Two weeks ago, I watched The OA, an eight-hour TV series centered on a white woman who died, came back to life, and used her post-resurrection insights to help other people get their souls right. It was a good if deeply flawed show—and one of its biggest flaws was how pale it all was.
I really liked how The OA had concerns of spiritual well-being at its core, even if its execution relied too heavily on fluffy aphorisms and manipulating audience trust. But there was something jarring about seeing an ethereally affected white woman call herself the Original Angel, as if she had floated off a Renaissance painting of a biblical miracle and onto the TV screen. In this way, The OA is another example—like the 1996 John Travolta vehicle Michael, K-PAX and Powder— of how whiteness is treated as the default whenever a story decides to take a metaphysical look at the spiritual.
Think of any movie or TV show starring someone purporting to be an angel, and that angel will be white (although the roles of other, supporting angels may have more diversity). Modern religious epics still cast Caucasian actors as the decidedly non-Caucasian Noah, Moses, and others. Only recently has God been played by anyone other a white person, thanks to Morgan Freeman’s gravitas and sonorous voice.
The message that comes across from the aggregate paleness of supernatural/spiritual fiction like The OA is that the interior spiritual lives of black people and other folks on the margins don’t matter as much. Usually, non-white characters appear, help out White folks, and get out of the way. It’s the Magical Negro trope, and among its many problems is how the wants and needs of the Negroes themselves are never paramount. Even Morgan Freeman’s God in the Almighty movies only shows up to help the white mortals he’s granted omnipotence to.
This makes it appear that religion in general—and divine beings in specific—have no interest in non-white people. And the status quo is furthered by the fact that non-white characters never seem to have any religious turmoil or spiritual awakening in their own lives.
But that’s not true. Because I know firsthand that stranger things happen to us, too.
Click here to read more.