Two of my favorite shows attacked the issue of racism in the workplace last week. (The post is late because I watched the DVR recordings only recently.) While I wasn’t surprised to see it addressed on BET’s Being Mary Jane starring Gabrielle Union, I was pleasantly surprised to see it unfurl on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, in an episode called “Something Against You.”
One of the great things about Grey’s Anatomy is the multicultural cast and blended relationships of all sorts: working, romantic and friendship. While I could be wrong, last Thursday’s episode is the first time that I can recall in ten seasons in which race was mentioned, discussed or even an issue. Race wasn’t an issue when Preston Burke played by Isaiah Washington, a black, man had a long term, but tumultuous relationship with Cristina Yang played by Sandra Oh, an Asian woman, or when Yang became involved with Owen Hunt played by Kevin McKidd, a white man. Derek Shepherd and Meredith Grey, both white, adopted a black daughter; Jackson Avery married April Kepner…the list goes on and on.
I love how on the show the characters are who they are while race and sexuality happen to be an aside, but still lends to the characters and their storylines being so juicy, like Callie being a lesbian Latina, who is the widow of one white man and had a child with another. When the series first aired, Richard Webber was hospital chief, years later and several chiefs later, Miranda Bailey holds the position. Both doctors are black and there’s never been dissension in the ranks for reporting to them. I once read that Dr. Bailey’s character was intended to be white, but even after Chandra Wilson was cast in the role, the writers did not tweak the storyline to change the attendings’ nickname for her of “The Nazi” to something else
With all the conflicts of not-so-secret affairs, messy break-ups, backstabbing to steal patients, friendly and unfriendly competitions to be the best surgeon, explosions and shootings, race has rarely been an issue until Meredith’s surprise half-black sister—the surprise being that she had a half sister, not that she was black–Dr. Maggie Pierce vented her annoyance of having to worry about not being respected as a female doctor on top of not being respected as a black doctor. Dr. Amelia Shepherd, resting comfortably in her white privilege, can’t believe what she’s hearing. I rewound the scene several times to properly transcribe it:
“Come on. Is that a thing?” (Shepherd)
“Of course it is.” (Pierce)
“Yeah, here. Everywhere.” She lists the other black doctors and tells Shepherd to ask them.
“I can’t believe that.”
“That’s because it’s not your thing,” Pierce replies as she continues to eat her food. Just as Kerav was oblivious that Pierce, Shepherd and Grey have to deal with overcoming people thinking they’re less competent than male doctors because it’s not his thing, Shepherd is unaware of the race issue because it’s not her thing. This whole exchange causes Shepherd to worry that she may be perceived as a racist for immediately siding with a white doctor over a black doctor, but later found out the white doctor was in fact wrong. Even after apologizing and moving on, Dr. Shepherd doubles back to Dr. Edwards, the black doctor to ask if she believed she didn’t side with her because of race. Edwards admitted it crossed her mind, but because she knew Shepherd, immediately dismissed it. Shepherd, however, continued to need assurance and continued to antagonize the situation by doubling back to Dr. Pierce.
Once again, Dr. Pierce finds herself in a position of having to explain race to Shepherd. She explains how racism is “all over” sometimes as an “unnoticeable buzz” and other times it can’t be ignored. She goes on to give examples of patients assuming she’s a nurse and not the doctor, or flight attendants telling her coach is not yet ready to board as she holds a first class ticket, and her own patient ignoring her to defer to the white male doctor in the room.
That short scene towards the end the episode teaches viewers about the subtle nuances of racism that the offended will catch, but not the people who don’t have to deal with it. In that scene alone I felt validated for feeling slighted when at work after I mention “class,” “school” or “homework,” co-workers assume I’m an undergrad student not grad school, or the hint of surprise when I say my father owns my childhood home with a sprawling backyard with a swing set he mounted for us, or when at a restaurant I order a dish I want only to have the server suggest a cheaper meal, or a sales associate suddenly having to refold and organize the already tidy table of sweaters I’m checking out, never once asking if I need assistance.
I almost clapped when Pierce told Shepherd she’s not the spokesperson for all black people and shuts down further discussion by stating, “If you feel uncomfortable having done it, check your white privilege and don’t do it again.” It echoed conversations I’ve had to have with white co-workers over the years. While Pierce told Shepherd to check her white privilege, Mary Jane on Being Mary Jane was being checked by her boss. She believes that as the first black anchor at her news station, she’s being edged out in favor of what her boss mistitles a Mexican as Spanish. Of course he defends himself stating that the attempted changes are not based on race, but performance and attitude. He backs up his statement by whipping out a notepad and reads off notes he’s been keeping on her: daily lateness, sassy attitude, not doing what was asked of her, never coming in early to prepare for the show and only arriving moments before appearing on air. That night as Mary Jane preps for bed, her boss’ voice echoes in her mind. While she is an educated, professional black woman, her conduct sometimes lacks professionalism. She enlists the help of the Rainbow Coalition to help her rally for her seat behind the anchor desk. Mary Jane continues to display rash and hasty decision-making when she reverses her $5000 donation to the organization because she didn’t get the immediate re-instatement she had hoped for.
This episode of Being Mary Jane held up a mirror to a part of our culture that we sometimes may not like to admit, forget or are unaware of. While it’s not to be discounted that race can and often is an obstacle for our advancement in the workplace, sometimes we get in our own way with unbecoming behavior or attitude. Sometimes the other person may actually be the better candidate. Although Mary Jane was fighting for a position she had already earned, she neglected to acknowledge that she was going up against another qualified minority in the workplace, perhaps because she was too wrapped up in her own struggles or because the other woman’s thing just wasn’t her thing.
Both episodes sought to teach viewers and the characters the valuable lesson of learning to view things from a perspective not your own. Not doing so is presumptive, callus and lazy. Think in order to avoid the risk of offending, and if you offend, apologize and do better going forward.