Racism Is a Multi-Dimensional and Multi-Ethnicity Problem
When I happened upon NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (ZEP) on my streaming service a month ago, I immediately fell in love.
A Powerful Combination: Emotion, Humor, and Music!
This television show has so much I find engaging: raw emotion, humor, and music, all blended together in an intelligent script. As a singer myself, I simply love how cleverly and seamlessly ‘heart songs’ — people expressing their innermost feelings through songs only Zoey, the main character, can hear — are woven into separate but converging plots. And as an Indian woman author interested in the various aspects of the human condition, I’m definitely a fan of how, in season 1, the show delved into several topics not often explored on U.S. television. Topics like elder care, neurological disease, death, gender-fluidity, parenthood, and suicide.
A Wonderfully Diverse Cast
One of the reasons ZEP appeals to me is the show’s relatively diverse cast, as opposed to the more common binary cast of mostly cis-gendered, heterosexual white and black people, i.e., European-American and African-American (terms I find more meaningful to use) people. Over a third of the regular cast of ZEP are people of color, a term popular in the United States, but really not a logical label (I explore this in my article Is Color-Coding Humans as White, Brown, or Black Meaningful?). Until now, ZEP has featured two East Asian-American, two Indian-American, one Latinx-American, and four African-American characters, including a gender-fluid person, Mo.
Given the expanded character diversity in ZEP, I was excited about the potential for storytelling revolving around identity and conflict, both interpersonal and societal. Indeed, LGBTQ identity issues are frequently explored across several episodes. Episode 4 of Season 1 (S1E4) focused on identity issues surrounding the gender-fluidity of Mo, played brilliantly by Alex Newell. I understand gender-fluidity much better now and am grateful to ZEP for broadening my mind.
Much to my surprise, the issue of ethnicity-based discrimination — better known, perhaps, as racism — was not explored in the first 16 episodes of the show.
So when the 17th episode, Episode 5 of Season 2 (S2E5), finally delved into racism, I was looking forward to seeing how the writers and actors would unfurl the storyline written by Zora Bikangaga, a first generation Ugandan-American actor and writer.
The premise was quite clever.
In S2E5, Danny, the European-American CEO of the tech company SPRQ Point tells Simon, the company’s African-American PR person, that “there’s a problem with the CHIRP… it’s having trouble with facial recognition, specifically its error rate with people of color is 10 times higher than with white users.”
Simon later convenes with two African-American friends, Mo and Tatiana, and tells them that “SPRQ Point’s new tech isn’t recognizing black and brown folks and [his] CEO wants to use [him] to smooth it all over.” Tatiana observes sarcastically that it’s “shocking that a corporation with not a single person of color on its board would use a black person as their shield.”
The episode ends with Simon publicly announcing to the press that “the CHIRP couldn’t see black and brown faces, because there are no black and brown people in positions of power at the company.” He adds, “Our leadership is comprised overwhelmingly of white men…. On a Board of 10 directors, there are only two women and zero people of color.”
How Inclusive Is the Term ‘People of Color’?
I interpreted the characters’ use of the terms ‘person of color’ and ‘black and brown folks’ as being inclusive of all people who are not of European descent, meaning East Asian, Indian, African, West Asian (Middle Eastern), Latinx, and Indigenous. The fact that the employer in question is a tech company, which in the U.S. generally employs a diverse group of people, including immigrants on visas, Indians, and East Asians, got me excited about how interesting an exploration of racism, discrimination, and ethnic bias in this context could be.
So I waited eagerly for the next episode, S2E6, which aired on February 9, 2021.
S2E6, the winter finale of ZEP, picks up after Simon’s press conference. He tells Zoey, a young white woman, who is Simon’s friend and boss: “When a black employee tells you that a tech device is having trouble recognizing people of color, I think maybe you’d be able to put two and two together.” In response, Zoey holds a town hall meeting of SPRQ Point employees, saying: “I organized this town hall to talk about our honest feelings about race at work.”
At the town hall, only white employees feel comfortable enough to speak publicly. Individuals talk about having African roommates in college, taking a knee at a company softball game, and having a black ex-stepdad. One woman misguidedly declares that color includes green and that the town hall should therefore also address adopting ecofriendly practices at work.
When Tobin, played by Kapil Talwalkar, the only remaining Indian-American character on the show (Simon’s ex-fiancée was played by an actress of Indian descent, but not portrayed as an Indian character), is put on the spot to speak, he simply jokes: “Um… racism’s whack, yo.”
The storyline proceeds with the company’s CEO, Danny, asking Zoey to tell Simon to retract his statement to the press. Danny says, “He just needs to say that it was his opinion… his opinion alone and doesn’t represent the larger experience of being an employee at SPRQ Point.”
Before Zoey finds Simon, Tobin catches up with him: “I just wanted to say how dope it was to see you speak out like that. I feel you, bro.” Simon’s response to Tobin’s sincere show of support is curt and judgmental. “Do you?” Simon challenges his colleague. “Cause you seemed to be really jokey about it at the town hall.” Simon dismisses Tobin as he enters his office and Zoey follows him in.
