Even in situations where identity expertise might be real and relevant, it doesn’t justify having only Black writers on projects with Black protagonists, any more than it would justify having only white writers when the main characters are white. So long as you’ve got a good ear and a supple imagination, the rule is: What you don’t know, you can work up. We don’t want an approach in which writers and characters must match up, one to one, in their racial or ethnic identities. That way lies a system in which Shonda Rhimes doesn’t get to write a series centered on the white surgeon Meredith Grey; in which George Eliot (being neither male nor Jewish) doesn’t get to tell the story of Daniel Deronda. Pretty soon, all storytelling would be confined to autofiction.
Clearly, that’s not the world where you work or a world where you’d want to work. The projects you’d be considering surely involve the exercise of imagination. And then, because television series are typically crafted in writers’ rooms, characters and story lines can be a product of dialogue among people of lots of different identities. Rather like life, no?
I reside on a predominantly white street in Richmond, Va. Recently, a neighbor whom I do not know personally started to fly a Confederate flag from his porch. This comes during a time of public reckoning and removal of the city’s iconic Confederate statues, and its arrival on our street was met with immediate outrage by my family and our neighbors.
My initial reaction was to let this obviously angry, bigoted man fly his flag and to stay away, lest he come after me and my young family. But my husband argued that we cannot sit idly by in the face of overt racism. He pointed out that our son’s best friend, who is Black, comes over for regular play dates, and he should not be subjected to this. He voiced concerns that our silence conveys implicit agreement with racism. I am persuaded, but now I am not sure what our obligation is.
My husband did walk over to ask this man what his intention was in flying the flag. He became irate and said, “Because I have a right to!”
Do we, the other 20-plus neighbors, sign a petition or put a sign in his yard or in some other way call attention to his racist flag to let it be known that he is not supported? How do we lead by example — but not fan the fires of hate — and teach our children not to sit idly by? Name Withheld
“Because I have a right to” isn’t a reason for doing something; rights are worth having because they enable us to do things we have other reasons to do. If Johnny Reb has the right to fly the flag — which is, let’s be clear, an inherently expressive act — you also have the right to plant a large sign on your lawn saying “I Think My Neighbor’s Flag is Racist.” What we have a right to do and what it makes sense to do are different things. The difficulty is that he’s already on the defensive. He doubtless knows that people view him as a racist, and whether or not he accepts that attribution, conversation on this topic isn’t likely to get very far or go very well. Still, you could try asking people who do know him to talk to him. They could ask him what message he meant to send, and then point out that, unless he intended to convey approval of a long history of racism, his message isn’t getting through. I’m doubtful this will produce a reasoned response, but you don’t know until you try.
If his flag stays up, you should exercise your rights, too, to ensure that his flag doesn’t set the tone for the neighborhood. Why don’t you and your other neighbors identify a sign or symbol of your antiracist commitments and display it on your porches or lawns? Make sure it’s something whose meaning is clear. That way, he won’t have to walk over to ask you why you did it.