* There are spoilers in this post. *
Before I started watching A chair on Netflix, I was intrigued by the premise of the WOC chair at a predominantly white university. (Also, Sandra Oh is the queen of my heart.) The picture of three professors huddled at a stuffy party in the chair, looking at their male colleagues, made me happy. It seemed to promise a show that would throw white men out of the way to make room for women and colored people who deserve jobs in the workplace.
Instead, I got something much more familiar, something I’ve experienced more times than not: hiring optics / diversity.
Nana Mensah plays Yaz, a smart and thoughtful professor. Her splendor is praised, over and over again; she was promised that she would be the first African-American to fill the gaps in university history, a symbolic representative of blacks in a sea of whiteness, who would show progressive progress in her school.
Instead, Yaz is consistently betrayed.
First, at the beginning of the show, Yazu was promised a distinguished lecture position and then returned in favor of the celebrity’s brilliant guest.
Day after day, Yaza’s intelligence is undermined by her older white male counterparts, despite her rigorous successes. Elliot, a fellow professor of literature, is constantly amazed that she knows as much, if not more, than he does. Her class is full of eager students, ready to learn from her in a way that only she can teach. Elliot is intimidated by her approach to literature and is jealous of her ability to reach students the way he once did – these days classroom attendance has dried up for him. Yaz is forced to merge classes with him, in order to save his ego; then takes over the lecture, interrupting her lecture. Once he even walks away in the middle of a discussion as she talks.
In the second scene, Elliot insults her by calling one of her tasks “low-hanging fruit,” to which Yaz eventually says, “It’s a way of connecting with my students … but you’re a scholar from Melville … ”giving up his defense. When she said that, I felt it in my chest. Since I was already an exceptional talent in companies – I hired an optician and said I had to learn ‘how we work here’. The new ideas I offered were closed because ‘they were not possible’, but if any of my other white male colleagues had an idea, it was immediately praised and forwarded. Once? Maybe a coincidence. Every time, when my superior’s excuses become all superfluous? Sample. I knew I was there because I was as smart as my colleagues, but that only supported me so long before the intimidation sat in the driver’s seat. Eventually I started shrinking to make those around me act smarter.
The biggest — and perhaps least obvious — example of this dynamic takes place in conversations with Ji-Yoon, played by Sandra Oh. Ji-Yoon consistently fights for Yaz with higher successes, trying to gain her a permanent position. The problem is that even in his best effort to get Yaz to get what he deserves, Ji-Yoon fails to see her as a whole. She sees her as someone who will join the ranks for a good fight to change the face of the white patriarchal board of the university, but she still uses her as a pawn in her calming games. She understands how smart Yaz is and how it feels to neglect your intelligence because of race and gender, but she forgets those visceral feelings when she asks Yaz to move a hill of disappointment for her.
Sometimes as a person of color it can be difficult to distinguish who is a true ally from one who is just sympathetic to you. These differences can be compared to intentions not to be racist and to be targeted, proactive, anti-racist. It’s all in order.
At the end of the show, Yazu is offered a promising opportunity from Yale, but in the end does not accept the offer. Ji-Yoon promises to be able to match Yale’s pay offer, though it’s never clear if he does. In my alternate ending, Yaz takes a position at Yale, gets an accelerated term, receives a hefty salary increase, presents his teaching position – deeds. But in the end, she stayed in Pembroke, maybe because of obligations. It is understandable to stay in place, to hope for a better outcome. Sometimes it’s the only option you have, in an environment that isn’t built to reflect you.
PS How I feel like a black woman right now.
(Photos by Netflix, Glamor and Time.)