“Little Fires Everywhere”: Colorblindness in the Late 20th and 21st Century

Chloe Montgomery

May 22, 2020

From left, Moody, Pearl and Trip in “Little Fires Everywhere”

Hulu

   ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is a miniseries about a Black mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl Warren (Kerry Washington and Lexi Underwood), who constantly move from town to town rarely staying for more than a few months. Things change when after a move to Shaker, Ohio, Pearl begs Mia to let them stay for the whole year.  Their lives become intertwined with those of Elena Richardson (their landlord, played by Reese Witherspoon) and her white suburban family. The show begins with the Richardson’s home burning down, and we learn little fires were set everywhere in the home; it was clearly arson. The show then rewinds to several months earlier, August 1997, and follows the story of how this came to be. ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ can be described as part drama, part mystery. It’s definitely quite the ride to watch; it had me laughing, crying, angry to the point of wanting to throw something at Reese Witherspoon’s face, and reflective of the experiences of Black womxn in the United States. The show is a bit of a slow burner (unlike the house) and it takes a few episodes to begin putting the pieces together of who the suspects may be and how the tensions between the characters are going to play out. 

      ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ has so many commentaries on race and class, focusing specifically on the impacts of white privilege and so-called color blindness. The most obvious analysis is the relationship between Mia Warren and Elena Richardson. Reese plays the worst version of a white woman in this show–she had me getting heated! She gets her nose in everyone else’s business, setting fires in every aspect of her life. Elena is the type of colorblind white woman who insists on seeing no difference but you can feel in their beady little eyes that they will never see you as an equal.  

      Elena feels entitled to know everything about Mia’s history and Mia does not care to placate this white woman’s needs. Mia rents a property from Elena and is eventually asked to be her maid. Mia is offended by this offer but ultimately takes her up on it while continuing to work on her art and for a Chinese restaurant. Shortly after moving to town, Mia’s daughter Pearl becomes intricately caught up in the Richardson children’s web of bullshit. Mia figures her position in the household will allow her to keep a protective eye on her daughter, ultimately entangling herself as well. The idea throughout the show is that these cross-familial relationships are doomed to fail because the Richardsons are racist, but the family would never be able to admit that or own up to it themselves. There is a stark racial difference that, in their refusal to acknowledge it, the Richardsons amplify.

       Elena, a mother of four with husband Bill Richardson, works for a newspaper and manages a property that the Warren’s ultimately end up renting. What becomes really angering to watch is the way she reproduces her white supremacist attitude in her children. Trip is the oldest, he is a popular jock in school who is constantly hooking up with various girls named Jen. Lexi is dating Brian, a star football player for Shaker Heights High School; he’s Black and you can tell she feels proud of herself because of it. Moody is a quiet and shy boy, yet he is the first to befriend Pearl Warren and feels as though he has some kind of ownership over her because of it.  Izzy is the youngest daughter, she is a closeted lesbian and disliked by the majority of her family, and has the worst relationship with her mother Elena. Mia becomes a mentor of sorts to Izzy, who, ultimately, has no one else to turn to for nonjudgmental love and support after her ex-girlfriend sides with her bullies at school. Moody befriends Pearl as soon as she moves into the neighborhood and she slowly thereafter develops a friendship with Lexi and, eventually, a complicated relationship with Trip. Elena is a helicopter parent and very heavily involved with each of her children’s lives, she is able to advocate for them but in doing so often prevents them from problem solving on their own.

      This main storyline gets further complicated by the storyline of Bebe Chow and her fight to regain custody of May Ling. Bebe Chow is forced to give up her child as a result of her position in extreme poverty and lack of access to structural support as an undocumented immigrant. May Ling has been adopted by a family friend of the Richardsons and renamed Maribel McCullough. Mia, for very complicated reasons, sides with Bebe Chow and financially supports her legal fees while Elena does everything she can to “help” her friend, arguably because she feels guilty for having a child that she never wanted, Izzy, and for inadvertently bringing May Ling’s birth mother back into the picture. Bill Richardson serves as the lawyer for the McCulloughs. Elena meddles and blackmails and ultimately uses her white privilege to try and destroy this woman’s life and help her husband win the McCullough’s case. :

        The “us vs them” narrative for Bebe Chow continues into the trial for the custody of May Ling. When asked why he isn’t afraid of losing the trail, Bill Richardson says “Linda’s not going to lose her baby because people like Bebe Chow don’t win.” He is ultimately right, she doesn’t win, and immigrants statistically do not fare too well in the US court system in general. There is something chilling, however, in seeing a white man, even fictionally, admit to the ways in which the structural racism in the justice system helps him and white people win time and time again.

