Issa Rae was told to feature a white character in her work so people would care

Issa Rae stays booked and busy and as she closes one chapter to her life, Insecure, Issa Rae has already moved on to her next big project, Rap $hit. In a new profile for Mic Magazine, Issa discussed how she purposely does not center whiteness in her shows. Issa also revealed that she put a white actor as a love interest in Awkward Black Girl, her first series, because she was told by a colleague that that was the only way she would get people to care about her work. Issa went on to say that she was told to do the same thing for Insecure but she decided not to. Below are a few more highlights via Mic:

“What I loved especially about that piece was that it just pointed out whose shoulders I’m standing on,” Rae says. “It was like seeing your television ancestors all in one place.” Citing Debbie Allen’s choice to tackle the issue of race head-on in A Different World, a departure from Bill Cosby’s original intention for the series, she says, “I’m just proud of the little protests that everyone has had to do to enable us to do us. I hope that we’re brave enough to be able to carry that through.”

“I knew the onus was going to be on us to represent all Black women because we just didn’t have a lot of shows featuring Black women then,” she says. Comparing her experience with that of a predominantly “white show” like Big Little Lies, she continues, “Nobody’s coming for Nicole Kidman like, ‘Bitch, you don’t represent every white woman. Fuck you.’” But such is the “special scrutiny” of Black work. “Every Black show gets it. Every Black piece of work gets scrutiny because we’re sensitive about our shit.”

“I said from the jump during the promo tour: ‘This is a very specific Black female experience — it’s my specific one — we cannot represent all of that.’ And even now people are still like, ‘This doesn’t represent me, this is not it, this is the only representation that we have,’ and I realize that’s just a constant complaint with whatever you put out.”

Perhaps the most significant thing about Insecure is the way that, in increasing measures through each season, it refuses to center its world around white people — a unique privilege for a Black TV show.

When I ask Rae about the lessons she hopes to pass to people of color who want to follow in her footsteps, she launches into the role of the white gaze in her work: “From the jump in creating the show, it was put in my mind that you had to have a white character to be a bridge, and for people to care, for it to get awards, for it to be considered worthy of the television canon.”

In Awkward Black Girl, one of the two main love interests is White Jay, a white man that Rae’s character spends the first season in a will-they-or-won’t-they back and forth. She tells me that the character was added at the advice of a colleague.

“She was just like, ‘Girl, if you want this shit to set off to the next level, you got to put a white character in there, then white people will care about it, then NPR is going to write about your shit, and it’ll blow up,’” Rae tells me. “And then it literally happened.” This thinking stuck with her as she began to develop Insecure.

[From Mic]

Sigh, it is 2021 ya’ll. Why are white executives still rolling out this bullsh*t? This is the same mindset that Hollywood has been preaching for years, with the lie that no one would see a movie with a Black lead, despite all evidence to the contrary. No one ever says all-white shows and movies need to add a Black or brown person to the cast so that people care. I’m looking at you, Friends and Seinfeld, but whatever. We know that this is a myth, all you have to do is ask Tyler Perry. I do not recall a single white person in the early Madea movies and a lot of white people were watching those. I can go as far back as the Cosby Show and a Different World. The white people were sprinkled in occasionally and yet those were some of the most popular shows of their time. The idea for Friends was colonized from an all Black cast show, Living Single, and before Friends was released, Living Single was doing quite well. I know plenty of white people who watch shows and movies that do not have white people in their casts.

I am so happy that Issa does not cave to the pressures of making her projects more palatable to a white audience. I also love that Issa makes it clear that her shows are not meant to represent all Black people either. Issa’s life and experiences are specific to her and she writes from that place. I am looking forward to the final season of Insecure and watching Issa Rae’s future projects. If this topic comes up again to Issa, all she has to do is cite how wildly popular her show Insecure was with an all Black cast.

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17 Responses to “Issa Rae was told to feature a white character in her work so people would care”

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  1. GraceB says:

    I completely get why she didn’t want to add a white person to the cast and why it wouldn’t have been appropriate to do so.

    It’s not really possible or right to compare TV or movies now, to those of the past, like Friends. Hopefully we’ve moved on a lot since then. It would be lovely to see more TV shows and movies made with casting thats appropriate to the storyline, rather than having a token black or white person. That isn’t about equality, in my mind. Having token races is just a continuation of racism and bias. More generalised shows should just have a cast which is representative of the population of wherever it’s set.

