Actress Jasika Nicole on why she won't do any more cop shows: 'I want to turn my privilege into power' (Op‑ed)
"No more cop shows for me."
Actress Jasika Nicole (Punky Brewster, The Good Doctor, Fringe) explains why she's made the decision to no longer appear on cop shows, and what Hollywood needs to do differently to address racism and power.
I grew up in a household that was constantly at risk of having the electricity cut off because we couldn't afford to pay the power bill, yet I sympathized with the extravagant characters on Dynasty who were angry at not getting their wants met. I saw Friends' depiction of a New York City devoid of almost any people of color and nodded my head in agreement when they talked about how culturally rich and diverse the city was. I cringed right along with the protagonists of my favorite shows when they were forced to interact with flamboyant gay characters, tsk-tsked with pretend detectives as they cuffed yet another Black drug dealer, yet another troubled brown teenager, yet another trans sex worker. I developed such a strong muscle of empathy for the white characters I was introduced to on TV that the muscle for showing compassion for myself atrophied.
I've spent the better part of my adulthood on a journey to untie the threads of my own internalized -isms, reworking my understanding of how white supremacy and patriarchal ideals have informed my view of the world and both prohibited and benefited me as a cis, queer, light-skinned Black actor. But I know that's not enough. With a focus these past few years on the Black Lives Matter movement and how communities of color have endeavored to rise above the institutions that have been legally allowed to dehumanize and brutalize us, our country is facing a reckoning that has been building steam for centuries. I have shared as many hashtags as my fingers could type, contributed financially to both grassroots organizations and popular political campaigns working to combat classism and anti-Blackness. I have marched in the streets with my city and had difficult conversations with friends and strangers alike about the importance of abolition and what defunding the police actually means (divesting from state-sanctioned violence, investing in communities). But what else can I do?
Yes, I have privileges in this industry, but that isn't always the same as power. Throughout my career I have been on more sets than I can count where directors refused to learn how to pronounce my name, where producers provided resources and concessions for my costars that were outright denied to me, where I made less money as a series regular than guest stars who temporarily joined our production; "powerful" isn't a feeling I am used to experiencing in my line of work. But while it's difficult for me to know how to personally effect change through my work in TV and film, it isn't difficult at all to know what I want that change to look like.
I want marginalized kids to grow up without doubt or fear of who they are and who they can become. I want straight white people to stop relying on a false sense of superiority to stake their success on. I want people in power to learn how to flex their own muscles of empathy, just like me and so many other folks of color have had to do while growing up in America. I want for television to depict the world we actually live in, not the one that is most comfortable for the people creating it.
Last year, I prepared an audition for a television remake of a popular '90s film in which I was being seen for the role of a police officer. The character was smart, charismatic, and unafraid — a dream role for lots of women like me in Hollywood. But something about this character felt uncomfortable in a way that was new for me, it felt… false. I realized it was because the premise of the show wasn't focused on the complicated ways that police officers abuse their power or how unconscious anti-Black bias flavors the way that Black neighborhoods are policed by mostly white police forces. Instead, it was just a story about one cop. One "good" cop. One cop who was intentionally being cast as a person of color.
By casting cops as non-white, Hollywood thinks they can avoid inconvenient discussions about racism and power, but the truth is that you don't have to be white to uphold the tenets of white supremacy; you just have to believe in its validity. Suddenly the stakes of the role came into clear focus for me, and I couldn't imagine willingly perpetuating a distortion such as this, supporting the narrative that cops were generally well-intentioned protectors of all citizens, only occasionally lumped in with a few "bad apples."
The devastating and unending loss of Black, brown, and indigenous life at the hands of our "protectors" is not occasional. The uncovering of alleged gangs in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department wreaking deliberate, murderous havoc on communities of color is not occasional. A prison system with racial-based inequities so vile that they are hard to fully comprehend is not occasional. It is consistent, it is intentional, and it has no place being falsely memorialized in TV and film, not by me or anyone else.
It is a rare and distinct privilege to now serve as the representation that I needed to see as a child. Back then, I lacked the imagination and bravery necessary to envision all the different ways my life could look and feel, but I found my way to a happy adulthood despite it, found a way to exist in my skin, in my sexuality, and in my gender unapologetically. The very least I can do now is make sure that I share myself in ways that will uplift the various communities I belong to, that will remind people struggling to see themselves represented in realistic and thoughtful ways that we don't deserve to be flattened and watered down to serve someone else's narrative of who we are.
So, no more cop shows for me. This is where my power, where all of our power lies — in naming ourselves and naming our futures. In refusing to be defined by anyone else's words or through anyone else's lens. In telling our own truths. I want to get better at learning how to turn my privilege into power. Hopefully, Hollywood will want to do the same.
Jasika Nicole can be seen now on Peacock's Punky Brewster revival.
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