I always take my students through a chapter focused on Iola's work experiences in the North, where she secures positions based on skill and demeanor but loses them when those around her reject or attack her because of her race. She then takes a job as an in-home nurse for a 15-year-old whose health improves so much that her father rewards Iola with a position in his store. On her first day, he tells his staff that Iola has "colored blood in her veins" and they can leave if they object to working with her.
On multiple occasions, I've listened as students tried to find reasons other than race-based malice that might explain the behavior against Iola; often they go on to make a hero of the store owner who intercedes on her behalf. There's nothing in the text to suggest these interpretations, primarily because these characters are not fleshed out beyond this chapter. They're tangential, meant only to illustrate the protagonist's -- Iola's -- experience.
The impulse to valorize a fictional character as a white savior is evident in popular culture, everywhere from Kevin Costner's character in "Hidden Figures" to Sandra Bullock's in "The Blind Side." But the so-called "white savior" narrative isn't the only reason my students insist on trying to see this chapter from the perspective of minor white characters -- it's something that runs even deeper.
The problem is that some of my students simply can't see Iola as the protagonist in her own story. I don't blame my students for this tendency. It simply highlights the intellectual work that I must help them do -- and what I am up against as I try.
This has been on my mind as I've observed the emerging popularity of and critical discourse around the new Netflix show "The Chair." Many critics and viewers seem obsessed with whether the series is a "realistic" depiction of life and work in the academy.
"The Chair," which stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim
, the first woman of color to chair the English Department at (fictional) Pembroke University, is deliberate in its positioning of Oh's character as a protagonist. As the show has elicited a surge of response from viewers in academia and beyond -- some negative, some overwhelmingly positive -- I keep coming back to two related questions that share a common answer: Why can't some of my students see things from Iola's point of view, and why do some of the academics taking issue with "The Chair" seem so disappointed that it's not "realistic"? Both reflect a refusal to make a female protagonist of color the center of her own story.
'Ji-Yoon is a character, not a person'
A protagonist is a character whose dilemmas and choices drive the action because their development (or lack thereof) illuminates the truths about life that a story exists to convey. Some of my students struggled to treat a woman of color as a protagonist, one whose perspective is meant to be central to their understanding of what happens in the story. As "The Chair" reminded me, my students aren't the only ones unable to do this.
Admittedly, "The Chair" plays up the absurdity of human interactions, especially those among people who take themselves too seriously -- because it's a comedy. However, using realism as the most important standard for judging art like this would be far more absurd. After all, these are characters, not real people. This is not a novel, but it's also not a reality television show or documentary.
It's worth mentioning that for many other viewers
, particularly women of color in the academy
, "The Chair" is resonating
, strongly. Many identify with Oh's character; others are admitting that they find
"The Chair" "triggering." Many identify with untenured professor Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), another woman of color who must accommodate less productive colleagues because they have power and fragile egos.