Queen Charlotte herself (center) is played by a light-skinned Black woman, while two of the people standing behind her — who never get names — are dark-skinned Black women. The other two women are white. The two dark-skinned Black women and one of the white women hold Pomeranians. Image credit: Netflix

Does Netflix think their Black viewers are Boo Boo the Fool?

It’s been fifty-six years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 here in America and us niggas are still dealing with the same old shit. Does Shondaland really expect us to believe that in the fifty-two years between the marriage of George and Charlotte and the setting of the show, none of those hoity-toity crackers even blink twice at Black people thinking they’re equals? Attitudes do not change that quickly, and if you think otherwise…well, you’re probably white. (It should be noted that Chris Van Dusen, the creator and showrunner of Bridgerton, is a white man.)

If you’re gonna do nontraditional casting, you might as well go all out. It doesn’t have to make sense and it definitely doesn’t need to be explained — that’s kind of the point, tbh. If y’all ignored race in the casting process, then let your viewers (try to) ignore race while watching your show. We can bond over our collective thirst for Regé-Jean Page (Simon) without you bringing up racism, please and thank you.

“Cringeworthy” Is the Least of It: White Hamilton Fans Are Racist as F*ck

[Header Image description: the original Broadway cast of Hamilton: an American Musical getting ready to take their bow at the end of a performance. Source: Tampa Bay Times]

This piece contains a CW/TW for a discussions of racist violence, structural anti-Blackness, cyberbullying, and brief mentions of sexual assault (particularly against Black women).

Last Friday, the filmed performance of Hamilton: An American Musical was released on Disney+. Over the last week or so, criticisms of the musical’s historical inaccuracies, problematic casting, and its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda have resurfaced. Other critics focus on the fact that Hamilton and everything surrounding it is “cringe.” One thing that few people discuss, though, is how incredibly racist the musical’s white fans are. As a Black person and a former member of the “Hamilfandom,” I can’t let that go unmentioned.

I spent most of the summer of 2016 on Tumblr, where I had a relatively sizable platform for a seventeen-year-old: at my peak, I had well over two thousand followers. However, as is often the case for Black people online, plenty of followers bring plenty of vitriol — and in mid-2016, I was dealing with plenty of anti-Blackness from white fans of Hamilton.

As a teenager, I spent most of my time in online “fandoms,” or communities of superfans. At the time, Tumblr was the prime host for fandom culture. There are fandoms for anything you can think of, from BBC’s Sherlock to classic rock to manga. I was in many fandoms, including the one for Hamilton.

A major problem with fandom culture is that it’s incredibly and often violently racist. In “bandom” — the megafandom for pop punk bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy — I was threatened and even told to kill myself on more than one occasion for pointing out anti-Blackness from fans and the musicians we idolized. In late 2015, I left bandom specifically due to rampant anti-Blackness.

However, Hamilton was a whole different beast. As soon as I listened to the musical’s two-and-a-half hour long soundtrack in early 2016, I was hooked. I immediately followed Hamilton-themed blogs and started reblogging gifs of the musical. After a week or so, I thought to myself: “Wow, the Hamilton fandom is great! It’s not racist at all like bandom.” Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

The first racist thing I learned about was the slavery fanfictions.

[Image description: A screenshot of a Hamilton fanfiction entitled “A Slave (Thomas Jefferson x Reader).” The description is as follows: “You’re a slave, you’ve been a slave for almost your whole life, but only now life has started to get worse for you. Your owner has started to abuse you and beat you, yet one day a man in a magenta suit walked into your life and changed it. Can love be an option for a slave?” Above the description, the author notes that this fanfiction “might get deleted.” Source: Wattpad]

Yep, you read that right. If you don’t know, fanfictions are pieces of literary fiction written by fans for whatever piece of pop culture they’re fans of. Whatever there’s a fandom for, there’s fanfiction for. Fanfictions are often explicitly sexual — including these. White Hamilton fans were out here writing actual fanfictions about actual slavery. Like, literal, actual, forreal fanfictions about chattel slavery. Those are just what I found on the first couple pages of Google. On Archive of Our Own (AO3), a popular fanfiction host site, there are 71 fanfictions tagged as both Hamilton and slavery at the time of this writing. There’s far more on other websites like Wattpad, Tumblr, and I stopped searching for more after this because I almost started crying.

