Last night at the Golden Globes Aziz Ansari and Sterling K. Brown both won for playing roles that could definitely not have been played by someone of another race and still be the same character (Ansari of course wrote his own role for himself). In his acceptance speech Sterling K. Brown specifically acknowledged how much it meant to be playing a character written for a black man and not a character that was written as a blank slate and then cast as a black man for optics.
“Dan Fogelman, throughout the majority of my career, I have benefited from colorblind casting, which means, you know what, hey, let’s throw a brother in this role. Right? It’s always really cool,” he said. “But Dan Fogelman, you wrote a role for a black man that could only be played by a black man. What I appreciate so much about this is that I’m being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or dismiss anybody who looks like me.”
Backstage he expanded on how those differences were true to his life.
So often with “colorblind” casting if a white person is cast it’s because they “were the best for the role” and if a person of colour is cast it’s “token diversity casting” (see Star Wars and the differences in discussion of Daisy Ridely as Rey and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose. Both of those roles were open to actors of any ethnicity and in fact half-Japanese Jessica Henwick was one of the last two for Rey) which is why roles created with intentionality are so important. Both in shows and movies that are about living as the other (Crazy Rich Asians, Blackish, Fresh Off The Boat, One Day At A Time, Master of None) and those that specifically make room for these characters in their wider world like This Is Us and Brooklyn 99.
Because we do exist in that wider world and our stories are important and just as important is seeing them play out on screen. More than here’s a group of friends and one of them is queer and another is brown or black (but they definitely can’t be the same person because how dare queer PoC exist) but that only really matters for throwaway lines not actual story purposes.
White people are used to being told don’t bring up race it’s offensive or not important conveniently ignoring the fact that for the rest of us not bringing up race isn’t even an option. Every time a majority white show or movie is announced or the extras in a film with a more diverse cast are mostly white and this is pointed out they come in like “why you gotta make everything about race,” when the reality is everything IS about race and they’re just too deep in being the default to notice.
The only way to challenge the default is to be loud about pointing it out. We need more characters like Randall. Characters whose experiences as a marginalized person are essential to their core and can’t be played by anyone presenting the right gender in the right age range.
And this isn’t to say go the Tim Burton route of everyone is white unless there’s a specific reason for the character to not be because that of course reinforces the default. The point is balance. It’s to recognize and celebrate our differences and to make an effort to show people they don’t have to hide away a part of themselves to be seen as legitimate. It’s to say you aren’t a token you are the goal and no one can dismiss that.