Backstrom and the Problem of Prejudice

So the finale of Backstrom aired last week, and I can’t get one particular image out of my head, one which my brain insists on connecting back to something that happened the week the show premiered in January.

It’s bugging me, so I’m going to dump it out here, but as it’s less about Backstrom and more a social commentary, you might want to run away now.

The image from the finale is of Dr. Deb sitting in on the AA meeting where Backstrom is coming clean about his addictions. (One of the best scenes I’ve seen this year on any show, by the way.  Rainn Wilson absolutely knocked that out of the park.)

The ‘something it connects back to’ is a comment I read after the first episode, where a critic (and I swear I don’t remember whether this was a professional reviewer or simply someone on Twitter) wrote Backstrom off as racist due to his comments in the pilot to Dr. Deb.

For the record, there’s nothing wrong with not liking Backstrom, either the character or the show. There are plenty of shows I don’t like, including some beloved by friends. And indeed, I didn’t like Backstrom when I first met him – and sometimes still don’t. (For that matter, sometimes what I love most about the show is the fact that none of the other characters has shoved him out the window. But that’s a separate post.)

But the knee-jerk labeling of him as racist bothered me. It still does. A lot.

I figure there are two possibilities, and I don’t know which is worse: that the critic was trying to justify not wanting to watch a new show, and latched onto the first available reason she could come up with not to, or that she really doesn’t know what racism is, and wasn’t prepared to think too deeply about it.

But both are bad for us as a culture. Not liking a TV show that too few people even sampled – that’s not the point. Using racism as a knee-jerk explanation of why..that’s a problem.

Casual, thoughtless use of words strip them of their power.

Unpacking it a little more, in context, yes, Backstrom’s comments could be revealing a racial prejudice. Angry at Dr. Deb’s threats to get him suspended from the force if he doesn’t make lifestyle changes that are necessary for this health, Backstrom lashes out. Deb’s Hindu, so he goes after his religion, mocking him for what he believes.

Does that make him racist?

Given that by this point, we know that Backstrom has two black men on his team, and that his roommate is a gay…it’s hard to see it. Later, we come to see that he respects John Almond more than just about anyone else we ever see him interact with, and trusts him enough to call him for help when things go pear-shaped. And Valentine, the gay roommate? Backstrom opens up to him more than anyone else, and that’s long before they learn they’re brothers.

Yeah, racism is the very first word that comes to mind to describe someone like that. Not.

Whether or not he is, maybe it’s worth stopping to think about what it even means for someone to be a racist before we fling the term around.

Here’s why this matters:

Racism – wholesale bias against an entire group of people who don’t look like us (with associated treatment as a result) is evil. 

But using the term ‘racist’ in a knee-jerk way to criticize someone we don’t like dilutes the reality of that evil. It minimizes the injustices done to the victims of true prejudice.

If Backstrom is just an asshole, a misanthrope who hates everyone (himself the most), then Dr. Deb is a victim of just that – of being a doctor to a rude, obnoxious, damaged man. That’s not remotely the same thing as being a victim of racism.

I’m a white woman, and some would say that I don’t even have the right to talk about what it’s like to be a victim of genuine racism. They would be absolutely right.

But our not talking about it doesn’t prevent it from happening, and for those of us who want to see a better world, one where people are judged for who they are, not for whatever group they belong to…it’s essential that we remain clear-eyed about what the problem is, or as much as possible, at least. Not to protect someone from a label, but, rather, to reserve that label for those who deserve it.

And yes, irony: on its simplest level, prejudice, i.e., the act of pre-judging, is making a decision about another person based solely on assumptions, which is exactly what the critic did – even if the person in question was just a character on a TV show.

As we moved through the season, it became clear (well, to me) that Backstrom is many things, including fundamentally screwed up. But whatever else he is, he’s not a racist – and Dr. Deb is perhaps the authority in his life he comes closest to trusting. He kicks against him from start to finish, but – getting back to the image that’s stuck in my head – it’s the doctor who goes with him to that AA meeting, and it’s the doctor who stands up in support of Backstrom’s introducing himself as an addict.

It’s one of my favorite moments of TV this year, but yeah, I’m thinking not the relationship of a racist and his victim.

It doesn’t matter at all if someone dismisses Backstrom, or any other show, for any reason. But making those same knee-jerk responses in real life, or using ‘racist’ as a casual insult, is damaging to everyone who wants to live in a world where people are judged for who they really are – and incredibly offensive, or should be, to those who are victims of racism.

A few weeks ago, I saw a comment online where someone casually noted ‘all Republicans are racist.’ I didn’t know this person at all, have no idea whether they’re a troll, are being hyperbolic, or whether they really are that prejudiced, and are incapable of seeing their own hypocrisy. But it made me angry, and reminded me of that knee-jerk response to Backstrom.

Fighting for a better world begins with the small things, including how we use language, and how we judge others. There’s no point at all to pretending we won’t do so – life is about evaluating what happens around us. But we need to do our best to be fair, or we’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

End rant.




2 thoughts on “Backstrom and the Problem of Prejudice

  1. Your point is well taken, but I think it may be possible for someone to actually be racist with exceptions. Whether being close to/respecting someone(s) from a minority group can co-exist with one’s own racism towards the group as a whole is a complicated question, in my opinion. I never really got into Backstrom, although I watched and really did like the finale. So I can’t really comment on Backstrom in particular. I agree that yelling racism can be a way of shutting down conversation.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response! I agree, btw. I wanted to get further into the issue of how complicated it can be – because people are complex, which is why putting them into boxes is bad in the first place.

      So yes, Backstrom could be racist toward Hindus, for example, but not blacks or gays, or could generally be racist while making an exception for individuals. But I don’t think that’s what the show revealed, so I focused on just trying to say …don’t pre-judge people about their pre-judgments (!)

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