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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186 Comments

  1. entro

    I also believe you are off in comparing sally hemmings to Olivia Pope. Sally hemmings was a child and most likely raped by jefferson and she was a slave, she had no control or say in the situation. Olivia Pope is an adult, intelligent and can choose who she has a relationship with. The only similarity is that both women are black

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    • My reference to Hemings here–and I absolutely should’ve been clearer about this–was intended to refer to the pervasive mythos around their “romance.” I intended to compare the mythologized Hemings to the fictional Pope.

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    • CurlySue

      From what I’ve read about the relationship between Jefferson, his children and Hemings and her family, there was a lot of love there. Hemings was the half sister to Jefferson’s deceased wife and by all accounts was regarded as family. Jefferson’s children from his marriage regarded Sally as their aunt, as she was. Her children also. Yes, she was a slave but it seems to have been a very nuanced relationship that was hardly kep secret from the other family members.

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    • @Curly Sue

      Thomas Jefferson held Sally Hemmings as a slave. If she had been thought of as family then he would have allowed her to gain her freedom, which he did not. Please do not believe crazy revisionist history. Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Every time he put his hands on Sally Hemmings he was raping her. She as a non-free woman could not give consent.

      Also, Jefferson’s descendents did not want anything to do with Sally Hemmings descendents when they tried to join the Jefferson family as recognized descendents of Jefferson.

      There is no love between a rapist and his victim!

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    • BRAVO VAL!!! Could not agree more. I’m not throwing shade at Curly Sue, but I certainly hope she isn’t trying to “romanticize” the events of Jefferson and Hemmings. Heck, there are Jefferson decendants to this day that will not even acknlowlege Hemmings. It may be harsh, but the only way I can view the Jefferson/Hemmings situation is as rape. (Notice I never called it a “relationship” because I feel it was FAR from that).

      As for Scandal, I like the show. I love the fact that the president is white because if he were black, we’d keep comparing him to Barack and since the fictional president is kinda shady, I want no comparisons of him and Barack. But I do think that Kerry and the guy who plays the president have some crazy chemistry! I don’t know if I’m frustrated or stressed, but after I saw their scenes together, I was ready to take a cold shower!

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    • CurlySue

      No shade felt :) All sunny here. No, I wasn’t attempting to romanticize their relationship. I’m merely interested in learning the nuances of it seeing as how it spanned several decades and produced quite a few children.

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    • The sense of ambiguity about just how “consensual” Jefferson/Hemings relationship became over the course of the time they spent together and the persistent idea/myth that one or both of them were “in love” is part of the comparison I was seeking to make.

      In watching the origin story of Olivia/Fitz last night, there was also a sense of gray–not over whether or not the sexual relationship was consensual but about whether or not the president abused his power in pursuing her, whether or not he was treating her like a conquest, whether or not their “love” is a legitimate, healthy thing. He dictates the conditions. He sets the parameters. He dominates her. But the story is being presented as a romantic one about “forbidden love” and “star-crossed lovers” who, under different conditions, would have a healthier relationship, one to root for.

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    • Danielle

      Exactly!

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  2. Thank you for this post! I would be uncomfortable with it even if the president was black (oh, looky look, another black woman that the media has implicitly turned in a “whore” because lets be honest, that’s the patriarchal assumption many would make), but the president’s whiteness makes it even more racialized. It emphasizes the submissive-dominant element of their relationship (and I’m just never going to understand why some folks feel that relationships must have that dichotomy), especially as he kept giving her commands throughout the episode: “go into you room,” “take off your clothes,” “don’t ever call yourself a mistress!” etc. (There were a couple of other commands, but I forget.) I just wasn’t feeling this relationship at all, and I’ve dated white guys and probably will continue to, so I have no problem with interracial coupling. But there’s just some things off about this portrayal, as you noted. And, no, I don’t think the president character has genuine love for her. I think he is a narcissist, like many men in such positions, who saw something he wanted that he shouldn’t have and had to have it. He’s in a loveless boring relationship with his white wife, and found excitement with Olivia. That’s all. I don’t buy the “love” here at all, at least not from the president. I think Olivia certainly loves him, however.

    Also, you stated, “the only current network show featuring our commander-in-chief has cast him as white.” To that, I reply, “And that show was created by Shonda Rhimes, a black woman. Let that simmer for a minute.”

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    • especially as he kept giving her commands throughout the episode: “go into you room,” “take off your clothes,” “don’t ever call yourself a mistress!” etc.

      I didn’t notice this before when watching the show but after reading this the comparison is more plausible now. Thanks for pointing this out to me.

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    • Thanks so much for adding the commands point. All his “orders” to her also rankled me while I was watching and were, in fact, a large part of why it evoked sub-dom imagery/master-slave comparison for me.

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    • entro

      @stacia, come on by comparing the pope characters situation to sally hemmings your diminishing the horrific treatment hemmings endured.She was a child held captive and raped repeatedly where is the romance ? Its a bad analogy stacia, your normally a very good writer and always on point but this is almost offensive

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    • I’ll acknowledge (for everyone here) that the comparison is a stretch. But it’s precisely the horrific conditions Hemings endured that makes it difficult to view any situation where a white president dominates a black lover without an eye to race/racism.

