Television is really comfortable with showing unrepentant racists in the roles of villians; and playing racism for laughs or shockvalue. But what we don’t normally see in pop culture is the urge toward showing full characters. Including the racist bits.
I’ve been following Sons of Anarchy since the beginning of Season 3, and I was initally going to write about how the show treats whiteness. The world of Sons is almost an unauthorized form of whiteness that is rarely depicted without derision – defiantly lower class, quasi-ethnic, and trapped in the same kinds of systems that count as pathology in communities of color, but get the “trash” label when the conversation shifts to whites in the same situation.
However, that piece was put on hold because the subplot on this season is around a character named Juice Ortiz – and the problems that arise between his identity and the rules of the club.
[SPOILERS for the entire Juice story arc as well as other parts of the series ahead. This is your one and only warning.]
Now, the Sons seemed fairly unconcerned with racism. They went to war with a white supremacist crew, and have made alliances with local black and Latino bike gangs, though with mixed results. The older members are a bit more inclined toward racism, the younger ones a bit less so, but it really depends on the individual. In an early meeting with the new Sheriff, Juice’s mixed race background and black father are put on the table as bargaining chips: If Juice doesn’t cooperate, the Sheriff informs the club – which just so happens has a bylaw banning black members. Panicked, Juice is coerced by the Sheriff to steal a sample of the cocaine, attempts to do so, but falls asleep and doesn’t return the sample before counting. Things get hectic, and Juice ends up killing another member of the club to keep his secret. Increasingly weighed down by the increasing demands, his actions, and the secret, Juice attempts to commit suicide, leading fellow member Chibs to start looking after him. At one point, he tentatively asks about the “no blacks rule” to Chibs, another member of the club, who explains that while he didn’t personally agree, the rules were the rules, and if they stopped following the rules, everything would fall apart.
This part, I loved, because it makes the point about racism that we’ve been making all along – that it isn’t just hooded white supremacists that practice racism. Chibs, by failing to challenge an older racist rule, assisted in shaking Juice’s faith in his club, and isolated him even further, driving him deeper into the devious machinations of Lincoln Potter. In his moment of need, Juice doesn’t hear support. But neither Chibs does actively defend racism. Instead, he does so passively – he essentially slides neutral, and as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” For some people, Chibs’ position may have been unclear – how can he allow racism to continue, but still care about Juice? But that’s easy. Much of racism exists in the abstract – those people over there, not these good people you know, who are the exception. So, of course Chibs could uphold the club’s racist rules – it didn’t affect him. And of course he could then tell Juice not to worry – he’s not one of those abstract people. But notice, Chibs is careful with the language. After Juice’s confession, he assures him things will be alright – not because that rule was wrong and it was racist, or that he had faith that the rest of the Sons are so far removed from racism that they won’t mind, but because Juice’s birth certificate says “Latino.”
The anti-black rule still stands, unchallenged. And while Chibs may think it’s what’s in your heart that counts (as long as you aren’t black on your birth certificate), that doesn’t mean the rest of the club will agree.
Over at Kurt Sutter’s blog, he explains the seed for the story line:
There seems to be some confusion about Juice’s discomfort and fear regarding the discovery of his black father. This is a racial reality in outlaw motorcycle clubs. We’ve touched on the issue lightly over the first three seasons of SOA. The fact is that most of the bigger MC’s do not have African American members. There are black clubs and there are white (Caucasian, Latino, Asian) clubs. Most live in harmony. HA and the East Bay Dragons have been friends for decades. That relationship inspired the Grim Bastards in season 3. We delve into the delicate why’s and how’s of this racial bi-law later in the season, but it was one of those odd, historical barriers that I’ve wanted to explore. It’s a throwback to a different era that is still in practice today. I can honestly say that none of the guys I know in the life are racist, yet they function within a structure that is built upon a form of segregation. To me, that’s fascinating and fertile story turf. The depth and weight of this rule varies from club to club and this season we see how it’s handled by the Sons of Anarchy.
And Sutter does this, beautifully. Perhaps this is the freedom provided to creators who put antiheroes at the forefront of their work. Freed from the idea their characters need to be upstanding citizens to be likeable, they are able to explore more of the contradictions and complexities of human nature. It amazed me to see all the people on Sutter’s post saying that the Sons couldn’t be racist. Why not? Have you been paying attention for the last few seasons? The Sons are thieves, drug runners, murders, philanderers, wife-beaters, and backstabbers. A few episodes ago, Jax led a woman on to get her alone, face slammed her into a table, choked her, and spit in her face while calling her a whore. Did she fuck with the wrong people? Yes. Was it still really horrible to watch sexualized violence? Yes! Can my feminist brain hate that scene, but my fan brain simultaneously root for Jax protecting his club and family? Yes!
So why can’t viewers accept a character that is supposed to be seen as sympathetic that is racist or holds racist views?
For far too long, writers have been using racism a way to practice lazy characterization. It perpetuates the lie that all racists are horrible and hateful people – and not folks who happen to harbor irrational biases toward people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. However, by using racism as a lazy way to make someone evil, writers have painted themselves into a corner. Audiences have been conditioned to see characters who hold or express racial biases as inexplicably evil. So allowing a character in a work to express or defend racist views is to automatically mark that character as irredeemable. Interestingly, sexism in a character doesn’t quite work the same way – people will excuse that behavior as being true to the character. But a racist is too much for people to try to identify with, so writers normally push that messy aspect of people’s characters to the side. (This has been my ongoing beef with Mad Men. Especially now that a series that takes place during the height of Jim Crow, and a series that focuses on a predominantly white motorcycle club in Northern California made it work.) So while racism is a part of daily life, the idea that we have racism without actual racists has permeated our screens in the same way it has permeated society.
But here’s the thing. Characters are not required to be perfect.
The Sons don’t have to be anti-racist to be awesome characters. Over the last few weeks, personal relationships are frayed to the hilt. Everyone is struggling with the ideas of love, fealty, and protection. Gemma is lying to everyone, trying to protect everyone a little differently. Jax committed himself to a plan he didn’t believe in, in hopes of trading it for a future he would never see. And let’s not even get started on Opie. Everyone is being manipulated, lied to, fighting on a playing field that has irrevocably changed. This is beautifully written drama, because everyone is committing little betrayals for reasons they feel are right. So I wouldn’t be surprised, after this week’s non-resolution, that we shift away from the racism plot to wrap up one of the other dozen plot lines tightening around the Sons. But, as we’ve learned from the past few seasons that nothing is ever really laid to bed. Clay and Tig’s dirty deeds from the first season were just revealed (Edited: See ETA) to Opie in the last episode, so I think that Juice’s parentage may come up yet again.
If anyone survives to the fifth season, that is.
ETA: Welcome, SOA fans. As I mentioned at the very beginning of the post, I’ve been watching from Season 3. Many people have written in to correct the timing – Opie was made aware of Clay’s treachery and Tig’s murder of Donna back in Season 2, it was just revisited after Clay murders Piney. Part of the reason I am holding off on writing the other two pieces on Gender in Sons and on Whiteness in Sons, is because I haven’t been able to catch up on the first two seasons.