it is inspired by real events that have occurred at college campuses all over the country.”
Switched at Birth 5×05 centers several characters of color as they address systemic racism on campus and beyond. It was co-written by creator Lizzy Weiss and female writer of color Talicia Raggs, and visualized by director of color Jeff Byrd. Read on for five things we learned during Switched at Birth 5×05, “Occupy Truth.”
1. Symbols matter.
Switched at Birth 5×05 kicks off with a crowd of students (including Iris, Sharee, Keeshawn, and Daphne) gathering at the UMKC Black Student Union building to draw up a list of demands that will be presented to the Dean of Student Well-Being.
First on the list is the demand that started the #Starving4Change movement and is the impetus behind Iris’ hunger strike: the expulsion of the students who left cottonballs on the front lawn of the BSU in last week’s episode. Next is a 10% increase in the number of black students and faculty at UMKC. Following some debate, renaming a building on campus also goes on the list – the Sherman Building is currently named after a slave-owner, and they want it to honor a person of color instead.
Sharee: “Nobody thinks about [Sherman being a slave-owner] when they walk by. It’s just a sign on a door – it doesn’t impact our lives.”
Keeshawn: “No, it does impact us. It makes us inconsequential. It tells us that the money he gave was more important than whose backs he made it on.”
Sharee: “I understand that, but it’s just a symbol.”
Keeshawn: “Symbols matter.”
The Sherman Building issue echoes the real-life controversy at institutions including the University of Mississippi and Harvard Law School. At Harvard, students called for the phase-out of the school’s shield (based on the crest of a slave-owner who endowed Harvard’s first law professorship) and demanded that a hall named after the benefactor be renamed for a woman he enslaved.
2. Center the marginalized.
Although Daphne – one of the show’s main characters – joined the movement as an ally, Switched at Birth 5×05 doesn’t include much of her perspective, and nor should it. All too often, certain groups take and/or get more than their share of the spotlight – white people, heterosexual people, cisgender people, able-bodied people – but Switched at Birth 5×05 doesn’t let that happen.
Back in season 2, Daphne led a protest at the Carlton School for the Deaf in a TV history-making episode told almost entirely in American Sign Language, but she doesn’t center herself in this fight, nor do the writers center her character. Instead, she only briefly contributes to the demand debate by drawing upon her experience at Carlton, opining “It’s not a bad idea to ask for more than you’re willing to settle for.” Otherwise, she wisely stays quiet and follows the lead of Iris, Keeshawn, and the other BSU members. As white contributor Corrine Fletcher wrote for CounterPunch Magazine last year:
America has a system that has been built around making space for, centering, and hearing white voices above others and it is time for us to be quiet and really listen.
3. Personalization is powerful.
The BSU needs to get at least 1,000 petition signatures for the dean to consider the movement’s demands, and when a demoralized Sharee drops by The Cracked Mug after getting just a handful of signatures in several hours, Regina shares her own experience of discrimination for being Latina. This prompts Sharee to reveal that she was first called a racial slur when she was just four years old. Regina offers Sharee some words of wisdom: “You tell your story. People will listen.” Sharee takes the advice, and the next day, she arrives at the BSU with more than 300 signatures, putting the petition over the 1,000-signature minimum.
This type of personalization can be a powerful tool in terms of reaching people’s hearts and minds. For instance, a study by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found that “a roughly 10-minute, face-to-face conversation is enough to change about 1 in 10 voters’ attitudes toward transgender people,” the Los Angeles Times reported last year. Tying that back to the theme of Switched at Birth 5×05, a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that three-quarters of white people have no non-white friends.
4. Prejudice takes many forms.
When the Dean of Student Well-Being provides a lackluster response to the petition that essentially amounts to sweeping the issue under the rug, Keeshawn wants to tear down the Sherman Building sign so he can’t ignore them any longer. “If the whole school isn’t given the message that we won’t take it, they’ll just keep on doing it,” he tells some of the BSU members, including Sharee. At the building, several students start dismantling the sign, sharing their experiences of racism as they do so.
“This is for the time a professor implied I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Affirmative Action.”
“This is for the time the security alarm went off at the bookstore and I was the only one who was stopped and searched.”
“This is for the time someone gave me a lawn jockey as a joke.”
“This is for those people who told me, ‘You’re pretty for a black girl.'”
Elsewhere, UMKC baseball star Chris has his own bad experience when the key to his bike lock breaks and the campus cops almost arrest him. He’s only released when Bay shows them the broken key, proving his story and negating the assumption that he was stealing the bike. When one of the cops says he didn’t see the key, Chris points out that he didn’t ask to.
5. Prejudice – and privilege – are intersectional.
When a UMKC blogger “outs” Iris for having a white father and coming from an affluent community, classism becomes an issue within the BSU. In a twist that draws intersectionalism (the idea that elements such as race, class, status, gender identity, and religion affect the types of prejudice and oppression that people face) into the Switched at Birth 5×05 story line, Keeshawn tells Iris to step down as the movement’s de facto leader.
“You were raised white. You look like a fraud, which means we look like frauds. … You’re the face of the movement. You have to have adversity in your past or no one will care about any of us.”
Later, Keeshawn and Iris talk about their different life experiences, and Iris opens up about feeling like an outsider in her own family after her mom died when she was young. Iris notes that although her family never struggled for money the way Keeshawn’s did, Keeshawn always knew who he was and had a strong sense of community. (You can read Ijeoma Oluo and Jessica Sutherland’s takes on identifying as biracial or black over at The Establishment.)
Meanwhile, Sharee urges Chris to use his privilege – in his case, his baseball star status – to draw attention to the BSU’s cause by sitting out the upcoming big game. Led by Travis, the whole team joins Chris in solidarity – and soon, all of UMKC’s sports teams follow suit. As Switched at Birth 5×05 ends, Iris takes a call from the president of the university, who expelled the cottonballers and wants to meet with the BSU to address the rest of their demands.
What did you think of Switched at Birth 5×05?