      The comparison I wanted to make her was to the idea that the president’s love affair with Olivia is romantic and evenhanded, when he’s in a position to fire her/destroy her reputation and career/dictate to her where/when they’ll meet.

      I wanted to make the point that the dominance is what they have in common, as well as a deliberate intention on the part of the storytellers to make this a legitimately romantic relationship.

      I’m not arguing that Olivia is being raped or physically abused, but I do believe, in light of last night’s ep, that she’s been/is being manipulated–and that the manipulation is a direct result of the president’s position of power/privilege.

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    • binks

      Bingo Bee!

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    • Danielle

      Black women always complaining over nothing and a tv show at that. SMFH. Seems like black ppl keep the racism and racial things in the present. And yes Im black and I said it.

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    • Seriously? You do realize though that many woman are naturally submissive and many men are naturally dominant so when they are together this is the way things are? Plus, just because Olivia Pope is dominant at work doesn’t mean she’s like that in her social life. Some career women actually like to let go of the control outside of work, just like some powerful men like to let go of the control sometimes too. There is nothing wrong with that as long as both partners like it. You don’t have to be strong and independent all the time!

      Of course some relationships both are equally dominant or submissive but why does this show have to be that way? It doesn’t have to have a sick or twisted connotation. So what if he gave her orders…people tell each other what to do all the time! You might just be ignoring the times when Olivia told the President not to touch her, you have to go, don’t talk to me etc. Should he have asked “please take off your clothes” or taken them off for her?

      Ladies please, something is going wrong here if you are so uncomfortable with the idea of being told what to do and you instantly get defensive. Olivia could have said no. He didn’t force her to do anything. The excitement about the show is about what the President’s intentions are and if he really is in love with her. For all we know he could be lying and that’s what I want to find out. They can’t reveal everything right away lol!

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    • I personally had no problem with him telling her to take off her clothes. Well I inherently didn’t have a problem with that. Men and women tell each other to do that all the time in a sexual context.

      Him telling her to say his name on the bus bugged me a little bit. It made her uncomfortable for a plethora of reasons i.e. he is her boss which makes it inappropriate and of course they have feelings for each other. Is he domineering? A little. But I believe that he is voicing something that they both want. He is less hesitant than she is. And that’s fine. Sometimes, one has to be open in order for the other feel comfortable expressing feelings.

      Of course this all sucks since he’s married and the POTUS. Sigh.

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  3. Well then perhaps I’m a bit more evolved, because I don’t see the relationship through a “racialized lens”. I simply see an unhappily married man who finds himself drawn to a beautiful, intelligent, dynamic woman. Though any potential relationship is stymied not by the fact that he is married w/ kids but by the fact that he is in a precarious position of power.

    Oh and he just so happens to be White, huh so I guess she happens to be Black then, yup… But it’s not the first thing that I see nor is it even the third. This show started off slow and boring for me, it was not until they began further exploring the relationship between Olivia and the President that it became interesting. Also, comparing Olivia to Sally Hemings in any regard is in my opinion woefully off-base. Slaves by definition had no voice, no power and no autonomy. No OPTIONS. Ms.Pope has free will, and this is the man that she chooses to love. His skin happens to be White.

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    • Sure are a lot of Jess’s on Clutch all of a sudden!

      Anyway…I’m a different Jess here, but I didn’t see the show and have no plans to as soon as I heard that Kerry Washington would be in it, and that Shondha Rhimes would be producing it.

      I’m not shocked at all that Washington is playing a highly sexualized role – my understanding is that the most recent episode was one of the most risque sex scenes for network TV ever – not shocked because I think her portrayal is the perfect way to start to desensitize the American public to Kerry’s next major sexually exploitive role as an enslaved Black woman who is highly sexualized and gravely sexually abused by white slave owners at the same time, in “Django Unchained”.

      Hollywood is very see-through in my opinion. Not interested in this show in any way.

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    • This is to the second Jess:

      You haven’t seen the show but you’re commenting on the sex scene. It was steamy. Rhimes writes steamy. Hollywood sells sexiness but black women can’t do that. Oh no!
      Because we’re Jezebels if we do that and upholding whitey’s stereotypes. Oh my!

      You do realize that people have sex right? Throughout the whole damned show Olivia Pope is in business attire dominating her field. You have people ACHING to be her client. Yet the minute she takes off her clothes and does what billions of people do she’s hypersexual. Oh ok. Women of all colors play a role in wrecking homes.

      Olivia Pope isn’t a 1 dimensional character. She is far from perfect. That’s what a fictional character is supposed to be like. Not some flat, stock character out there to appease our insecurities about our blackness.

      We can have all the “perfect” black characters but that will not change the stereotypes. All we can do is live our lives as best as we possibly can and not restrict black acting and black artistry.

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    • Danielle

      Amen Afia!

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  4. CurlySue

    This isn’t directly related to the theme of this article, but I was reading about Sally. I didnt know this but she was 3/4 white (her mother was half and her father was white) and her 7/8 white children entered white society when they were freed by Jefferson. I never knew she was bi-racial to that degree. It boggles the mind that her children were slaves until they were of age but likely looked as white as I do. The one-drop rule was and is so destructive.

