“You’re not a good mother! You didn’t make good choices!” shouts Elena Richardson at Mia Warren, who shouts back just as furiously, “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices!”
The roles are played by A-list actors Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington to devastating effect in a drama about a homeless Black professional photographer trying desperately to provide a stable home and a good future for her overachieving daughter in white suburbia.
This one exchange between the two main characters of Little Fires Everywhere encapsulates the themes of the entire series, that (1) white people and People of Color often live in wholly different realities, (2) white people have a wider range of much easier and safer options from which to choose, and (3) the near-total ignorance of most white people concerning the basic facts of white privilege.
Most well-written dramas take pains to show not only the challenges faced by the characters, but also their quirks, weaknesses, and feet of clay for everyone to see. Little Fires Everywhere (based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Celeste Ng) is no exception. The viewer is given a voyeuristic opportunity to see those faults in action, and at the same time is forced to see how the characters’ present misfortunes were often not of their own making, but were the inevitable results of the world the characters were born into.
Moreover, the writers seem to imply that while the seeds of white privilege were first sown by malice, rank ignorance provides the soil, inequality of wealth supplies the water, and the inevitable bitter fruit is the disparity of opportunity between white people and minorities. Worst of all is that when that bitter fruit of disparity rots, as with all the fruits of Nature, its seeds are nourished by the decomposing flesh of the parent fruit that came before, thus perpetuating the same tragic cycle for yet another generation.
The series provides a wonderful juxtaposition of just how disparate the differences between the realities of white people and People of Color are. It’s as if their realities are separated by a one-way mirror through which Mia Warren can clearly see the world of her white neighbors, but Elena Richardson and the white suburbanites can see only reflections of themselves. That very dynamic is the essence of the scene above in which Elena assumes that Mia has the same range of choices she and her white friends take for granted.
Blue Bloods, on the other hand, is a formulaic crime drama in which one family’s lives are deeply intertwined with the New York Police Department, from youngest son Jamie Reagan (played by Will Estes) learning the ropes to the patriarch of the clan Frank Reagan (played by Tom Selleck) in his powerful position as the city’s police commissioner. Those who have had experience in law enforcement and in the courtroom are naturally drawn to shows like these because they address real world problems such as drug use and police misconduct, and extol the virtues of honor, courage, and respect for the law; but as one watches the series, it’s hard to escape one overriding theme: whiteness.
Not only does the show revolve around the all-white Reagan clan, but — in a show that takes place in ethnically cosmopolitan New York City — only one of the recurring characters is a Person of Color, a Hispanic woman in a relatively unimportant supporting role. All other roles for People of Color are one-dimensional, and nearly always victims or villains. The majority of episodes seem to revolve around the “if only [insert name of villain or victim] had made better choices like we do, this wouldn’t have happened” trope. There’s no one in the show saying, “You had good choices to make!”
The difference between Little Fires Everywhere and Blue Bloods is much like that between Black welcome-to-modern-reality Mia Warren and white suburbanite Elena Richardson. The latter is not self-aware, a seeming effort to hearken back to a Camelot of whiteness that never existed, while the former is not just self-aware, but knows all to well the heartache and perpetual chaos that all too often describes the lives of those outside the opiated dreamscape of suburbia.
The contrast between the two shows is a microcosm of the changes in broadcast media over the past sixty years, from the days of The Andy Griffith Show and Adam-12 where addressing ethnic and cultural issues such as racism and prejudice against the LGBTQ community would have been unthinkable to writers and viewers alike, to the present day with shows such as This Is Us and A Million Little Things, where such issues are part and parcel of nearly every episode.
In other words, modern dramas such as Little Fires Everywhere are providing a form of education heretofore unavailable to much of the American general public. They do so by normalizing not just the existence of deeper ethnic and cultural issues but also by encouraging discussion of those issues among family and friends, and do so in a format much more widely-accessed than books or magazines. Twenty-five years ago, most white people such as myself didn’t know there was such a thing as white privilege, or if we did, we pooh-poohed the effect it had on anyone who didn’t look like us. At that same time, America was torn between outrage and gratification when the lead character in Ellen, a popular sitcom, came out as a lesbian. The show’s popularity decreased significantly after the character’s self-disclosure, but the effect it had on American society was undeniable: it helped start the conversation in a way that print media never could.
And that’s the key: we cannot understand what we deny even exists. At one time society considered discussions such as homosexuality or the wrongness of white privilege as verboten. Instead, such issues were normally swept under the rug, there to be ignored and forgotten, as if those most affected could ever forget the pain and confusion and shame forced upon them by tradition and societal mores. But those same issues become much harder to ignore when they are presented on our favorite television shows. We all owe a debt of gratitude to broadcast media for forcing society to acknowledge the ubiquity of feet of clay, to address issues it denied existed, and to embrace the differences and qualities it once considered unworthy of discussion, much less of acceptability.