Season 4, Episode 7 | “Optics” | Oct. 1
Talk about perfect timing.
The writers and executive producers of Survivor’s Remorse must be cackling with glee at how prescient its latest episodes have been. Last week was the furthest the show has gone in exploring Cam’s nascent interest in athlete activism, pitting him in a possible showdown situation with his team owner and boss.
This week’s episode is about the harder to see, and harder to acknowledge, byproducts of white supremacy. It starts with M-Chuck, who, after getting invited to a private, advance tour of Atlanta’s new Museum of African-American Life with Chen, raises her trademark ire.
They haven’t even finished walking across the parking lot when she does it. M-Chuck (Erica Ash) is pissed that Atlanta’s new museum of African-American history is called the Leonard Moskowitz Museum of African American Life. Her rant about the building’s name is essentially a skewering of narcissism and a need for, if not absolution, loudly signaling that you are one of the “good” white people.
Atlanta’s fictive museum of African-American life is a stand-in for the newly opened Blacksonian, where the Walmart brand appears prominently in the lobby. But the message of Optics is broader than that. It argues that white people are often guilty of taking something that’s supposed to be about blackness and black people and making it about themselves, status and reputation-building. And the wealth that allows them to do this, of course, is a side effect of the advantages bestowed by the omnipresence of white supremacy. (This is why it was so important that Brad Pitt and Plan B understand the value and importance of getting out of the way.)
M-Chuck, incensed by the fact that Moskowitz (Saul Rubinek) has plastered his name across the front of the museum, presses Chen (Robert Wu) for a meeting with Moskowitz.
“How would you feel if you went to the Holocaust Museum and it said ‘Brought to you by Tyler Perry?’ ” she asks.
Moskowitz gets defensive, telling M-Chuck that Jews were also oppressed by “whiter white people” (true) and were also enslaved by Egyptians (also true). He brings up common arguments: Your brother is rich, how could he possibly be oppressed? And: You’ve had a black president, which means black people are clearly doing better. Plus, Jewish kids are obsessed with hip-hop. Black kids are not going around milly rocking to klezmer, he argues.
The most powerful, subversive and truthful thing that Survivor’s Remorse writers did was to put these words in the mouth of a man who sees himself as an ally, rather than a swastika-waving, “blood and soil”-chanting, tiki-torch-wielding racist. Optics offers a critique of white liberalism that echoes Get Out, Brit Bennett’s essay for Jezebel, I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail.
Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with writer and professor Crystal Fleming about this topic. Fleming is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at State University of New York, Stony Brook, and author of Resurrecting Slavery and the forthcoming How to Be Less Stupid About Race.
“White supremacy … exists not only on the right among conservatives or Trump supporters, it exists on the left. It exists pervasively and systematically throughout our society,” Fleming said. “What tends to happen is, even in the so-called liberal discourse, is a focus on progress, is a focus on things that have changed, rather than a focus on, No. 1, the fact that, again, white supremacy continues to exist and, two, that it doesn’t just exist in certain pockets of society or, you know, in a Klan rally.”
As M-Chuck faces off with Moskowitz, she tells him, “This museum is not yours. It’s ours. So if you’re going to give it, give it graciously.”
Moskowitz fires back: “And if you’re going to receive it, receive it graciously.”
Oof. Wasn’t Jelani Cobb just talking about how “ungrateful” is the new “uppity”? It’s one thing to see the words. It’s another to see the idea reflected on a screen.
It takes another white person, Moskowitz’s wife, to persuade him that his actions were both wrong and offensive. M-Chuck telling him wasn’t enough.
These ideas also show up in the B-plot of the episode, as Reggie (RonReaco Lee) is trying to persuade Chen to give him access to his real estate deals. Reggie is hosting the weekly rich guy poker game in his basement (the same group to which he lost enough money to buy a house).
After Reggie has once again taken a beating in the poker game, he pressures Chen to let him invest in his business deals. And here, things get complicated. Chen informs Reggie that the relationships he has with his millionaire friends are “friendships of convenience.” His relationship with Reggie and his family, on the other hand, is personal and valuable to him in a different, much more priceless way. He doesn’t want to destroy that. Reggie still wants in on Chen’s next development deal, despite the fact that the stakes are much higher for him if things go wrong. The chasm between Reggie’s upper-middle-class net worth and those of his poker buddies is a great example of the difference between being rich and being wealthy. Or, as Chris Rock would say, “If Bill Gates woke up with Oprah’s money he’d jump out a f—ing window.” It also illustrates how difficult it is to bridge this wealth gap if you’re starting from behind. It’s damn near impossible.
White supremacy is not just the practice of neo-Nazis but also “the social and political and economic dominance of people socially defined as white,” Fleming said. “So we’re talking about systemic access to resources, and that this is something, again, that even … among Democrats and liberals, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s easier to talk about racial disparities without admitting which groups are actually being systematically disadvantaged and advantaged by those disparities.”
The folks behind Survivor’s Remorse have already aired an episode called Reparations. Off the strength of Optics, I wouldn’t mind seeing them attempt to make a case for them. Then again, maybe they already have.