My president is black. Finally. We’ve had to wait a long time for that, and I’m willing to wager that, when he leaves office, we’ll be waiting a long time again. So it’s interesting to note that, though Hollywood was the first to publicly present depictions of black U.S. presidents, the only current network show featuring our commander-in-chief has cast him as white. We know that Scandal’sOlivia Pope is based on a “fixer” from the Bush administration, but the show itself is set in 2012. And here we are back to a white republican holding the highest office in the land.

This would be a little unsettling on its own. (If Hollywood’s hypothetical black presidents were presented as a bit of revisionist history or a concessionary nod to a hope for where the country was headed, is Scandal’s white president indicative of a similar hope?) But it’s all the more distracting, given the show’s focus on Olivia’s ongoing love affair with said president.

As soapy and sensationalistic as this show is, it’s hard for me to entirely lose myself in it. I’m too distracted by this idea that, for all her gutsy unflappable-ness, and for all her intimidating, unflinching command in the face of an employee or opponent, the married president happens to be her weakness. Even if it weren’t too convenient a plot point, revealed far too early on, it’d still stick in my craw. One of the reasons why is that I can’t seem to view this show through an un-racialized lens.

This show is giving me too many shades of Sally Hemings. I can’t.

It was especially difficult for me to turn off my Mammy-Jezebel-Sapphire-detector during last night’s episode, as Olivia’s and Fitz’s back story developed. This intense need the story-line has to convince us that these two are star-crossed and that their coupling is Something Real reminds me of master-slave-relationship apologists who either believe that the slave is in a position to“seduce” the master or that their relationship can be rooted in healthy love.

Of course times have changed, and Olivia’s no slave. But in choosing to pursue a dominant-submissive relationship with someone who is, as the script keeps forcing him to remind us, the Leader of the Free World, it’s hard not to connect her to the earliest, collective history U.S. black women share.

If I’m arguing that these complex and uncomfortable connections are being made simply because the show chose to cast a white man as president, I have to ask if Olivia and Fitz’s relationship would still be as uncomfortable if he were, like our actual sitting leader, black. It would still read as immoral, to be sure; no matter how doggedly this show wants us to believe the First Lady is gross and unconscionable, she’s still the president’s wife and Olivia’s still his side chick. And the idea of a cheating black president would come with its own discomfort, given how much we’d associate him with Obama and how much our community seems to revere the Barack-Michelle love story.

Maybe the show chose the lesser of two color-casting evils, so to speak.

What do you think?

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  1. Robby

    This article is a bit of a stretch. God forbid when a black woman dates a white man or is portrayed as dating one in real life, this slave/master shit comes up. Over it. Usually it is black men who bring it up and ironically, sometimes it is black men who date white women. LOL! Also, Pope’s character worked for Clinton AND Bush. And, are you for real? Last week’s episode totally showed us that the president and his wife had a contentious relationship before they were in the White House. The president and Olivia totally have chemistry! Most people on my timeline last week were saying how hot it was, men and women of all races. If anything, OLIVIA has the president wrapped around HER finger. In fact, it seems like Olivia almost checks herself and pulls herself away from the president because she knows that he is so in love with her. He seems a bit fragile at times like he is just ready to say “F*** it, let’s run away together.” LOL But, I digress…I feel the author and some people are “uncomfortable” with an interracial relationship. Also, maybe because Kerry has been known to date white men in real life are causing some crabs in the..(ahem, clears throat), I mean, causes some people to not like it and be extra critical. You could at least wait until the season is over, see where the writers are taking us before you rush to this judgment. Support Kerry’s debut! #ScandalStan

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  2. Robby

    I feel like the author and some of the commenters are not watching the same show as everyone else. Hmmm…first, if she was a side-piece, then how come his right hand man did not even know about the affair. I am sure Clinton had some “handlers” who helped him facilitate his meetings with Monica. The fact the President’s right hand man was shocked tells me that a.) He realized that he doesn’t really KNOW everything about the president; and b.) It wasn’t just a casual relationship. Second, Someone said why doesn’t he get a divorce. He is the PRESIDENT! Plus, there goes the storyline. Third, I do not condone adultery. However, I believe that people assume they now everything about a marriage when no one but the couple TRULY know what is happening in their marriage. Also, people often assume that the person cheating with the married person is somehow in a worse, more painful position. But, they never stop to consider that the married person is probably in just as much, if not MORE pain because they are trapped in it, at least the single person can move on. Relationships, sex, people are so layered and complex. This is what I like about the show.

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  3. Nadia

    Thanks for writing this article. Most of the comments seem to be in the negative, but I enjoyed reading it. Thought provoking to say the least. I admit that I don’t (and haven’t) really watched Grey’s Anatomy, but I think that the only prominent African-American characters on that show are a male doctor involved in an inter-racial relationship with a Caucasian female, and a woman who is a mentor for the “new recruits”, most of whom are Caucasian. She didn’t seem to have much of a social life beyond work. Some could see the latter as a “Mammy” figure (and please don’t attack for my lack of expertise on Grey’s!). Now, we have Olivia Pope. I did see the most recent episode of Scandal, and didn’t like it. I considered that I haven’t seen the series, but this episode seemed to be a a type of “wrap-up” before a finale (season, series or otherwise). I think I would’ve preferred if Olivia was more of a static power-broker, and not besotted with the married, white Republican president. Perhaps I’m too aware of our current political atmosphere, which is very serious, and cannot completely remove myself and perspective from fiction to reality. I also think that I would have a more objective view of a character like Olivia Pope were it not for the scarcity of African-American women in significant roles on prime time television, which is probably the worst criticism. Why is Olivia Pope okay, and not the breadth of humanity that the African-American community can represent, beyond stereotype and assumption? Are we to think that Olivia Pope is the only acceptable African-American female character to present in a lead role? It would help to see more African-American women in roles of power that are not trenchant in roles of “Jezebel” variants. Olivia Pope can be a power broker for the Republican party, but I’d also like to see her counterpart that is not yelling at Caucasian subordinates who are the real stars of the show (The Mentalist, etc). However, I never disregard or mind someone’s statement or writing to the contrary that makes me re-think my opinions. For this reason, I’m appreciative of all the comments that differ from my own. I’m not attacking Shonda Rhimes for her success, nor Kerry Washington. I only wish there were more African-Americans on television that really represent our total community. We can be fathers, mothers, a-holes, presidents, janitors, etc. We can be the stars and headliners, in dramas as wells as comedies and “realities”, without fighting and snatching each others’ wigs/weaves off. Yes, there are African-Americans that fill these roles on various shows, but we’re not the stars. Far too often, we’re the sidekicks, lieutenants angry at the rebellious Caucasian subordinate, rarely seen wife, “wild-card” partner, etc. So again, thanks for this. I don’t see anything wrong with “Olivia Pope”. What I think is wrong is that her counterparts in character and depiction are nowhere to be seen. Where are they?

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  4. Delawareldy

    I think you’re reaching. First we complain about there not being enough roles for black women. Then here we have a black women in a role that could have been played by a white women and you invent some racial narrative that isn’t there. What would your commentary be if the cast was all white?…. Crickets…

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