Can a Television Show Help You Be Anti-Racist?

Last night as I watched the television show “Station 19,” I was reminded how impactful fiction can be. When the show returned this season, it began where it ended, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In a strange coincidence, last night’s story line took place following the events of May 25, when George Floyd died. For those who don’t know, the show takes place in Seattle, a city that made headlines throughout the summer of 2020 due to protests.

While the protests were addressed as part of the show’s story line, the focus of last night’s episode was on the individual characters in the fictional firehouse and their reactions to these events. From the start, I was drawn in and am impressed with the sensitive way this was handled. One by one, (mostly through conversations with a therapist) the characters talked about their personal feelings, their internal struggles, and their perceived places in the outside world.  It was a real, if emotional, overview of some of the various ways Americans have struggled with our individual and group identities over the past year.

The writers gave the characters words that I’ve longed for; words that might help explain the concept of “white privilege,” which is something all white people are born with whether they want to admit it or not. The dialogue also highlighted the exhaustion and frustration many Black people have endured in trying to explain their reality to many white people who, though they want to be allies, don’t truly understand.

When the show ended, I went to social media, to see if others had been impacted in the same way. I was surprised and disheartened to see that most of the comments on the show’s Facebook fan page (of all places!) were negative. People complained that it was all too much, that we lived it; we don’t need to see it, that it was creating racial divisions, that it made cops look bad. Some went as far as to say they would never watch the show again.

I, obviously, disagree.

If we want a better world, we need to do hard things.

Those of us who are white, and consider ourselves (or want to be) allies to our Black and Brown neighbors, co-workers and friends, need to take a stand. Sitting quietly beside them isn’t enough. Quiet only reinforces the status quo. But we also need to be mindful of not speaking over those we seek to support. It’s a delicate balance. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. We need to accept that, though our intentions may be good, sometimes we will say and do the wrong things.

The first step is for us to educate ourselves. It is not the job of those who have been oppressed to show us how words and actions do harm. As the show pointed out, racism is inherent in society; it has been taught in schools as part of history. Most of us are racist (to varying degrees). But being racist doesn’t make you a bad person – hateful actions do. We need to know better to do better. There are plenty of resources out there, including a number of movies and television shows as well as books. Last night, Shonda Rhimes presented an unexpected gift to white people: a valuable lesson wrapped up in a popular prime time network show. Find this episode and watch it. Listen. Learn. Do better. Be better.