Why Lexi Richardson is the Worst

       One of the worst perpetrators of anti-blackness in this show is Lexi Richardson. Mia warns Pearl early on about Lexi, telling her she thinks she will “disappoint” and ultimately use her. Pearl doesn’t believe her mother and is confused by her own internalized anti-blackness imposed upon her by her surroundings. She subsequently sees Lexi as a real friend. Mia proves to be right when Lexi gets an abortion and, having no one else to turn to, reaches out to Pearl for support. Lexi writes Pearl’s name on the check-in sheet at the abortion clinic because she is afraid that her mother, or anyone, will find out. I was outraged when I watched this all go down, how could she blatantly take advantage of her friend like that and still expect her to take care of her? I ultimately wasn’t surprised though, Lexi is raised in a home that allows her to see Black women as her own personal caretakers. She gets what she needs out of them, it is an entirely economical relationship, even if she doesn’t realize it. The idea here is that Lexi’s reputation is not allowed to be tarnished, but Pearl’s is because her reputation is inherently worth less than Lexi’s. Lexi only sees Pearl for what she can get out of her and uses her privilege as a white woman to get what she needs.

Elena Richardson standing in her kitchen

Hulu

       This show really resonated with me because I was able to relate so many of the experiences that the character Pearl Warren deals with back to when I was in high school. From the confusion regarding compliments about my “mixed” race to the awkward family dinner conversation at a friends house surrounding whether we get to call ourselves Black or African-American as if our preference is up to some entity other than the self. What resonated the most with me, however, was the storyline about college admissions essays. Lexi rants to her mom that she is struggling to write her essay for her application to Yale University. The prompt is to write about a hardship the student has overcome and Lexi is made to feel as though she is being punished for not having struggled.  She brings it up at the dinner table, and her parents’ conversation goes as follows:

Elena: I, for one, have a real issue with this Yale essay topic, you know, your father and I worked very hard your entire life to prevent you from having any hardship and now you have to just go and try to drum one up

Bill: I expect Yale to come up with a better question, right? I mean it’s Yale after all

Elena: That’s right, exactly! I feel like they’re sort of saying if you’re not raised by a crack-addicted mother who can barely make ends meet…what, do you get punished for it? That seems silly

       Elena goes on to say that her and Bill are “good parents” that made “good decisions” for their family. There was so much coded language in this scene I could scream. They immediately interpret “hardship” as having a “crack-addicted mother” because of their association of the question with affirmative action. This is how they see Black folks and it is clear they do not want to accept them into their idea of what an Ivy League is supposed to be, hence the need for a “better” question. Furthermore, they believe because they have not experienced structural racism themselves that they are at a disadvantage to entry to the university even though they have historically been overrepresented in that setting. I have heard this kind of rhetoric and coded language far too often in high schools today. 

       Elena sees “punishment” as non-admission from an Ivy League, failing to see the systems that will allow her and her family to prosper regardless of an Ivy League degree. She also sees her status as a result of her “good decisions” rather than structural advantages, allowing her to look down on others who do not have the same privileges. The essay question ensures that incoming students are able to problem solve on their own and reflect on their growth; Lexi is unable to do either because almost all of her actions are dictated by her mother who is able to solve any problem or hardship she may come across.

       We see this same dynamic in Lexi’s relationship with Brian; she uses her privilege as a white woman to get what she wants from him. This is most evident when Brian gets upset with Lexi for stealing Pearl’s story and Lexi uses her body to shut him up by having sex with him. She knows what she has done is wrong, but sees it as necessary for her success. Being a high school power-couple with Brian is also a part of her conceptualization of success and in a fear of losing that she gives her body to keep him on the line for her. Later on in the show, she goes on to compare his experiences throughout their relationship with her racist family to her experience getting an abortion he never knew she had, saying she has struggled in the relationship too. As if her experiences as a white woman were comparable to the experiences of being a Black man; a common misconception in white feminism due to the prevalence of colorblindness in that movement.

Who gets to tell our stories?

     ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is based on a novel by the same title, written by Celeste Ng and, interestingly, in the novel the Warren family is not Black. The novel was originally an analysis on class, but the show writers and producers chose to make it about race, making it a much more interesting story (I guess I haven’t read the book but c’mon, let’s be real here). Celeste Ng is quoted in this article as stating “I thought of them as people of color, because I knew I wanted to talk about race and class, and those things are so intertwined in our country and in our culture … But I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a black woman’s experience to the page.” I find it interesting that while this is always where she had imagined her book going, she didn’t feel like she was the person to bring the story to life. This is a fair statement, as the experiences of Asians in America differ vastly from those of Black womxn in America, but it raises the question of why the showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, a white woman, was the one to create this show? It makes me question who gets included in the tellings of certain stories. Why is it that Ng had no problem writing white characters into her novel but felt so hesitant to include Black ones? And if she had imagined them as Black, doesn’t it play into the construct of colorblindness not to write them that way? No one said it had to be a first-person telling. Furthermore, the producers are mostly white women with the exception of Kerry Washington.  Granted they don’t portray white women in a very positive light in this show and included many writers of different races, sexual orientations, backgrounds, etc. but it still raises the question of who gets to tell, and profit off of, our stories? How can we amplify Black stories told by Black people? 

Then and Now: Has anything changed?

     Pearl is denied entry into an honors math course that she is qualified for by her guidance counselor. He assumes, because she is Black, that she is from Cleveland, does not have enough support at home, and is incapable of successfully completing the course because she may not have fully met the requirements at her other schools. Pearl brings the issue to her mother and Mia is disappointed in Pearl for not being able to handle the matter herself. Consequently, Pearl asks for Elena’s support to get the matter cleared up. This interaction made stark the association between wealth, parental involvement, and how white parents have the social capital to make demands for their children that Black working class parents do not. I can relate to feeling inadequate under the gaze of a high school counselor. I was denied entry into “math academy,” an advanced math program at my high school my freshman year for a similar reason; I was switching schools and the counselor, talking to me and my Black father, said it would be best to ‘play it safe’. I ended up taking the class they placed me in and receiving the highest grade, which goes to show how structural racism is enacted on an individual level. Pearl, on the other hand, fights for the correct placement and after it’s all sorted out, Lexi says it’s “so messed up” that this happened to Pearl. Lexi then proceeds to steal the story for her college admissions essay to Yale, writing as if it had happened to her.

       This entire narrative reminded me of very similar experiences I had by senior year of high school in a very white town. I remember vividly sitting in the library at my high school and talking about college applications with a group of students. We were all stressing out, but I was the only one that was told by a classmate that I had “nothing to worry about.” He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes and said, “your Dad has cancer, your essays are going to write themselves”. He seemed mad at me for having been through shit, how crazy is that? The “and you’re Black” was lurking just beneath the surface. In other conversations I was told that low acceptance rates didn’t apply to me; the acceptance rate would be higher somehow because I was Black.

   

      Fast forward months later and we’re receiving scholarships. My school hosted a “Scholarship Night” to honor the students receiving local scholarships and scholarships through our high school and students with good grades, etc. When I was a senior I applied to 30 scholarships. I busted my ass off writing essays every night for months because I knew the only way I was going straight to a four-year was if I got a lot of scholarship money and I wanted to get out of my small town ASAP. I figured the more scholarships I applied to, the more I would get; simple math. Anyway they kept calling me up for awards all night. It got to the point where they made little jokes about “you know who again.” It was awkward and uncomfortable to be so focused on but I was proud of my achievements and knew I had made my family proud too.

     Then I walked outside. All the other kids were out there and while my closest friends obviously were very happy for me I will always remember the immediate comments of others. White kids said stuff like “well yeah, you’re Black and your dad has cancer, of course they would give scholarships to her” as if I hadn’t earned it. As if I didn’t work hard applying to things and work hard all throughout high school to get good grades and work and do extracurriculars and put up with these white kids! As if their privileged asses needed the scholarships anyway! That being said, the storyline about college admissions essays and privilege really struck a chord with me. 

     When Brian Harlins, Lexi’s boyfriend, finally snaps and says “whenever I tell people I got into Princeton, the first thing that goes through their head is, ‘oh, it’s because he’s Black,’ but when you say you got into Yale, they don’t think it’s because you stole a Black girl’s story.” I felt that. I have always struggled with imposter syndrome at my university and I know that is the experience of Black students everywhere; we are made to feel as though we are an anomaly and we do not deserve to be where we are because our position was somehow handed to us. That’s bullshit. We earned our shit 100% and it always blows my mind to think of the white students who didn’t earn their place in the university, whose families bought them into it…I guarantee those students don’t question whether or not they belong. This show exposes that dynamic eloquently (to the white community anyway because we been knew). 

      “Little Fires Everywhere” takes place in the late 90’s, but we know as Black womxn that this may as well have happened yesterday. So many of us have similar experiences to Pearl or Mia or even Bebe Chow because of the structural racism that exists in this country and how that becomes internalized in the minds of our peers and sometimes even ourselves. ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is definitely a compelling watch, I recommend you give it a go! 

Pearl and Moody

Hulu

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