I just finished watching the latest episode of Freeform’s Switched at Birth, and I have to say, I’m disappointed.
Switched at Birth is definitely doing a lot of amazing things. I love that it gives viewers complex protagonist roles and major screen time to female characters, Latinx characters, and characters with disabilities. I love that it does its best to address serious social issues like rape culture and provokes healthy dialogue about social issues.
But I’ve grown so tired of mainstream entertainment refusing to treat people of color as people. I expected better from Freeform (previously ABC Family), the network that is home to The Fosters, which gives interesting and complex protagonist roles to women of color and gay, lesbian, and transgender characters.
Did Black characters only matter when the show wanted to address racism?
Switched at Birth‘s latest storyline has to do with racism on UMKC’s campus, the university attended by Daphne, one of the show’s main characters. I love that this is something the show is trying to depict different perspectives on and address respectfully.
But one thing kept nagging at me while I watched the story unfold.
The Black characters who are (rightfully so) at the forefront during this storyline were not really prominent characters during the show until now. They made brief appearances here and there, but that was about it.
I have to wonder: where were they before? Did they only matter when the show wanted to address racism?
Honestly, what were their defining characteristics before this racially-fueled storyline came into play? I couldn’t tell you, and I don’t think many other viewers could, either.
Although this is the show’s last season, I have to wonder – if another season was in the works, would these characters have been tossed to the side after this particular plot came to an end?
I genuinely and sincerely love that Switched at Birth exists; I have actually learned a lot from the show about the deaf experience and deaf community. Stories like the ones that Switched at Birth tells deserve to be told and need to be heard. For the same reason, I love that Moonlight won Best Picture.
But why is it that in order to receive recognition from white people, movies about POC need to be about oppression? How often does a movie with a Black cast win an Oscar when it isn’t about oppression?
Why is it that every “token” Black or brown character on a TV show or in a movie is defined by their ethnic or religious background in a way that a majority of their white counterparts are not?
Why is it that people of color have to have stories directly related to their race or religion in order to be deemed worthy or interesting, whereas white characters are interesting and relatable by virtue of their very existence?
How often does a movie with a Black cast win an Oscar when it isn’t about oppression?
Do writers and directors not see the millions of examples around them of people of color who are living lives exactly like them? We are literally right here and all around you, all you have to do is look.
I honestly feel that any white protagonist could easily be cast as a person of color and the story does not necessarily have to change. This is especially true of stories that take place in America, where so many people of color were either born here or have been living here for generations, making their “background” somewhat irrelevant.
Aziz Ansari nailed it in an episode of Master of None. Another character says to Aziz, “If I do a show with two Indian guys on the poster, everyone’s gonna think it’s an Indian show.”
For Indian people only. Because Indian people are apparently only relatable to other Indian people.
What’s being said here is that a show with two or more white people is just a “regular” show, because supposedly everyone can relate to the universal experience of white people.
Notice that the words being used are “Indian” in reference to people who look like Aziz and “white” in reference to white people. No thought is put into what ethnicity white people are when they are chosen to fill the protagonist roles in television or film. Casting people of specifically British descent or French ancestry doesn’t make a show too British or too French to be relatable to anyone that isn’t British or French.
In other words, whiteness is the default. Anything else is a problem.
But that needs to change.
As a person of color, a Muslim, and a woman, as well as an avid reader and lover of film and television, I have spent my whole life relating to characters that looked nothing like me and connecting to the humanity within them.
It’s about damn time non-minorities were asked to do the same, and it’s time writers and directors learned to do it right.
We don’t have to erase everything about a person of color that makes them who they are, but we do need to stop using them solely as representations of their race or faith.
There is so much more to all of us than that, and right now, it seems like only white people are allotted the privilege of being seen in that wholesome way.
Do some shows and movies do diversity right? Sure.
But I look forward to when those particular shows and movies are the norm instead of the exception.