Since its inception in the late ’80s, the Canadian teen soap, Degrassi, has always set itself apart from other teen dramas. The show actually employs real teens unlike the twenty-somethings that masquerade as 14-year-olds on American soaps. And Degrassi has always prided itself on being the show that “goes there” with frank discussions about abortion, drug use, STDs and gun violence. Now in 2016, Degrassi has the distinction of being the only show this year to openly and thoroughly discuss race relations without capitalizing on Black pain.
Though many shows this year have tried to address the hot topic of Black Lives Matter, most have done so with dismal results. Lifetime drama, UnReal, introduced a Black bachelor on its show within a show “Everlasting” and though it seemed groundbreaking (the actual reality show The Bachelor has yet to have a non-white lead), the writers had a Black character shot by police and used the incident to focus on the pain of the white female lead. Two weeks after the controversial episode and we still have yet to revisit the character that was shot. Similarly, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, had a beloved Black female character killed at the hands of a correctional officer … which would have been interesting if the episode had centered around that character rather than focusing on the white male guard who killed her. Are we seeing a pattern here?
Ironically, Degrassi, a Canadian teen soap that was nearly cancelled about a year ago, just released its second season arc on Netflix and used ten episodes to truly explore the issues of Black lives, racism, and school punishment. It was the most thorough tackling of these issues I’ve ever seen done on a television show and they managed to do it without exploiting Black pain or using the visual horror of violence being inflicted on Black bodies. The central conflict, which played out over several half-hour episodes, centered on Frankie, a white upper-middle class girl and her best friend, Shay, a Black lower-middle class girl, and their volleyball team. When Frankie and some other members of the volleyball team decide to prank a rival school, nicknamed The Zoo, Frankie puts up a banner depicting several of the Black girls on that team as gorillas. The rival team then refuses to play Degrassi and essentially blackballs them until the person responsible is removed from the team.
Over the course of the season, Shay wrestles with knowing that her friend isn’t “racist” but also knowing that Frankie did do something racist and needs to face the consequences. This causes Shay to rethink her own personal experiences with race and how it affects her life. Frankie, on the other hand, has to confront her white privilege and after some half-assed apologies and even doubling down for a while, she slowly starts to confront her bias.
The issue is further addressed when another Black student is unfairly expelled due to a zero-tolerance policy, which the show points out are usually applied more frequently in the cases of students of color. The suspension sparks protests from the other students and leads to the entire school having some frank discussions about race. All of these issues are touched upon throughout the season with the students concluding that it’s not necessarily about whether or not individuals are racist, it’s about systems that treat people unfairly and admitting where they fall within that system and how they can change it. It’s a simple concept but one that many adults struggle with.
Too often when addressing issues of race on television, we’re forced to either look from the perspective of the one good, non-racist person or characters are depicted as over-the-top villainous racists. Degrassi managed to show the grey areas and nuances without ever equivocating on one fact: what Frankie did was wrong. No matter what her intention was or what she meant, what she did was racist. But what Degrassi also showed the audience was a way back. Once Frankie stopped being defensive and doubling down, she was able to come back from her mistake. This is really what television should strive for; to hold up a mirror and not let people turn away. It’s a shame that a teen soap had to show people how to get this right. Maybe we should all take a page out of their binder.