  2. Nina says:

    As a white person, I’m baffled why would anyone think that an all black cast would be uninteresting to me. I grew up on Cosby Show, Prince of Bel Air and similar shows. They were very interesting and entertaining, even though I grew up in all white European country. Those executives know nothing

    • Brainfog says:

      Same. I have never watched Friends or Seinfield (boring, both of them) but I watched Prince of bel Air happily back then and I will happily watch most of the stuff that Tyler Perry puts out. There’s also a whole section on Netflix on Black tv series and I love it. Not only Black people are tired of white people’s nonsense. Even white peeps are, LOL

    • lucy2 says:

      Same here! I was a little white kid in the suburbs, who loved the Cosby Show, A Different World, 227, Family Matters, Fresh Prince, What’s Happening. I liked anything that was entertaining, and watched a lot of TV while I did crafts and art and stuff.
      I hate that people put restrictions on creative voices like Issa’s, but I’m so glad she’s at a place now where she does what she wants. And I love Insecure.

      • BothSidesNow says:

        @ lucy2, I too am a kid from the suburbs and I loved watching 227 and What’s Happening and The Jefferson’s!! Then later, I watched Cosby Show and Fresh Prince!! It never crossed my mind that the cast never needed a white person represented, why should they? Jefferson’s had a mixed race couple, but that was important to represent as well. As a young adult, I grew up with a mixed couple as part of society.

        It’s unacceptable that they placed restrictions on Issa. No more terms on what is acceptable or not, it’s time to move on and up!! Racism is still alive in all places of society and we all need to shut that down, and for good!!

    • Gina says:

      Same! I’m practically translucent from a European country and specifically an area with maybe 4 poc when I was growing up. My fave shows were the Cosby Show, Family Matters, the Prince of Bel Aire, Moesha.
      And I love Insecure, it’s an amazing show and isn’t any less interesting to be just because there’s no one with my complexion in the main cast.
      The execs in Hollywood need to get their heads out of their asses.

    • ItReallyIsYouNotMe says:

      Same! I looovved A Different World and The Fresh Prince and Family Matters. I watched the TGIF lineup religiously. Just because something isn’t your own experience doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy watching it. I mean, I watched Friends in high school and college so I certainly didn’t relate to anything going on in the show, but I still laughed hard and cared about the characters.

    • iconoclast59 says:

      Joining the chorus here. This white lady watched and enjoyed Living Single, A Different World, The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, etc back in the day. NEVER did I think or say, “They need to have more white people or I’m not watching!” I was astute enough to understand that not everything has to be about MY take on life.

    • chitowner says:

      This! I grew up on the Cosby Show and it was everything I wanted my family to be. If the writing and the acting are there, who cares if the characters look like me? I feel like these ‘decisions’ all get made by a bunch of white men who want to see what they find ‘palatable’.

  3. Yikes says:

    I loved Awkward Black Girl and I always wondered if there was a deeper reason for White Jay.

  4. pyritedigger says:

    People here may be baffled, but anti-black racism is a real thing. For example– the disgusting ‘controversy’ around Rue from the Hunger Games being a black girl. People literally said they cared less about her death and her character because she was black, despite the fact it was quite clear in the books she was black. These people just couldn’t picture Rue as black because that would mean they cared about a young black girl.

    The person giving that advice to Issa probably just thought they were being ‘realistic’ but what it does is perpetuate racism, and I’m glad she didn’t do it in Insecure–which is a great show and one of my favorites.

    • Nick G says:

      John Boyega received hate mail and death threats for daring to be cast as a Stormtrooper, again at such a young age. Yes there are many, many white people who love black sitcoms, but there are still a lot of feelings under the surface in the zeitgeist, you know? (Sorry to mix metaphors).

      • pyritedigger says:

        Yes exactly– the fact they minimized or deleted John from the Star Wars posters in some markets says how much anti-black racism there is in the world.

  5. Onemoretime says:

    Hello old out dated executive there is this thing called the internet & we know for sure that an all minority show whether it be black, Latin, or Asian does not need to include white people for white people to enjoy.
    It’s time to move on out of the 1950’s.

  6. Hillbo Baggins says:

    I’m as white as Wonderbread and absolutely love Insecure. It’s one of the few shows I’ll watch the night an episode is aired vs. just streaming it later. Issa’s characters are real people with depth, flaws, and redemptions. I’m proud of her for standing up for her art and will continue to seek out anything she makes.

  7. Kate says:

    I looked up Issa Rae on IMDB last night to see if the new season of Insecure was out yet and despite typing in “issa” she came up behind 6 white Melissas. I tried finding Insecure on HBO and had to search for the whole title name before finding it (as opposed to most shows or movies that pop up after you type the first one or two letters). Maybe the lack of white characters isn’t your problem, HBO, maybe you should just promote the show.

    • Veronica S. says:

      It’s probably because of how the search algorithm sorts names. If you plug in Issa Rae, she’s the very first result. Even just plugging in “Issa” pulls up her company name a few credits down. Likewise, if I put “Jessica” in, none of the big A-list names you would expect pop up in the initial results, either. You have to put the last name in to get them.

      Don’t have HBO, so can’t speak for that, but the sorting algorithms on those can be weird or glitchy, too. Netflix will literally forget things at times on my search.