According to one Black former member of the fandom, white authors would create enslaved original characters for their fanfictions or even write “self-insert” second-person works where readers would interact with the fanfiction as if they were an enslaved person hooking up with their owner.

It should be common fucking sense not to write romanticized literature about slavery and the sexual abuse of enslaved people. But even if these white fans somehow didn’t realize that, they were informed of such by Black fans; however, more often than not, they defended the stories. While some of these fanfictions were taken down due to backlash, many are still online.

Another Black former fan said that they were “bullied out of” the Hamilton fandom in 2017 because they told other fans to stop romanticizing the sexually abusive relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They reported the following incident to me:

“I told them how sally hemmings was a child and Jefferson raped her so its not something to romanticize. 3 different people came at me talking about ‘its just a story’ ‘respect people’s ships’ ‘youre whats wrong in the fandom’ [sic].”

This fan received a death threat for daring to criticize the romanticization of sexual abuse.

Hamilton fans also wrote fanfictions about the cast members themselves in addition to ones about the historical figures they portrayed. Both heavily fetishized nonwhite cast members and the characters they played onstage. White authors played into many racist tropes, including: the “black brute/big scary Black man” when talking about Okieriete Onaodowan and his character Hercules Mulligan; the stereotype of Black men having oversized genitals with Chris Jackson and his character George Washington; and the general hyper-sexualization of Latinx cast members and the figures they portrayed. White fans would often call Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, “papi” in both fanfictions and conversations online.

There are even more problems with Hamilton fanfictions in addition to racism. As of October 2021, over five hundred works in the Hamilton fandom on AO3 were tagged with the warning rape/non-con. (“Non-con” is short for “non-consensual.”) Even more fanfictions do not put this warning because authors downplay the lack of consent and claim that their stories only portray “mild dub-con,” or “dubious consent.”

This meme sums up how I’m feeling. [Image description: screenshot of a Tumblr text post that reads “I just wanna say from the bottom of my heart yikes” overlaid on a picture of actor Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr. Source: Tumblr]

The fandom has a problem of denigrating Black fans’ perspectives on anti-Blackness. When Miranda — who is not Black — was recorded saying “nigga” in 2016, many fans jumped to defend him, even after Black fans expressed discomfort and explained why he shouldn’t say it. White fans assert their right to cosplay Hamilton characters even when Black fans explain why it’s problematic. (Miranda specifically intended for all of the musical’s major characters to be portrayed by people of color.) White fans also justify all-white productions of the musical and rationalize whitewashed fanart of Hamilton characters; there was even an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to calling out such fanart.

A Black fan had this to say about racism and anti-Blackness in Hamilton fanworks:

“art, fanfiction…and other types of transformative works included, do not exist in a vacuum. they’re part of the real world. a world where antiblackness, American history, glorification of the Founding Fathers, the downplaying of slavery, the erasure of historical black figures…are real things that hurt real people. [sic]”

source: Tumblr

When Black fans called out this bullshit, we — including and especially minors — were harassed and had our blogs reported en masse by white fans who were usually in their twenties and thirties. One Black former fan, who was in the fandom from ages twelve to thirteen, experienced microaggressions and said that they were “too scared to put [their] race out there” due to the fandom’s reputation for anti-Blackness.

[Image description: screenshot of a tweet that reads “who are your top 3 rappers? normal people: tupac, biggie, jayz. me: george washington, alexander hamilton, thomas jefferson” overlaid on a picture of Hamilton cast members onstage in costume. Source: Twitter]

Hamilton fans disparage rap and hip-hop culture, as seen in the meme above. Though this tweet was posted by a Black person, similar rhetoric is employed by white fans. They say “other rap music” is too violent and/or misogynistic for their tastes, but Hamilton is more palatable. After Black fans explained why this is racist, white fans got overly defensive.

