Casual Racism in P-Valley: The Violence of Southern “Micro”-Aggressions
P-Valley (based on the play Pussy Valley) is a show that depicts layers of identity and its implications exceptionally well. In a lot of ways it does so better than many other shows on TV right now. It gives us a window into how these characters are processing their surroundings in real time in a such visceral way that the viewer resonates directly with their triumphs and their traumas. Set in the fictional town of Chucalisa in the Mississippi Delta, so many of the characters’ interactions call to mind the ugliness of the Southern racism that I was surrounded by in my childhood years. The action of the show is centered around the local strip club, The Pynk, where all manner of characters, identities, and perspectives collide.
One particular scene from series’ second episode shows the character Andre, an attorney, trying to close a deal with some very wealthy brothers who owned a plantation property complete with a cotton field. Katori Hall, the playwright turned showrunner, has shared that the inspiration for this scene came from her own personal life in which she was driving through the Mississippi Delta, and stopped to take pictures of a cotton field. The landowner pulled up and told her to “pick some”, which she recalls as being a “chilling” experience.
In the show, Andre reacts with disbelief to being told the same thing by one of the owners of the land he was visiting with a fully functional cotton field. Unfazed by the weight of what he had just said, one of the brothers turned on the Southern charm thick to say how people who visit the land usually enjoy the field so much that they like to take a boll of cotton as a souvenir. As I was watching this, I truly felt his disbelief and his eventual pivot from so many sharp feelings in order to continue with his professional meeting.
Watching this scene was like a punch in the gut. I didn’t realize how desensitized I was to Southern racism until I moved to Southern CA from my home state of Louisiana. When talking with a fellow member of my current church, I experienced for the first time a white person express disbelief about the persistent embrace of the Confederate battle flag throughout the South. At the time, I was 23-years-old and it was the first time that I can remember hearing a white person be genuinely confused about why this symbol was still being celebrated then in the mid-2000s. I knew that not everyone who was white identified with this mentality, but I took for granted that everyone white that I would encounter could see themselves directly represented in that legacy.
I was taught in history classes, and more explicitly in high school, how harshly the North treated the South after the Civil War. The teacher didn’t have to say treated ‘unfairly’ because it was clearly implied. One particular teacher elaborated that the South was punished for merely asserting their rights. Of course, she explained this without the caveat to enslave human beings. Because of this, I didn’t realize until later the nuances of how racism is experienced in other parts of the country without the backdrop of Confederate sympathizers like current U.S. Senator for Mississippi Cindy Hyde-Smith — who in 2018 joked about attending a public hanging. (By the way she issued a non-apology for this not acknowledging that Mississippi has the most per capita occurrences of the lynching of Black people.)
Usually when we talk about micro-aggressions, I hear about things like touching Black women’s hair without permission, being told you’re one of the good (Black) ones, someone carelessly referring to something as ‘ghetto’ to label it subpar or deficient in some way. While all of these things are incredibly taxing to deal with — I’ve experienced all three — I would argue that there is something altogether different, and violent, about experiencing the type of racism that evokes such traumatic events from our history. Especially when executed with polite, Southern charm and a smile.
I still remember driving around in my first car, a gold 1999 Pontiac Sunfire, and seeing the car in front of me with a bumper sticker emblazoned with the flag and the words ‘The South Was Right’. The Confederate flag was displayed in so many places it was unremarkable and just a normal part of the background. Throughout my K-12 experience, I went to school with children of Klan members. I was intentionally excluded from play and friendship with other kids because I was black, and I was ignored and underestimated in my academic abilities by teachers. (I now possess a doctoral degree so I clearly had the ability to succeed.) It’s a dynamic that you just get used to. I grew up knowing that many of the people around me would have actively fought for my continued enslavement and oppression if I was born before the Civil War. I got a sense along the way that a few would not, but that they would most likely feel torn as many in their family would have still wanted me enslaved. At that point, they would have had to choose between their sense of shared humanity with me or their duty to maintain loyalty to their families.
There’s several other scenes in the series that evoke similar “micro”- aggressions, but this one in the cotton field is the first major example of this dynamic. It also sets up the viewer for what’s to come as the story unfolds and how this violent tension might erupt between these characters in future episodes, which spoiler alert it does.
I love the show because it illustrates what Hall says about the experience of Southern Blackness being replete with constant reminders of your history. I can’t speak to the experience of growing up anywhere else, but there is something unique about the environment of the South and the thickness of that history that this show illuminates in such a poignant way. I write this as P-Valley is on a week-long partially to fill the void of not having a new episode. In these Covid times, TV appointments are that much more important. But I’m also writing to co-sign this experience and to further amplify it. This show is bringing life to so many issues that are underrepresented on TV, and I could not be more excited about seeing how the rest of the story unfolds. I’m excited to return to The Pynk next Sunday 🥰.