By Guest Contributor Joi Foley
It took me awhile to get into The Office. Straight up, I thought it was a bunch of racist BS. Every time I caught a rerun, I always turned it off in disgust, and spent at least a half hour ranting about how I couldn’t understand why people loved such a horrible show.
Somewhere in the middle of its sixth season, the show appeared on Netflix. Tired of constantly being told “you don’t watch The Office? OMG, you’d love it!” at parties, I decided to sit down and watch it straight through. My plan was to arm myself with specific instances of the show’s immaturity and lack of true humour, so that the next time someone pulled that shocked face like I had just admitted to being the reason we don’t have universal healthcare in this country, I would be ready.
The first season seemed to drag on forever, and it’s only 6 episodes long. I felt no love for Steve Carell’s character Michael Scott. I found him to be not only ignorant, but also self-absorbed and childish. The second episode, “Diversity Day”, includes one of the most painful-to-watch scenes anyone could ever put down on paper:
“The Office” Diversity Day Clip
Tags: “The Office” Diversity Day Clip
Why would anyone want to watch a show with this character as its lead?
But I was determined to understand the show’s popularity, so I kept watching. I began to realize why it made me so uncomfortable; it’s in fact the show’s greatest strength. The Office, unlike other shows that deal with this topic on a regular basis, is not interested in teaching white viewers lessons about race and racism. It is interested in providing its POC viewers with a catharsis, a chance to see their daily experiences validated by mainstream media.
We often talk about how important it is for POCs to see themselves represented on TV. Obviously, this means more than just seeing a brown face in a boardroom scene, or not having characters of colour constantly portrayed as villains. We want ample screen time and good dialogue given to well-rounded characters who are beyond stereotypes, and reflect a true experience of their community.
This is the brilliance of The Office. Its documentary style allows for reaction shots that are directly to the camera so they can be shared with the audience. The workplace setting gives the writers numerous opportunities to address real-life situations of racism, like wage gaps and “unintentionally” offensive theme parties. The ensemble cast creates spaces for anyone watching to fit themselves in and feel vindicated when a character like Michael Scott gets his comeuppance.
The season 3 episode “Diwali” exemplifies the show’s form. Where it really stands out is in the subtle ways it fulfills both sides of the “what we want to see” coin: it presents a relatable experience for Asian-American viewers, and provides a smart, non-exoticised picture of Indian-American culture for viewers who may not have any frame of reference for it.
The episode begins with Michael lamenting his employees’ lack of knowledge regarding Indian culture. He decides to hold a staff meeting to provide them with more info about Diwali:
The Office – Dwight Explains Diwali
Tags: The Office – Dwight Explains Diwali
This should seem fairly obvious and familiar to most of us. Michael is putting pressure on Kelly to literally educate their white colleagues about her culture, and is taken aback when she describes Diwali as one would any other holiday, instead of as some mystical, magical experience.
The more important part of this scene, however, is in Kelly’s description of the holiday, and her inability to answer specific questions about her religion. My first reaction to that moment was a bit of disappointment. Why are they portraying Kelly as uninformed? This is, of course, the same as Michael wanting her to talk about the origins of Diwali, and not just how much fun it is. As a white person, I wanted Kelly to represent her religion, and I assumed that’s what Indian-American people watching would want, too. But Kelly’s response allows her to avoid becoming a mannequin of the exotic. By not having specific answers to the questions and describing Diwali as a fun party, she shows that there is more to her than her religion, and that there’s more to her religion than just its value as something foreign and strange for others to experience.
(It should also be noted that, several times throughout this episode and others, Kelly is shown to be connected and knowledgeable about her religion, so it is likely that Kaling was intentionally playing the question moment as a polite refusal to engage on a blatantly racist remark made by a coworker, and not as Kelly being uniformed.)
Contrast this with another of NBC’s Thursday night offerings, 30 Rock. 30 Rock is one of my favourite shows of all time. How could I not love a show that does a full episode about how a great sandwich is? It’s also pretty intelligent about race & racism, but only in a way that seems to be as an outlet or education for white viewers. On numerous occasions, Liz and her fellow white colleagues are given lessons on how to deal properly with race, and how to check their privilege.
The episode that comes immediately to mind is Season 3’s “Christmas Special”, where Liz – left alone for the holidays by her vacationing parents – decides to donate gifts to a children’s charity called “Letters To Santa”. She ends up going overboard, buying multiple gifts, and choosing to deliver them herself. She becomes outraged when she knocks on the kids’ door and is greeted by two adult guys who take the gifts and slam the door in her face.
She returns to confront them and prove that she’d been scammed:
Lesson learned, Liz Lemon, and, by extension, all the white people watching.
In a similar vein to The Office, this punchline works on two levels. POC viewers are able to laugh at how Liz’s white-knighting backfired on her, and white viewers can laugh at how embarrassing the situation is. However, while the situation is no doubt familiar to the show’s non-white audience, the focus is not on that. The scene leaves us with only Liz’s attempts at lessening her guilt, making the final message a mix of “Sometimes, it’s hard for white people to navigate race” and “This is an example of what you shouldn’t do”.
The Office’s final message is always the same: “Yes, racism still exists, but you are not alone”. In this way, it is more beneficial to all its viewers, POC or otherwise, than other shows who choose to tackle race. One episode can leave anyone watching with both the truth of what’s going on in our world, and the feeling of being able to change it.