When Zoey tells Simon, played by John Clarence Stewart, that the Board wants him to retract everything he said at the press conference, she adds, “I just want you to know you’re not alone in this.”
When Zoey tries to empathize with Simon by telling him that she knows “a little” about Simon’s experience, because she’s “a woman in the tech world,” Simon says:
Yes, but, that has nothing to do with who I am as a black man in the world and what my experience as a black man is in this office…. There’s no room for messing up for me. And I have to constantly prove why I deserve to be here.
In that moment the company not seeing ‘people of color’ and ‘black and brown folks’ zoomed in on the experience of Simon, a black man, instead of describing the experiences with racism of different types of people of color. Since Simon had been the first one to speak out about ethnicity-based discrimination — racism — during the press conference in the previous episode, I saw the logic in focusing on his particular experience as a black man. I looked forward to what other experiences with racism this episode would explore though, so I kept watching with anticipation.
‘Having to Constantly Amputate Parts of Who I am’ Resonates with me
What Simon says next to Zoey really resonated with me: “I have to constantly amputate parts of who I am to make other people feel comfortable in my presence. So they feel safe. So that when I walk on the elevator, they… they aren’t startled when they see me.”
Zoey tries to show her empathy and says, “When I see you, I just see Simon.”
Simon responds, “Simon is a black man. You seeing me as only Simon denies a fundamental part of who I am. And you asking me to walk back my words, Zoey, is telling me to deny that fundamental part of who I am. And whether you’re doing that as my boss or my friend, that makes you part of the problem.”
As an Indian-American, Hindu, immigrant woman working in fields dominated by European-American men, I know what it feels like to constantly amputate parts of who I am to make other people feel comfortable in my presence. I know what it feels like not to be able to express so many aspects of myself that are integral to who I am. I know what it feels like to constantly feel obliged to justify not only my salary and my position, despite my credentials, but my very presence and existence in the U.S.
Racism Has Group-Specific Dimensions
I don’t know how much anger and sorrow black people in the U.S. who are descended from slaves carry within them for the humiliation their ancestors were subjected to. I don’t know how much frustration a black woman feels when she feels compelled to drown her hair in noxious chemicals in order to conform to European-American notions of grooming. I don’t know the fear a black mother feels every time her black son takes the car for a drive because she doesn’t know if the police will shoot him dead for little or no reason.
While I sincerely empathize, I don’t myself know the totality of a black person’s experience of racism. And so each time a black person creates, or is given, the opportunity to speak about his or her experience of racism, I learn more about the black dimension of racism.
What do I mean by the black dimension of racism? Simply that while there are common threads that run through the experience of racism, each group of people who are subjected to racist behavior also have experiences unique to that group. Put differently, racism has unique dimensions for each target group, where the group is often defined by ethnicity. Thus, in addition to feeling the general effects of racism, black people also experience a black dimension of racism specific to them, Indigenous people an Indigenous dimension, Indians an Indian dimension, Chinese a Chinese dimension, immigrants an immigrant dimension, and so on.
It is because of these group-specific — often ethnicity-specific — dimensions of racism that different types of people can feel singled out and isolated in their experiences. Sometimes I fall prey to this type of thinking and feel that others who are not a member of my group don’t understand, or worse, empathize with the unique dimensions of racism I am subjected to: the brown dimension, the immigrant dimension, and the non-Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) dimension.
I feel that others don’t know the fear I used to feel about speaking out as an immigrant on a visa, even when I eventually got my green card, because the U.S. government has the legal right to deport any non-citizen. I feel that others don’t know the anger I feel when a non-Indigenous ‘American’ filled with anti-immigrant hatred tells me to go back to where I came from. I feel that others don’t know the helplessness I used to feel when for over a decade I had very few civic rights despite paying taxes — sometimes more taxes — as compared to ‘Americans’.
I feel that others don’t know the deep frustration I feel when, as a Hindu and Indian, I encounter the ignorance, disinterest, and prejudice that are rampant in the U.S. about Hinduism and India — by white, non-Indian brown, and black people alike. Imagine if Christians had to defend the sanctity of the cross or the word ‘Bible’ or ‘Holy Spirit’ and contend with laws making it illegal to display a cross in public. Well, as a Hindu, I have to continually educate people about their prejudice and ignorance about Hinduism and India. Especially about the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol of science and well-being used for millennia, but that European fascists misappropriated a century ago. I have to contend with the fact that displaying a swastika, one of my people’s most sacred symbols, is a criminal offense.
Similarly to me, I am certain that Native Americans, East Asian-Americans, and Latinx-Americans have each experienced unique dimensions of racism that I, as an Indian-American, have not.
A Missed Opportunity to Explore Racism across Ethnicity and other Dimensions
The showrunner, Austin Winsberg, and the writer, Zora Bikangaga, had — and still have — an amazing opportunity to explore the multiple group-specific dimensions of racism by leveraging the diverse cast of ZEP.
ZEP has previously successfully woven together plots involving different characters, but with similar themes, in the same episode. Like in S2E4, where Zoey has to fire an employee, while her brother and East-Asian sister-in-law grapple with her brother’s desire to quit his job.