They ignore or erase the roots of the musical styles in Hamilton, particularly that hip-hop was borne out of the struggles of Black people in the United States and that Miranda was specifically influenced by this music. The musical number “Ten Duel Commandments” is a play on The Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Ten Crack Commandments,” and there are many references to classic hip-hop and R&B songs throughout Hamilton.

One of my friends, a non-Black woman of color, reported that when Congressman Hakeem Jeffries said “if you don’t know, now you know” on the House floor earlier this year, she mentioned that it was a Biggie quote; however, a white person jumped in to note that “it’s also from Hamilton.” Miranda utilizes that line in the musical, but it is a clear reference to Biggie. My friend went on to say:

“the fact that there wasn’t really an appreciation of the fact that the lyrics in Hamilton [were] often borrowed from big hip hop influences felt…wrong to me. Lin[-Manuel Miranda] borrowed that lyric from Biggie and I guess the fandom not appreciating the influences shows that there’s not really an appreciation for the genre…it feels like they don’t wish to actually take time to learn about what the art consists of.”

In addition to these trends, there is a ton of general racism in the Hamilton fandom. In 2017, there was a now-notorious incident of race-faking in which a white American fan pretended to be Asian and defrauded dozens of people out of money. Fans mixed up Black members of the cast who look nothing alike. Fans would infantilize Phillipa Soo — the only Asian-American actor in the original main cast — and lighter-skinned male cast members such as Miranda and Anthony Ramos and the characters they played. At the same time, they hypersexualized Black women and darker-skinned members of the cast — such as Jasmine Cephas Jones and Daveed Diggs — and their characters.

One white fan showed their ass by saying this:

“if you had told me last April that in a year’s time I would be finding a thirty six year old Puerto Rican with a beard [Miranda] adorable and a black rapper with an afro [Diggs] attractive, I would have never believed it”

Source: Tumblr

Racism was so prevalent and accepted that Black fans made a bingo card for it.

The “white hamilton fandom bingo.” The tiles are actual trends and incidents in the Hamilton fandom, including tone-policing of Black fans, sexual fetishism, and cyberbullying attacks on Black minors. Source: Tumblr

The thing is, this stuff isn’t just “crazy fans”; this racism is buttressed by the fact that the musical makes idols out of the founding fathers, who in addition to being racists, were slaveowners/slave traders (yes, including Alexander Hamilton himself) and rapists. This romanticization is not “just a musical” and therefore inconsequential; it allows for (white) fans to do the same not just in the fandom, but in the world. The musical allowed white people to fall in love with and literally stan the founding fathers — no different from what happens in your typical revisionist high school U.S. history classroom. Daveed Diggs, who originated the role of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, had this to say on Charlie Rose in 2016:

“When we meet Jefferson, his house is being prepped by all of his slaves. People don’t talk about that at all…the audience still falls in love with [Jefferson]. And that’s very telling.” [emphasis not mine]

Daveed Diggs (Source: Charlie Rose)

A Black former fan reported that they were told the following by a white fan:

“they [enslaved people] were LUCKY TO BE SLAVES OF SUCH GREAT PEOPLE [the founding fathers].” [emphasis not mine]

Because the musical casts nonwhite people as fundamental figures in American history, white fans have convinced themselves that they can’t be racist because they’re fans of a piece of art made by people of color. However, as we very well know, being in relationship with nonwhite people — or being a fan of a nonwhite celebrity, or thirsting over nonwhite people — does not automatically make a white person antiracist.

[Image description: screenshot of a Tumblr text post that reads “me: *is bitter but also right* overlaid on a picture of the Hamilton cast onstage. Source: Tumblr]

I actively used Tumblr from eighth grade through my first year of college; it was then, in 2017, that I left Tumblr, the Hamilton fandom, and fandom culture (mostly) for good. Tumblr and fandom life saw me through my most developmental years. The Hamilton fandom was, no cap, the most racist space I have ever been in. (I went to a private school in the South that didn’t fully integrate until 1976 and I now attend a university that only exists today because of a massive slave sale, so that’s saying something.)

