What Majority-White Shows Could Learn About Writing Minority Characters From Issa Rae

In a long interview with Vulture, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl creator Issa Rae talks about everything from her big-television show I Hate LA Dudes (which sounds like it didn’t get an ABC pickup since they’re shopping it to cable) to her love for Tina Fey. But I was struck by how she talked about White Jay, the love interest for the character she plays on Awkward Black Girl, and who, as it turns out, was the product of a similar process that produces characters of color on majority-white network television show. She explained:

It’s really kind of superficial. The first season, we were growing in popularity, but my producer at the time was saying in order to reach a bigger audience, and to reach white people specifically, you have to put a white person in the show. I was like, “Oh my God, that makes so much sense.” So we chose this character Jay. He was only supposed to be a one-off character. But once we premiered his episode, the audience went crazy in the [YouTube] comments section. I don’t want to bang anyone over the head with the same interracial tropes you’ve seen in the past. It just seemed like a fun story line. His name was initially “Jay,” and the commenters named him White Jay. So we stuck with that.

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the assumption that colorblindness—which in pop culture, frequently functions as casting an actor of color and then refusing to think about how that character’s race might have affected their life experiences, perspectives, or even cultural touchstones and tastes—is progressive, arguing both that erasure of racial experience and perspective is a sin in and of itself, and that it often flattens characters, denying them detail and depth. The flip side of colorblindness, of course, is obnoxious and counterproductive, casting a character of color to provide nothing other than a familiar and reductive dose of blackness, or Asianness, or Latinoness, as if diversity is the equivalent of Tarragon.

What Rae is describing is the intention that can help guide cultural products through a default to colorblindness on one hand, and reductive stereotyping on the other. The assumption that you need to add characters of color to a majority-white show, or a white character to a show that’s mostly about characters of color is an irritating underestimation of audiences, a reflection of the fact that in a lot of directions, pop culture is bad at teaching people to be interested in characters who aren’t like them. But if a showrunner gets handed that directive, it would be awfully nice if their instinct was to create something distinct, rather than to respond to a demand driven by lowest-common-denominator concerns with either a stereotype or a cardboard cutout. That alone isn’t enough to make a character work—you’ve got to actually do your homework for that—but it’s a reaction that really ought to be natural.