"NBC’s ‘Deception,’ And Why Colorblindness Is Not Progressive"
Going into the Television Critics Association press tour, one of the shows I was most excited to see shake out was a procedural called Deception, about an African-American police officer, played by Meagan Good, who returns to the white, wealthy family she grew up with because her mother worked for them as a housekeeper to investigate the murder of her childhood best friend. It wasn’t that the show was revolutionary, in fact the reverse: it’s a mashup of ABC soaps like Revenge and Scandal, with a hint of Damages, thanks to the presence of Tate Donovan as the murder victim’s older brother.
But the show operated at the intersection of race and class at a way I thought was fascinating and promising. Good’s Detective Joanna Locasto, only the second woman of color to be the main character on a currently-airing television show, was returning to a setting where she’d grown up on the wrong side of the class divide, not with more money, but with the power of the state on her side. And she and her boss, Will Moreno (Laz Alonso) were in a position that strikes me as almost unprecedented in popular culture: as people of color with substantive power, and particularly police power, who were tasked with investigating and—and personally judging—a decadent and corrupted white family, and with whom the audience is intended to sympathize with absolutely.
That’s an extraordinarily rich scenario, particularly for a network television show. And it’s one that came about in part, as NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke explained in NBC’s executive session yesterday morning, “That was a family that was conceived and cast began to be cast as a white family. And we insisted that there be a diverse woman in that role.” I was excited to discuss that scenario and all of its potential with Deception‘s co-creators Gail Berman and Liz Heldens. And so it was disconcerting to see them retreat from the idea that they’d discuss race at all, and to do it as quickly as possible.
“It is a way to sort of deal with race without actually having to talk about it,” Heldens said when I asked her about their plans for dealing with the intersection of race and class issues. “But it’s not really something we talk about too much in the writers’ room.” When Hitfix critic Daniel Fienberg pushed her on it further, citing her experience working on Friday Night Lights, a show that was both diverse and explicitly conscious of racial issues, she retreated even further. “Why it’s not a discussion? I don’t know,” she told him. “I just think it’s sort of there, and, you know, whenever you’re writing a script, you’re always trying to get your page count down so they can shoot it.”
Gail Berman, when another critic asked her about the implications of giving Joanna’s mother a background in domestic work, gave an answer that minimized the way race and class work together in that field. “Meagan’s character, the character of Joanna, was completely accepted into this family and became the best friend of Vivian,” she argued. “So those traditional lines of upstairs/downstairs were crossed when that friendship was made.” It’s a wouldn’t-it-be-pretty-to-think-so scenario. But it’s also one that leaves an enormous amount of history—and potential for rich drama and character development—on the table. It’s difficult for me to believe that an exceedingly WASPY family, scions of extreme wealth, would accept the social integration of their African-American housekeeper’s daughter into the family as not just the best friend of their daughter, but as one of their son’s lovers, in a way that was totally uninfluenced by class or race. That is not to say that the characters need to be irredeemably virulent racists. But it seems naive and boring to insist that such friction wouldn’t exist.
And it’s that space in between utter colorblindness and cancerous racism that Hollywood—not to mention other sectors of society—seems to have so much trouble with. Most of us aren’t saints who are wholly untainted by racism or Klan members. Instead, we grow up with ingrained and historically determined conceptions about race that influence our behavior, we learn that those ideas are social constructions rather than immutable truths, and we grapple with those realizations. Many people of color in this country are fortunate enough not to be subject to violent hate crimes, but not fortunate enough to be free of more subtle and pernicious racism. And if you’re white, as I am, your life is affected by your race, too, but in ways that have been treated as if they’re natural and unremarkable. All of this seems rather unsurprising to me, and very definitely interesting. But so often in Hollywood, it is dangerous territory.
It’s a good thing that white writers have become conscious of the idea that it’s bad to speak on behalf of people of color in a way such that people of color’s perspectives are treated as unnecessary. But to become afraid to speak about race at all is to minimize the importance of race’s substantive influence on our lives. If Deception‘s creators think being nuanced about race would crowd out other issues they said they want to explore like family, they haven’t thought hard enough about the ways that differing attitudes about race can divide white families even today. And if they don’t want to consider how growing up as a black woman in the family of her mother’s white employer affected Joanna, they are missing out on opportunities to give her specific insight and strengths. Addressing racial difference, in other words, can be a way to unearth narratively interesting pain. But being willing to see racial difference can also mean coming into contact with new ideas, perspectives, and cultural and historical traditions that make a show and a character–or a life–fuller and more unique.
Not all stories are only about race. But none of our lives are untouched by our racial identities. Colorblindness is a form of privilege, of refusing to connect with people by hearing about their experiences, and of refusing to benefit by understanding the role race plays in your own. And in terms of enriching the stories you tell, it’s also a tactic that may keep you safe from causing offense, but at the cost of embracing a drab and narrow spectrum for your characters to live in. Deception is a richer show than it might have been simply for Good’s presence there. But if Berman and Heldens continue to treat race as a simple coincidence and an uncomfortable subject, it won’t be nearly the show it has the potential to be.