This isn’t just fandom drama. This isn’t just kids being mean or cringeworthy. This is real, violent racism that many people, including and especially children, are forced to deal with mostly on their own. In case you don’t know what it does to Black kids to spend their formative years surrounded by unchecked racism, I’ll tell you: it causes deep-seated insecurity, self-doubt, and self-hatred, just to name a few harmful things. It’s not that I don’t want kids to be in fandoms anymore; I don’t want their niche interests and friends ripped away from them. What I do want is for fandoms to stop deluding themselves about their racial progressivism and undertake and employ antiracist principles.

When people bring up questionable or problematic aspects of fandom life, the prevailing response is “well, fandoms are bad anyway.” While there’s definitely a lot that needs to be unpacked about fandoms and wider stan culture, the response to “I am experiencing violent racism” is never “well, just stop interacting with those people! Boom, racism solved.”

So long as there are nerdy kids, there will be fandoms. So long as people are made fun of for their niche interests, there will be fandoms. It doesn’t matter what you think about the legitimacy of fandom life; the fact of the matter is that Black kids are literally being threatened and told to commit suicide simply because they are Black and demanding respect. Are you telling those kids that you don’t care that they’re facing violence because you think the thing they spend all their time on is foolish?

Racism anywhere is a symptom of the fact that racism is literally everywhere; we can’t just ignore it in fandoms because we think they’re frivolous. Telling an individual to leave a racist institution will not make that institution or racism itself crumble. It takes a lot of work to tear down racist structures, and if we want an anti-racist society, we’re all going to have to put in that work.

There are many, many things wrong with Hamilton: An American Musical that have been discussed already. However, we can’t ignore the fact that one of those problems is the fact that thousands of white fans are utilizing the musical as yet another excuse to go out into the world and be racist. We can’t critique Hamilton without also talking about the fact that its fans are not simply cringeworthy, but actively and violently racist. I hope we can finally have that conversation.

6 Movies to Watch for the Race War (and What Not to Watch, Too)

Header image description: A large, off-white banner held aloft on a city street, which reads “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in all-caps, black bold text.

So, the race war is finally poppin off. In moments like this, people turn to pop culture to understand what’s going on. Twitter has noted that The Help is trending on Netflix in the US. This is disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising. White people love feel-good movies about race; however, the point of this moment isn’t to feel good. The ultimate goal is a revolution of not only the massive, overarching structures that impact our lives, but a revolution of how we treat each other.

I’d like to emphasize that all Black lives matter, especially Black women, Black queer and trans people, fat Black people, disabled, mentally ill, and chronically ill Black people, Black immigrants, Black indigenous people, and Black Latinx folks. People who fall into one or more of these groups – including myself – are oppressed not only as a result of our Blackness but as a result of other identities. We are left out of dialogues about Blackness, womanhood, queerness, transness, body positivity, disability, mental health, illness, immigration, indigeneity, and Latinidad.

I would like to remind the rest of y’all – cishet Black men, non-Black women, White Gays™ (and white lesbians and trans folks), non-Black body positivity influencers, white disabled people, non-Black immigrants, non-Black indigenous and Latinx folks, and everyone else – that none of y’all would have the rights you have today without the Black people in your demographics, and none of y’all will ever be free unless you fight with us for our liberation, too. Abolition means killing the cop in your head and in your heart – that requires challenging and unlearning the anti-Blackness in yourself (and in your family, friend group, and wherever you notice it).

Below is a list of movies that can help you make sense of anti-Black racism and many of the ways it manifests, both overtly and covertly. Not every movie about race is gonna help you understand why Black people are so damn frustrated, so I’ve made a list of movies that won’t help you understand this critical moment. I’ve also included some movies to watch with caution – meaning they aren’t terrible for right now, but you should probably do some extra research around their topics.

