Artist: Fall Out Boy
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When critics talk of the great “antiheroes” of TV drama right now, they mention the Walts, the Dons, and the Rusts. But what about Olivia Pope? White men on television, of course, get to be morally questionable, and people will love it. Black women on television are expected to be role models, to “represent” the race in a positive light. Black women on television are allowed to be heroes, but not in a way that threatens whiteness. They are allowed to be strong, but not overpowering; smart, but not arrogant. They’re expected to be independent but also team players.
At the forefront of How To Get Away With Murder is Annalise Keating (Davis, whose performance is unquestionably the best part of this pilot). Annalise, much like Olivia Pope, flies in the face of all that bullshit. She’s a tough-as-nails criminal defense attorney and law professor whose students, rightfully, both fear and admire her. She cheats in court and cheats on her husband with a hunky detective. She’s a real human woman with real human flaws.
“I want to be her,” Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King) says when Annalise and her team literally slow-motion strut out of court after winning yet another case. Annalise certainly isn’t “likable,” but that’s because the characters of How To Get Away With Murder transcend the silly likable/unlikeable dichotomy. And at the end of the day, you do want to be her. Not because she fits the mold as your typical “role model.” But because she’s awesome. And characters of color don’t usually get to be awesome. They’re often too tied up in tokenizing goals on the writers’ parts or racist expectations from viewers or respectability policing from both sides of this equation to just be. Let alone just be awesome.
Early in my freshman year, my dad asked me if there were lots of Latinos at school. I wanted to say, “Pa, I’m one of the only Latinos in most of my classes. The other brown faces I see mostly are the landscapers’. I think of you when I see them sweating in the morning sun. I remember you were a landscaper when you first came to Illinois in the 1950s. And look, Pa! Now I’m in college!”
But I didn’t.
I just said, “No, Pa. There’s a few Latinos, mostly Puerto Rican, few Mexicans. But all the landscapers are Mexican.”
My dad responded, “¡Salúdelos, m’ijo!”
So when I walked by the Mexican men landscaping each morning, I said, “Buenos días.”
Recently, I realized what my dad really meant. I remembered learning the Mexican, or Latin American, tradition of greeting people when one enters a room. In my Mexican family, my parents taught me to be “bien educado” by greeting people who were in a room already when I entered. The tradition puts the responsibility of the person who arrives to greet those already there. If I didn’t follow the rule as a kid, my parents admonished me with a back handed slap on my back and the not-so-subtle hint: “¡Saluda!”
I caught myself tapping my 8-year-old son’s back the other day when he didn’t greet one of our friends: “Adrian! ¡Saluda!”
However, many of my white colleagues over the years followed a different tradition of ignorance. “Maleducados,” ol’ school Mexican grandmothers would call them.
But this Mexican tradition is not about the greeting—it’s about the acknowledgment. Greeting people when you enter a room is about acknowledging other people’s presence and showing them that you don’t consider yourself superior to them.
When I thought back to the conversation between my dad and me in 1990, I realized that my dad was not ordering me to greet the Mexican landscapers with a “Good morning.”
Instead, my father wanted me to acknowledge them, to always acknowledge people who work with their hands like he had done as a farm worker, a landscaper, a mechanic. My father with a 3rd grade education wanted me to work with my mind but never wanted me to think myself superior because I earned a college degree and others didn’t.
Saluden Muchachxs, saluden.