You know those supercool media people who get sent advance copies of entire seasons of certain shows, while everyone else has to watch week-to-week to find out what happens? Well, I am not one of those media people. I fancy myself supercool. But no one sends me s—t. Except requests to review books about natural hair and Shawn Kemp.
Still, although I haven’t actually seen the entire new season of Empire, the entire new season of How to Get Away With Murder or the entire new season of Scandal, I have no doubts about what’s going to happen on each of these shows:
Someone will have sex.
Someone will call someone a bitch.
Someone will have sex with someone they’re not supposed to have sex with.
Someone will be gay.
Someone gay will have gay sex. Presumably with someone else who is gay. And, if these happen to be two gay men, they will have … gay male sex.
Someone will get killed.
Someone who happens to be a main character will kill someone.
Someone who happens to be a main character will get killed. (Or maybe not.)
Someone who happens to be black will have sex with someone who happens not to be black.
Someone who happens to be black and gay might call someone a bitch while they’re having sex.
Someone gay and black will have sex with someone gay and white and will call him a bitch right before shooting him.
And, while all of this is happening, you will be doing one of three things:
1. Watching Empire, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder; or …
2. Not watching Empire, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, and living your life completely unconcerned with and unbothered by Empire, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder and whether anyone chooses to watch any of these shows; or …
3. Being so upset about Empire, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder—and the attention given to these shows—that you make “talking s—t about Empire, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, and the people who enjoy these shows,” a permanent side gig. With cards from Vistaprint and a LegalZoom account to make it more official. You are an incorporated hater. Your level of hate has a blue check mark.
Perhaps you exhibit this hate by talking about how “while everyone’s watching Empire, you’re BUILDING an empire” … despite the fact that the only way you could build an empire in 57 minutes is if you had Fisher-Price alphabet block letters and spelled out e-m-p-i-r-e with them. Or maybe you rant about the “gay agenda trying to promote gayness,” like seeing two men hold hands on-screen is going to force you to think, “You know what? Maybe I’ll try penis this week.” Or maybe you just get on your soapbox about how the “lack of positive imagery” on these shows is “ruining black America,” despite the fact that it proves you believe black America (and, by extension, black people) is so weak, our culture so tenuous and insignificant and unsettled, that watching Empire is like removing a Jenga piece from the bottom.
Which is really what’s at the bottom of this hate. The animus against Empire—and Scandal, and HTGAWM, and the Love & Hip Hop series, and Real Housewives of Atlanta, and whatever else happens to be the source of haters’ ire—is a red herring. Because if each of these shows ceased to exist, the haters would rail against the shows replacing them. The issue is a latent belief that blackness—black culture, black people, black customs, black everything—needs saving. Because we’re apparently so uniquely f—ked up, so pathologically and structurally faulted, that every moment watching a show like Empire and not on Facebook writing statutes about building empires makes Frederick Douglass spin so furiously in his grave that he’s practically Wobbling.
These are the people who say things like, “This is why black people will never rise” and “If black people were more like white people, we’d be better black people”—and believe it. Their animus is a weaponized version of them internalizing all the animus that America has had toward us. And, on some level, it makes sense. Because if you truly do believe the blackness you belong to ain’t s—t, of course you’re hypersensitive to whether shows depicting us are depicting the “right” things.
But just as we (black people) do not need to be saved by this distilled version of respectability politics—our culture is too rich; our blackness too limitless—this distilled version of respectability politics will not save you. Not watching Empire will not make you a better black person. Just someone who doesn’t watch Empire.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.