I’ve listed where you can watch these films online, but check if your local library has Overdrive or your school/institution gives you access to Kanopy – you can likely find them for free there as well!

Films You Should Definitely Watch

Screengrab from Do the Right Thing shows characters Mookie, Sal, Vito, and Pino standing outside of Sal’s Pizzeria at night.
  1. Do the Right Thing (rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)

This Spike Lee classic demonstrates that just because you work with Black people or have Black friends doesn’t mean you can’t commit anti-Black violence. The film artfully shows how tensions boil over in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood in the late 80s on the hottest day of the year. In a time where Black people’s frustrations are leading to actions some people call “counterintuitive” or “violent”, this film makes it easy to see how seemingly small acts of antagonism come to a head.

Screengrab from The Watermelon Woman shows Diana and Cheryl standing in a video store, surrounded by racks of magazines and VHS tapes.
  1. The Watermelon Woman (free on Criterion Channel, or free with Amazon Prime)

This film by Cheryl Dunye follows a budding Black lesbian filmmaker in the 90s who is trying to track down information about “The Watermelon Woman”, an early Black film actress. It tackles sexual fetishism of Black people, Black queer (specifically, lesbian) erasure, and stereotypes of Black people in American film. Like Do the Right Thing, it shows that being in relationship with Black people – yes, even sexual or romantic relationships – does not automatically make one anti-racist.

Screengrab from Get Out shows main character Chris in the foreground, with a line of well-dressed white people in the background.
  1. Get Out (rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is about a Black man who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be super racist; it’s how they go about their racism is the surprise. This film shows how professed liberals (the girlfriend’s dad says he “would’ve voted for Obama a third term” if he could) can still have a visceral, deep-seated hatred of Black people and Blackness. This film also shows how non-Black people of color maintain anti-Blackness: an Asian man is shown participating in what viewers later realize is a modern-day slave auction.

Screengrab from Fruitvale Station shows a line of young Black men, including Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, sitting on the ground of a train station with two police officers standing over them.
  1. Fruitvale Station (free on Tubi, or rent/buy on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube)

Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the true story of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed Black man killed by police on January 1, 2009 in the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The film, starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant, follows him going about the Bay Area on the last day of his life and how a series of happenstances led to his brutal killing (though of course, all blame lies with the cops who participated, as well as the inherent anti-Black racism of policing).

A monochrome headshot of James Baldwin against a solid lime-green background.
  1. I Am Not Your Negro (free with Amazon Prime)

This documentary is a filmographic take on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript tentatively titled “Remember This House”. Inspired by letters and notes from the author’s life in the mid-70s and featuring archival video material, it connects the Civil Rights Movement to issues Black people face in America today. It reminds us that no matter how far we’ve come in the last fifty years, we still have a lot of work left to do.

Screengrab from The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 shows Angela Davis, wearing a red-orange turtleneck and sporting an afro, being interviewed by a white man, who is facing away from the camera.
  1. The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975 (free to everyone on Amazon Prime Video)

This documentary, shot by Swedish journalists, shows the timeline of the Black Power movement in America over the titular years. It contains footage of many significant figures in the fight for racial justice, such as Angela Davis, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Huey P. Newton, Dr. Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, and others. The film tackles issues relevant to these people and their respective groups, including the Vietnam War, COINTELPRO, and the burgeoning War on Drugs.

Films You Shouldn’t Watch (at least, not for any helpful information)

Screengrab from The Help shows two white socialite women walking, being trailed by their Black domestic worker, wearing a maid’s uniform and looking overworked.

The Help

Do I even need to explain why you shouldn’t watch a period drama about subservient Black people to understand why Black people today are fed all the way up? The “mammy” archetype of Black women who are loyal caretakers/domestic servants to white families has gone on far too long. If you want to learn more about the mammy archetype and see pictures of actual women who were in this position, check out Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders exhibit Framing Shadows.

