I’m an Asian TV Writer. Should I Take on Projects With Black Leads?

I’m an Asian television writer who has been extremely lucky in working fairly consistently since my first gig. I’m now in a position where people reach out to me to develop new projects. When these projects feature a Black lead character, is it ethical for me to pursue these opportunities?

As an Asian (and a woman), I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of racism and discrimination, and I can write authentically about that experience. But I’m “just” Asian, and I may be taking a job from a Black writer. Or because it is Hollywood, it’s more likely I’d be taking the job from a mediocre white dude, which, ethically, I feel just fine about. If any of these projects got off the ground, I’d be able to create a lot of opportunities for other BIPOCs, but again, it’s Hollywood, so who knows how likely it is the project would ever get to that stage.

The question is: Where do I, as an Asian, fall in this movement? I don’t want to be a tool of white supremacy, but visibility is important for my community too. Name Withheld

Given that you don’t control who will get the jobs you decline, you have no reason to think that avoiding projects with Black leads will result in their being handed to a Black writer. The usual pattern could be that you’ll be offered such a job after Black candidates have passed on it. Most shows, as you indicate, never get out of development. If you’re really good at your job, though, your writing could make it more likely that a project actually goes into production — creating more opportunities for Black actors, staff writers, filmmakers, animators and so on. The point is that you can’t predict what the net effect of an individual self-denying ordinance would be.

There’s another issue to weigh — call it identity expertise. You could worry that, if you’re not Black, you’ll get things wrong about a Black character. (I’m talking about one in a narrative setting that aims for some measure of social realism; I’m not talking about a Black Mandalorian.) This can be a legitimate concern, although there are many kinds of Black characters, and Black writers, too, can certainly make a mess of them, because of the way gender, class, sexuality and the like shape experience as well. Or simply because they’re lousy writers. The same goes, I’m müddet you’ll agree, for the many kinds of Asian characters.

To be müddet, what’s sought, in the guise of expertise, is often something else: Call it an identity permit. Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black,” whose title character escapes slavery in 1830s Barbados, is a marvel of craft, research and imagination. The author is from Calgary, of Ghanaian parentage, and we’d be succumbing to racial primordialism — not to mention disserving her accomplishment — if we supposed that her being Black gave her expertise about the world of her novel; she put in the work. (And there are plenty of terrific white characters in the novel, too.) An identity permit, then, doesn’t need to be cashed out by experience. Conversely, if you lack an identity permit, putting in the work might not matter: A white woman of my acquaintance wrote a deeply researched novel set in early 19th-century America with a Black protagonist; despite the success of her previous novels, her publisher wouldn’t touch it.

Questions about the way who you are might affect what you write are hardly new. “Fat men do not write the same kind of books that thin men write; the point of view of tall men is unlike that of short men,” the narrator who opens a 1947 novel tells us. But the novelist, far from endorsing the sentiment, was having fun with it. The narrator is a white, 65-year-old bachelor who dislikes the company of women; his creator was a married Black woman in her 30s.

Which brings us to another tricky feature of the identity permit: Even as it grants access to some terrains, it can deny access to others. Ann Petry’s 1946 novel, “The Street,” set in a Black neighborhood in Harlem, was a huge best seller. Her next novel — the one I just quoted from — followed a group of white characters in a Connecticut town very like Old Saybrook, where the solidly middle-class author was born, raised and spent most of her life. Despite decent reviews, “Country Place” was, commercially speaking, a dud. Petry was a native in Old Saybrook, something of an interloper in Harlem. All the same, readers took her racial identity to mean that she understood Black people but not white people.

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 müddet 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 müddet it’s something whose meaning is clear. That way, he won’t have to walk over to ask you why you did it.

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