In 1983, Rockit by Herbie Hancock was a huge hit. MTV was just coming into its own and Herbie Hancock planned to make a video with Black performers only. That was unacceptable to the network, so he said fuck it and used no actors at all, creating a weird, possibly nightmarish, iconic video of ugly, creepy looking white mannequins and robotic body parts where the only human is Mr. Hancock himself, on the television in the background.
Apocryphal? perhaps. But it’s true enough. That is, if it’s not literally true, it tells a truth about the time period. When this song hit the charts, Michael Jackson was the only Black person being played on MTV. Viewers were predominantly White and White people didn’t like being left out. Perhaps your music could be culturally authentic, but its representation better make White folks comfortable. We White people had been groomed to be eggshell-sensitive. I remember a White neighbor complaining, “There are Black people on American Bandstand, but there are no White people on Soul Train! It’s racist!” We had never been taught to empathize with Black characters in books or Black perspectives anywhere. My school was predominantly Black in 1983, but the books we read in English class were The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Sun Also Rises, The Scarlet Letter, Animal Farm. The only Black artistic representation I remember was Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem We Real Cool, which is fine as one of many context, but when it’s the only literature you see about Black people, it’s thematically a pretty terrible choice. In high school there was Madame Bovary, The Odyssey, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice. The only woman we read was born more than 200 years earlier. The closest we got to a Black perspective was Faulkner’s Light in August, and that’s not even in the same county. Should it surprise anyone that White men, in particular, had difficulty sympathizing and identifying with people of other genders, races, or cultures? Even if there was a protagonist of another identity, it was almost always manufactured by a White man. And White men, of course, used to make all the decisions about what made it onto our TV screens.
You may question me putting that last paragraph in the past tense, but representation has improved, and as racist as things are today, it’s hard for this child of the 70s and 80s not to get excited about being allowed into the lives of Black characters unmediated by White writers and directors. And more recently, uncluttered with White Good Guys.
I’m pleased to watch Black television shows with no Good White People. I admit that when I was younger, I looked really hard for that representative Good White Person. I needed that confirmation that Black people didn’t think as badly of White people as I did; that we weren’t all terrible; that we could maybe be friends. Of course I still want that in life, but now I really appreciate it when White people are nonentities in Black shows. I love the apparent absence of serious pressure to showcase a Good White Person, and no compulsion by Black creators to add them. Insecure had one Good White Person in the early seasons, Issa’s coworker at the White nonprofit serving Black & Brown children, but she is left behind along with the job as Issa’s maturity, self-confidence, and investment in her community urges her onward.
Atlanta has never had a Good White Person. White people are either retail workers or people in positions of power: sometimes neutral, often casually racist. This is so much the case that in episode 6 of the current season, when Darius has lunch with a White woman, I started to worry. Despite their apparent rapport, I thought “this won’t end well.” It didn’t. Because White people are the worst.
Donald Glover is pulling no punches this season. Atlanta is no longer being subtle about racism. Stylish, creative, analytical, but not subtle. Season 3 centers racism whereas earlier seasons let it perpetually hum in the background, like the weather – always there, but only stealing focus when it ruins your day. The four protagonists are currently traveling in Europe, a much Whiter world than their Atlanta, and a milieu which allows for the exploration of the anti-Black racism that may emerge in any White spaces (and other spaces, too). Donald Glover doesn’t abandon US-specific racism, with 2 episodes digging into cultural hegemony in education and childcare, the historical pattern of destroying successful Black communities, and the still-fantastical notion of Reparations with shocking frankness and never without humor, even in the darkest scenarios (there is simply too much to love about Donald Glover; it overfloweth).
I’ve read and thought a lot about racism, but the practice itself keeps evolving … devolving … it adjusts to the times and it can be hard to keep up with the current manifestations. I’m not saying racism is all the same under a new name. But if the US doesn’t practice the explicit segregation, lynching, and state-sanctioned racism of the past, many of the tangential beliefs and practices are still active. Housing is a good example: first, enslaved people weren’t allowed to own property (because they themselves were considered “property”); then Black folk were only allowed to own certain properties in certain areas; then they were “allowed” to own properties anywhere, but charged higher prices or denied loans; then their properties were devalued so that their investment produced little benefit. Now (and since Emancipation), explicit racist policies in the past have led to an appalling wealth disparity (~10:1) in the present that leaves most Black Americans out of the housing market today.
Use is as you watch Atlanta! Use it as you watch the news! Use it to check yourself as you go through your day! Use it to educate self-appointed colorblind White people! And if you have additions, please add them in the comments below. It could easily be a 7&7 Bingo board or larger, depending on the level of detail. Many can be nested as subsets of others. The “Exceptional Negro” trope could be a subset of low expectations, cultural hegemony, institutional racism, ideological racism, etc.
I do believe it’s a sign of progress that this show is still getting as much attention as it is, but the cynic in me wonders if that would be true if there weren’t so many Black critics. We’ll see if White people keep watching it. It does appear that the viewership is lower than in previous seasons, but rankings only count live or DVR viewings, it doesn’t include people like us who watch on Hulu. I’m not worried about the show being dropped: it’s been renewed for a fourth and final season. But I really want White people to watch this show, even though it does not say nice things about White people. You can do it, White folks. You are strong. I have faith in you. To my knowledge Atlanta is the most trenchant critique of modern racism ever to come out of a comedy show, and race aside (as if race can be put aside), it’s just fucking brilliant.