Promotional picture from The Blind Side shows a young Michael Oher (portrayed by Quinton Aaron) next to his adoptive white mother (portrayed by Sandra Bullock), sitting on the stands of a football field.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side, which fictionalizes the story of professional football player Michael Oher, is the epitome of the “white savior” trope. It tells the story of his childhood in poverty and subsequent adoption by a well-to-do southern white family. This trope consists of poor Black people with no agency to help themselves who are rescued from their misfortune by nice white people. We don’t need white people to save us, y’all; we can liberate ourselves.

Screengrab from Green Book shows Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) sitting across a picnic table from his white chauffeur (played by Viggo Mortensen).

Green Book

Here we go with another white savior film. The title is inspired by the Negro Motorist Green Book, a historical guidebook for Black travellers that listed hotels, restaurants, and other establishments across the country that wouldn’t refuse them service on the basis of their Blackness. In this movie, Don Shirley, a Black musician, takes his copy of the Green Book and his white chauffeur on a tour of the Deep South and Midwest. The film portrays Shirley and the chauffeur as close friends and confidantes. The film was notably objected to by the real-life Don Shirley’s family, saying that it misrepresented and made overly sanguine the relationship between Shirley and his chauffeur.

Screengrab from BlacKkKlansman shows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) looking over at his white detective partner (Adam Driver), who is looking at a small card with KKK imagery.


This Spike Lee film dramatizes the story of Ron Stallworth, the first Black detective in a small Colorado town in the 70s. Stallworth attempts to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the KKK along with one of his white coworkers. This movie is straight-up copaganda – media that tries to make us feel sympathy for or kinship with police officers and tells us that ultimately, they’re trying to do good and keep society safe. I’d like to reiterate that policing, police departments, and individual officers are inherently anti-Black, and that all cops – even the Black ones – are bad.

Screengrab from Harriet shows Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, peeking out from behind a tree.


Y’all really can’t let Ms. Tubman rest in peace, can you? I don’t care whether or not this movie was good – the fact that Cynthia Erivo, who not only is not a descendant of slaves, but also has a history of mocking Black Americans, plays the legendary Harriet Tubman is reason enough not to watch it. 

Films You Should Watch with Caution

Screengrab from The Hate U Give, showing Starr (Amandla Stenberg), looking fearful, with her hands in the air and facing outward.

The Hate U Give (rent/buy on YouTube)

This movie is based on a YA novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, which was pretty good for being the first major YA book about police brutality, but wasn’t amazing overall. Its conversation around respectability politics needs a bit more nuance, and it has copaganda (the protagonist’s uncle is a cop, though he is critiqued). However, the movie falls into typical Hollywood colorism in their casting of Amandla Stenberg (above) as the protagonist Starr, when the original book cover depicts Starr as an dark-skinned Black girl with a ‘fro. I think it serves as an entry point for young people into the conversation about police brutality and anti-Blackness, but it needs to be paired with further conversations and readings about how these systems of oppression play out in real life.

Promotional graphic for 13th shows modern prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits in the foreground laid over a photo of prisoners wearing striped uniforms from the early twentieth century.

13th (available on Netflix)

Ava Duvernay’s documentary explains how mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex came to be as a result of a loophole in the 13th amendment to the US constitution – the amendment that abolished slavery. Featuring interviews with Angela Davis and Bryan Stevenson, it challenges us to think about why we consider such egregious restrictions in freedom to be a normal part of our society. Unfortunately, the film does not take an abolitionist stance; however, I think it’s important to understand the history that led to such violations of human rights being legal.

Violent Delights Have Violent Ends

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

Racism and racial tension are the undeniable issues at hand in Spike Lee’s seminal feature Do the Right Thing, which culminates in a race riot between Black residents of a Bed-Stuy block and a white business owner in the area. Much has been written on the more blatant displays of these themes, such as police brutality against residents of the block or hostility between non-Black business owners and their Black customers. But what about more subtle interactions which heighten racial tension and eventually lead to the film’s violent climax? A flirtatious exchange between Sal, the Italian-American owner of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and Jade, a young Black woman and sister to the only Black employee of Sal’s, is one such subtle example.

