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Racism Is Always Right on Time With Black Casting Announcements and It’s Exhausting

The Mary Sue logo The Mary Sue 5/10/2022 Briana Lawrence
Percy Jackson and Doctor Who casts Black actors © Provided by The Mary Sue Percy Jackson and Doctor Who casts Black actors

A couple of days ago we got to see the main trio in the upcoming Percy Jackson and the Olympians series on Disney+ which included Leah Sava Jeffries (Empire) as Annabeth. Shortly after that announcement, we also learned that Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education) was going to be the 14th Doctor in Doctor Who. As a Black woman who’s been involved in fandom spaces for decades, I had two reactions, “OMG YES,” followed by, “How long before the racist takes crop up?”

The answer? A couple of seconds—and that’s me being generous.

But wait, didn’t they just pick the best person for the job?

While I’ve come to expect the downright awful comments that get hurled at Black folks in nerd space, there’s something to be said about remarks that try their hardest to NOT sound racist. It’s not about skin color, you see, it’s about the accuracy of the character according to the source material.

What’s interesting is that the same courtesy isn’t always given in the reverse situation. If a white person is cast in a part that should go to a person of color, we’re told that “they just picked the best person for the job.” That excuse is used a lot when someone asks why a character’s ethnicity isn’t being properly portrayed on screen, even if the source material has them depicted as being nonwhite. This also happens with colorist castings where someone casts a lighter-skinned actor for a darker-skinned character.

But if the best person was picked for the job, why isn’t the same logic applied when it’s, in this case, two Black actors getting the part? As our Princess Weekes writes in regard to Gatwa being cast as the next Doctor, “People always talk about the fact that casting should come down to who is the best person for the job, and it certainly seems like this is the case. Gatwa is an award-winning actor who has been known for his dynamic personality and energy. The representation is, without a doubt, incredible, and I think it can be said that he is very much deserving of this kind of opportunity.”

The showrunner, Russell T. Davies, agrees.

“He has talent. It was the most blazing audition. It was our last audition. It was our very last one. We thought we had someone and in he came and stole it,” Davies said. “Genuinely. I watched Sex Education, I loved his work. I didn’t know quite what we were going to get until I was in the room, and meeting Ncuti it’s just going to be a joy. I’m properly, properly, thrilled. It’s going to be a blazing future.”

And yet here I am, writing about the predictable backlash that always happens. I guess that “best person for the job” only applies to a certain kind of actor, huh? Even if the character is one who is capable of changing their appearance to look like anyone.

The unseasoned “woke casting” excuse

In most cases whenever a Black actor gets a part that fandom has deemed as white, accusations like diversity hire or woke casting go flying about. You can set your watch to it, really.

And while I’d love to just brush this off as “trolls are gonna troll,” those trolls tend to take things to a distressing amount of harassment.

It’s interesting to me that when Black folks address issues like racism, we’re always depicted as the ones who need to “calm down.” Meanwhile, an actual child is being harassed on the Internet because she gets to be in a Disney+ series. Because “it’s not accurate to the book.”

But … Rick Riordan WANTS Jeffries to portray his character.

Riordan’s statement makes other points such as, “If you have a problem with this casting, however, take it up with me. You have no one else to blame.” So yeah, where is that best person for the job line of reasoning now? Well, it’s right here, as Riordan goes on to say, “I have been clear, as the author, that I was looking for the best actors to inhabit and bring to life the personalities of these characters, and that physical appearance was secondary for me. We did that. We took a year to do this process thoroughly and find the best of the best. This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase.”

The fact that we expect backlash is a problem

I’m not familiar with Percy Jackson, and I’m not all that familiar with Doctor Who, but I am familiar with the leaps folks take to try and justify the toxicity they hurl at Black actors who have been picked to play these kinds of parts. I’m familiar with being interested in a property, only to second guess myself as a Black fan entering that space because the actors who look like me have to mute their posts and take breaks from social media, have to “be strong” because they know that someone’s gonna have something disparaging to say.

That in itself is a problem.

I can’t describe what it feels like to know that your mere presence in a space is going to generate a negative response from somebody, and not in a “that person’s work isn’t good” kind of way, but in an “I just don’t like Black people” kind of way. Will there be positives? Yes, and those positives are always a welcome sight to behold. At the same time, having to balance your celebration with “don’t look at the comments” is so discouraging.

Something about Jeffries and Gatwa’s situations really upset me. Maybe it’s because they were announced so close together, which meant I saw a double-dose of “this is wrong” takes on the Internet. Maybe it’s because, in both cases, they have the full support of the creators of their properties, but that still isn’t enough to stop folks from trying to run a young Black girl off social media. I appreciate Riordan for having Jeffries’ back as that’s something I often BEG allies to do when they say they want to be here for Black girls.

However, he shouldn’t HAVE to tell people to not harass a child. I shouldn’t have to see my Black friends who like Doctor Who turning off comments on their “congratulations” posts. Jeffries and Gatwa shouldn’t feel like they were hired to fill some kind of diversity quota.

Both Riordan and Davies singing their praises should be enough, but I know, for some, it never will be.

(Featured Image: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images and Disney+)

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