It would have been groundbreaking for ZEP to weave different dimensions of racism faced by an African-American, an Indian-American, an Asian-American, and a Latinx-American (but Zoey fired such a character in a previous episode) into one episode.
ZEP did try to incorporate at least Tobin’s — an Indian-American immigrant character’s — story into S2E6. But, in my opinion, the writers missed the mark.
When Tobin tries to express solidarity with Simon, the African-American character dismisses the Indian-American character. Simon doesn’t express interest in understanding why Tobin is “not really a public forum type of guy,” when Tobin tries to explain.
Later, when Zoey presses Tobin on how he feels about Simon’s press conference, Tobin gets an opportunity to talk about the immigrant and Indian-American dimensions of racism.
Tobin: You wanna know why I make jokes all the time? It’s because I’m a first gen. It’s how I fit in. It’s how I always fit in. Because I don’t really fit in anywhere.
Zoey: Even here?
Tobin: At SPRQ Point? You kidding me? You know how shocked people in other departments are when they meet me and I don’t have an accent, or I’m not the guy delivering their shwarma? Happens all the time.
Zoey: No one should have to feel this way at work. You should say something.
Tobin: To who? HR? Danny Michael Davis? What am I going to say? People are treating me like an Indian guy? Guess what, Zoey, I’m an Indian guy.
Zoey: The company is asking Simon to say that he’s the only one who feels this way. He clearly isn’t. You could help him. You could help other people that maybe feel similar as you and Simon.
Tobin: I respect Simon for speaking out. I do. I just… I don’t wanna stir the pot… No, if you need help with a coding glitch or a charmingly offensive pun, I’m all over it. But this… I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m sorry.
But Tobin does decide to speak out, despite his conditioning as an immigrant to not ‘stir the pot’. He posts his experience with racism at SPRQ Point on social media using #BIPOCatsprqpoint. His courage is what enables Simon to stay on in the company.
But Simon never acknowledges Tobin for his courage in speaking out and empowering hundreds of other SPRQ Point employees to do the same. As the episode is written, Simon unlocks the door to raise awareness about racism at SPRQ Point. But it is Tobin who opens the door and invites other people in, so that the decision-makers are forced to listen.
Tobin is not sufficiently acknowledged or thanked for the pivotal role he plays. Even when Danny, the CEO, calls Simon, Tobin, and Zoey into the Board room, only Simon speaks. And of the three examples of racism he gives, two are of the black dimension of racism. Tobin is not given any lines during this speaking-truth-to-power moment. And in the last scene of the episode, Zoey, Max (another European-American), and a group of almost exclusively black people celebrate Simon’s victory. As far as I could see, there were no Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans, or Latinx-Americans at the celebration.
Why wasn’t Tobin invited? Why wasn’t he recognized?
ZEP, generally a champion of inclusivity and diversity in so many aspects, could have been a trailblazer in showing solidarity among various types of people who experience racism. ZEP could have shown people of different ethnicities uniting in their fight against racism, instead of focusing on one dimension of racism.
As I watched the episode, another thought about how the identities of the characters of East Asian and Indian descent are treated in ZEP crossed my mind. ZEP, like most other television shows and movies, empowers African-Americans and European-Americans to own and proudly show their ethnic identity, and LGBTQ people to own and proudly show their LGBTQ identity.
And rightly so.
But why are characters of East Asian and Indian descent devoid of ethnic identity? Why is Tobin, an Irish name, assigned to an Indian character? And Emily and Jenna the names assigned to East Asian characters?
Where Is the Indigenous Dimension of Racism Represented?
BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. In S2E6, the use of the term BIPOC is emphasized, for example, through the hashtag #BIPOCatsprqpoint.
So where are the Indigenous people?
ZEP is filmed in the city of Richmond, British Columbia, in Canada. First Nations (Indigenous Canadian) people are not difficult to find there. The show does a good job of being visually inclusive, with characters of European, African, East Asian, Latinx, and Indian descent. The show also does a fantastic job of being inclusive of LGBTQ people. So why not expand itself to be inclusive of Indigenous peoples as well? Why not have at least one character, even if he or she is a guest character, who is Indigenous?
And then, why not delve into the extremely painful and pernicious form of racism Indigenous people in North America face — the Indigenous dimension of racism?
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (ZEP) Is Still a Groundbreaking Show
I realize that it’s nearly impossible for one show to get the confounding issue of racism right.
But because I adore ZEP so much and have been consistently impressed with the intelligence and insight of the writing and acting, I was disappointed that the show didn’t leverage the diversity of its cast and explore the multiple group-specific dimensions of racism. Reducing racism to simply a binary issue, namely white-on-black racism, is a significant impediment to understanding the complexity and specificity of racist behavior and how these characteristics enable racism to pervade almost every ethnic and immigrant group in society.
When a show like Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, which I believe sincerely sees itself as standing for inclusivity, collapses racism to one dimension, I — an Indian, Hindu, immigrant woman — feel that my experience of discrimination, humiliation, and disparagement is excluded. As I am certain so many others do. And that is not extraordinary at all.