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

As a rich jewel in Ethiope’s ear.

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 5

The Bed-Stuy block which serves as the setting for Do the Right Thing is a veritable hurricane of activity. A cast of characters with larger-than-life personalities, funny names, and signature habits lend the neighbourhood its rich, if eccentric, personality. Jade – sister and sometimes sidekick to protagonist Mookie – is the tranquil eye of this storm. It seems easy to overlook her stability; after all, she is one of few “normal” people in the film. However, Jade’s apparently straightforward character does not make her flat – in fact, it makes her a force in and of herself.

Jade seems to serve as a foil to her older brother; she rarely and briefly takes center stage. One such instance is when she pays a visit to Sal’s: Mookie’s place of employment and the only white-owned business viewers see on the Black residential block. She dresses for the oppressive heat of the day, wearing a pink wide-brimmed hat and a brightly colored sundress. When she enters, it seems as though (almost) the entire establishment breathes a little easier – especially Sal, the restaurant’s white, middle-aged owner.

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate

And in my temper softened valor’s steel.

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 1

Sal is more than a little hotheaded. He harasses Radio Raheem about his omnipresent boombox and gets into it with Buggin’ Out over the restaurant’s all-white “Wall of Fame”. He keeps a baseball bat behind the counter, yells at his sons-slash-employees to complete tasks, and speaks sternly to Mookie about slacking off on the clock.

When Jade enters, Sal’s rough exterior immediately softens. In the screenplay, it says that “a very noticeable change comes over him”. He stands up straight, his voice gets quiet and calm, and he speaks graciously of Mookie as an employee. Sal, who up until this point remained unfazed in the face of the block’s oddities, cannot seem to hide his infatuation – and the entire shop notices.

As Sal talks to Jade (“I’m gonna make you somethin’ special, somethin’ very special”), Mookie and coworker Pino share an exasperated side-eye; it seems that this flirtation is a pattern. Pino, Sal’s violently racist son, has been at odds with Mookie (and every Black character) throughout the film. Here, though, they are united: this little romance violates not only moral, but racial boundaries; it cannot and will not happen.

We eventually see Sal sitting in a booth with Jade, where he compliments her on her eyes. (From the screenplay: “Vito, Pino, and Mookie look on, watching Sal have the time of his life.”) After a while, Mookie grabs Jade and all but drags her outside and around the corner, where he tells his sister that he doesn’t want her in Sal’s anymore. She insists that her interactions with Sal are “completely innocent”, and Mookie responds with “All Sal wants to do is hide the salami.” Much like a Shakespearean play, desire is a point of contention and an exacerbation of existing tension that leads to the climax. In Do the Right Thing, all interactions are racialized; it is only natural that desire is racialized as well.

O me, what fray was here?…Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 1

White people love to claim that their romantic/sexual desire for or relationship(s) with nonwhite people makes them progressive and anti-racist; however, Sal’s thirst for Jade is an exemplary refutation of this claim. Sal still calls Black people “nigga”, antagonizes Black customers, allows his son to be violently anti-Black, and is friendly with the white cops who aggravate the block’s tensions. Sal, despite being mostly genial, is still unquestionably a racist white man.

Every interaction in the film is portrayed as a splash of gasoline on the neighbourhood’s unrest and therefore as another reason for the eventual race riot. At first glance, the interaction between Sal and Jade seems like a random, relaxed interlude in an otherwise uneasy atmosphere. Upon further study, it becomes clear that this scene is much like the others: a compounding factor in the racialized disquiet of the block.

In media about racial tension, interracial desire is often utilized as a catalyst for racial violence. How is the exchange between Sal and Jade any different? Their flirtation may not have caused the riot that left Radio Raheem dead and Sal’s Famous Pizzeria a burned-out husk, but it certainly did not help the existing tension that manifested itself as uneasiness at best and outright hostility and physical violence at worst. The dalliance between Sal and Jade was a minor scuffle, yes; but it was still part of the larger war.