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    • CurlySue

      The Wikipedia article about her has a lot of great info if anyone is interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Hemings

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    • entro

      Wiki pedia cannot be trusted in any form, I urge you to do further research on sally hemmings, she was biracial and she was a child that had been raped by her master any romance between them was revisionary fantasy > I could be mistaken but Ive read that she was 8 yrs old when jefferson started having sex with her, but my memory is clear that she was no older than 14

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    • CurlySue

      Yes, I would like to read about her and her children further. I really knew nothing about her background so I was taken by surprise that she was 3/4 white and that her children claimed white when freed. Her daughter married a wealthy man in DC and it was never suspected that she was of slave descent. The whole non-secret secret aspect of the relationship between the Jeffersons and the Hemings at Monticello is something so wholly foreign in our time. At least to me.

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    • Kacey

      Please do not take anything you read on Wikipedia at face value. There is good reason why educators discourage students from using it as a source for research papers. Remember, ANYONE can add a Wikipedia entry and the research sources and research methods are never verified unless there is a complaint made by a reader. Do your own research and always consider the source(s).

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    • CurlySue

      No, definitely not taking Wikipedia as gospel. I just went there first since I wanted a quick rundown on her. Reading online, the book The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed is supposed to be quite good. I think I might buy that for the Kindle and take a gander. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m romanticizing the relationship. I just think going off what I’ve gleaned from surfing the Web that it was very nuanced and there is a lot of controversy surrounding it. Which is natural, given that the relationship spanned several decades and produced 7 children, 4 of whom survived.

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    • curlysue

      Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a pretty good book on Sally Hemmings. IIRC, part of the book is fiction but she tried to write as close to fact as possible.

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  5. Toppin (Formerly Known As Just Sayin')

    “One of the reasons why is that I can’t seem to view this show through an un-racialized lens.”

    Sounds like a personal problem.

    Almost all U.S. presidents are WHITE. It makes more sense to make the president white than black…despite Obama being in office.

    The author appears to have a problem with black women sleeping with “powerful” white men period.

    Had she made the argument against Kerry’s character being the mistress I would have agreed, but the fact is her comments appear to center around the fictional president’s race….not his status as a married man.

    Why doesn’t the racialized lens only come out when beautiful black women are portrayed with white men?

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    • I agree. Sounds like a personal problem.

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    • Toppin (Formerly Known As Just Sayin')

      ^^^Should read “why does…”

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    • 1. What other “powerful” white men are being evoked here, since I “seem to have a problem with all of them?”

      2. It’s an op-ed. All the opinions here, problematic or otherwise, are personal. So…?

      3. The racialized TV viewing lens has never just been limited to black women/white men onscreen couplings.

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    • Alyssa

      Yes and as an op-ed, the people have the right to comment on it with their own opinions right? Your title alone is very provocative. You cannot be surprised that anyone disagrees with and subsequently thinks what you’re saying is farfetched and little bitter?

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    • Toppin (Formerly Known As Just Sayin')

      @Stacia L. Brown

      “What other “powerful” white men are being evoked here, since I “seem to have a problem with all of them?”

      Ummm, Thomas Jefferson, a dead and gone slaveowner and former president.

      You made comments about a “dominant-submissive” relationship with a man who is supposed to be the leader of the free world….I doubt you would have made such comments had the fictional president been black. I doubt you would have made such comments had the fictional white man been a regular average Joe.

      Your distaste for this union comes in large part from the power dynamics displayed here (i.e., she is powerful but he is MORE powerful and dominant. One top of that he is WHITE, which in your head evokes thoughts of slavery, manipulation, forced rape, etc).

      Get the idea that POWERFUL white men somehow or the other “take” modern day black women out of your head. We are not slaves. Black women today have the right to CHOOSE who we have relationships with. Let Sally Hemmings rest in peace.

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    • I welcome disagreement. It’s the whole reason for writing something that’s intended to provoke discussion. But comments about whether or not how I feel about this particular depiction of this relationship onscreen extends to my overall views on interracial relationships would require more information than I’ve written here.

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    • @Toppin

      Jefferson’s there to compare president to president to president, supposed mistress to mistress. These are two men I’ve discussed in order to make a comparison. Mentioning both relationships doesn’t mean that I have a problem with all black women dating white men in positions of dominance/power.

      The dom-sub conversation would, in fact, still be in play if the president in this show were black, as would his infidelity. I mentioned both possibilities in the body of the article.

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    • Why not compare it to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? That was the relationship that came to mind for me watching the show because there was actually an affair with an intern and the scandal could end up with the president being impeached. Why not refer to something in the last 100 years lol? It also reminds me of JFK and rumors about him and Marylin Monroe because she supposedly was brought into the White House or he supposedly sneaked out to see her. You are referencing Sally Hemmings because she was the only mistress who was Black but most people would think about the two instances I mentioned.

      You also have some issues with control and dominance and those are your personal issues not a flaw or bias in the show.

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    • Danielle

      I sooooooooooo agree with you.

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