On Integrated Casts and Minority Characters

Rewatching Regenesis, as I do now and then, I’m reminded of the diverse racial makeup of the cast; this is not a uniformly white show, which is especially appropriate given the setting. Toronto is not a uniformly white city, and it’s a hub for immigration and innovation, which explains why, for example, Carlos is from Mexico, while Mayko appears to be of Vietnamese-Canadian extraction although it’s never specifically spilled out. While the cast is definitely slanted white, the roles for major players aren’t reserved for white people alone, and these characters bring their own strengths to the drama rather than being purely symbolic.

This isn’t an ‘all you people let’s point at the characters of colour and feel proud of ourselves’ show, as the characters are seamlessly integrated into the narrative and a huge fuss isn’t made of their racial backgrounds. They are simply people who happen to be something other than white, which sometimes confers an advantage; Carlos, for example, plays a critical role in investigations in Spanish-speaking communities because he’s fluent and familiar with specific cultural issues that might be more abstract for his Canadian teammates. Regenesis is one of the few shows I can think of that’s done this successfully; Grey’s Anatomy is another example.

In both shows, it appears that casting decisions were made on the basis of who seemed best for a role, rather than who seemed most white. Christina, Bailey, the Chief, and other characters of colour on Grey’s aren’t there as set dressing or for diversity points, they’re just there, being doctors, happening to look the way they do.

This approach to casting is sometimes referred to as ‘colourblind,’ a term I dislike because of the implications it carries; the whole concept of being ‘colourblind’ or saying you ‘don’t see colour’ is in itself racist. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an approach to casting that I really want to see more of, because one of the biggest mistakes made when it comes to talking about representation is assuming that people of colour need to play specifically coded characters; that, for example, a Black woman can’t play a doctor, she needs to play The Black Doctor. A Latino man can’t be a CEO, he needs to be The Latino CEO. And so forth; the same mistake is made with representations of other minority groups, like disabled people and members of the LGBQT community.

It seems unfathomable to Hollywood to allow characters to simply be, and have minority identities as part of their characterisation but not the sum total of their personality. There is an assumption that a character is white, straight, and nondisabled unless this is specifically spelled out, and it doesn’t need to be that way; nor do characters need to be ‘adapted’ to fit an amazing actor who happens to be a minority. It is in fact possible to allow characters to just be themselves, doing their own thing, representing identities other than the socially perceived norm, without the world collapsing in on itself.

This same insistence on making identities the sum total of characters is a major contributor to identity politics in media. And this contributes to social attitudes about minority identities, like the widespread belief that people are obsessed with and consumed by single aspects of their identities to the exception of everything else. The fact that people rarely see, say, people of colour just going about their daily business in media means that they continue to associate people of colour and nonwhite people with the ‘other,’ and they assume that the norm for being a member of society must therefore involve whiteness. Singling people out for exceptional treatment reinforces the dichotomy between Whiteness and Other; when was the last time you saw a character’s whiteness singled out as an amazing or remarkable thing, or used as an integral part of a plotline?

This is not a plea to have ‘colourblind’ or ‘disability-blind’ or what-have-you media, because that would be a profound mistake, but rather a considered request for more balanced representation. It’s possible to depict minorities in media doing average, ordinary, regular, every day things without making a big production of their identity, and without erasing it, either. Take, for example, the handling of Mayko Tran’s injury on Regenesis. We see her in several episodes going about her business, with no clue or sign that anything might be wrong. Then, abruptly, her injury becomes relevant to the storyline and we find out her leg was amputated after the explosion that ended season two.

She wasn’t obsessed or consumed by her amputation, but it wasn’t erased, either. It was just part of her very multifaceted character, and when it was textually appropriate, it came into the drama with a bang. A reminder for viewers of the reverberating costs of the explosion, of the experiences all the characters endured, and also of the differences between those who paid a personal price, like Mayko, and those who just watched others suffer, like David. Grey’s, I’ll note, struggled with a similar storyline, and the mistake they made was insisting on consuming Arizona Robbins with her misery and suffering, rather than giving her a more balanced story—in part, this was because the show picked up so quickly after the wake of the accident, but in part it was also because of a fundamental different in attitudes about disability on both shows.

For Rhimes, it was a failure of treatment and a tragedy for the character, a storyline around which the character’s whole life suddenly had to revolve. For Jennings and Chehak, it was part of a character’s development, and not the most important thing about her.