'New Girl' and the Constant Negotiation of Race

By Lani Prunés 4-27-2015
'New Girl' poster featuring Winston. Image via FOX.
'New Girl' poster featuring Winston. Image via FOX.

For being a television show based on absurdist humor and millennial first-world-problems, New Girl hit home earlier this month.

Winston, played by Lamorne Morris, is a roommate with a thousand changes in career, the latest and most lasting being that of a cop for the Los Angeles Police Department. The hilarity surrounding Winston has mostly been about his police training or his friend’s concern for his safety, when they tried to physically keep him from policing by stealing his cruiser keys. Then, with script writing help from Morris himself, New Girl took a momentarily serious turn.

When a pretty woman invites Winston on a date to the park for a rally to protest the police, who she describes arrested a 14-year-old because he “fit a description,” Winston declines, walking backward to hide his LAPD shirt.

He later says, “With everything that’s been going on, I just feel like she wouldn’t respect me.”

In that moment, Morris’ character finds himself caught between two conflicting worlds, what W.E.B. Du Bois called having a “double consciousness” — the brotherhood of a police force alongside white officers, keeping the peace and making neighborhoods safer, and the collective turmoil that comes with being a black man in a post-Ferguson America.

Many Americans must feel this conflicting pull and feel unable to voice it: citizens with friends or family who are officers and who are in solidarity with their black and brown neighbors and officers themselves who fear for their safety every moment they are on duty and battle with racial implicit bias because of harrowing experiences in their communities.

I myself feel this pull as a woman of color who grew up in North Philadelphia, where a mistrust of police was built into my framework of survival despite never once having a negative experience with Philly police.  Solidarity with Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Dante Parker is a given. They are the kind of men I saw every day growing up, men with questionable pasts and an unquestionable love for their families and communities — despite only the former being brought to light.

And I have met police officers working in neighborhoods where they and their partners are cornered and ambushed by street gangs. They are men and women with families, told they are hated by the black and brown children they rescue from crime scenes.

I turned to music as I wrote myself in circles, trying here to verbalize an emotion, a worried feeling that I’m not doing something right. I came across a radio interview with Community star and rapper Donald Glover in which he talks about what I believe Morris was battling with his New Girl script.

“Being young and black in America is schizophrenic. You kind of have to change who you are a little bit all the time for people to even respect you.”

Yes.

And I would add that many youth of color in America battle this duality, this “double consciousness,” where we are consistently being asked to reconcile the cultures that comprise our identities — all the more so as people of color are transcending into positions and acquiring qualities that people have considered to be “white.”

If while in my parents’ home I spoke the way I do at work, I would be accused of trying to sound “white.” I know this because it has happened, so I check myself at the door before I walk in. If I was my whole colorful, vibrant, and outwardly expressive self around college friends and employers, I would be less relatable and a little more threatening, not to mention less likely to get a job. I become a flexible version of my truest self, the self who loves words but can’t use the long ones and who gets all fired up but makes sure her voice doesn’t get too loudIt’s a terrible place to find oneself, in an identity limbo that feels impossible to explain at the best of times, never mind in 800-something words while America is holding its breath. 

It is with this tension I wrestle, and it is in that wrestling that I grieve with my black and brown brothers and sisters for those we have lost, and those we still will. I likewise grieve with some of our civil servants who want to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God who loves creation and all of us in it. Black, or white, or brown.  

Lani Prunés is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners magazine.

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