A Lifetime of Abbys: Reflections on a recent episode of Scandal

Abby and Olivia (played by Darby Stanchfield and Kerry Washington)   

Abby and Olivia (played by Darby Stanchfield and Kerry Washington)   

I don't generally write about TV shows.

While I do watch TV (a lot), my writing tends to be much more grounded in the truth of my own reality than the fiction that I enjoy watching on a regular basis. But last week something about the episode of Scandal really spoke to my soul. Perhaps it was because of all the events that had transpired the day that it aired. Perhaps it was because of all of the events that I have experienced over the last several decades.

I spent that Wednesday and Thursday in Pennsylvania doing very exhausting but fulfilling work with a group of local union leaders on getting a resolution passed that was designed to further racial and social justice efforts in their local. The team that was proposing the resolution and the set of recommendations that accompanied it had been on a 14-month long journey in which they had done a deep dive into exploring what it meant to improve racial equity in their organization. My colleague and I had been their facilitators along the way. The work was hard. The group had gone through a number of difficult conversations about race, gender, and social identity. They’d had numerous conversations about what this work meant for them personally and professionally and why it was necessary to do it for their organization. There were disagreements and breakdowns along the way. And, in between, there was a life-altering election that broke people’s hearts and spirits. But in the end, the group came together—energized by a passion and commitment to racial justice and a desire to what was right for their union members and for the community at large. It was amazing to be a part of and was a highlight of my professional career. But I was tired—worn-out actually. It came at a time where I was coming out some major life transitions—personally and professionally. And I, like many of us, was and am still struggling to make sense of the madness of this election and what it means to experience life in the Trump era when every day seems like it is full of chaos, disorganization and coordinated attacks meant to disenfranchise the lives of people of color and the most vulnerable in society. I was also tired because racial justice work is exhausting. Holding space for people to work through their shit is exhausting and, invariably in mixed race spaces, white fragility and defensiveness shows up and even when you are not the person who has to facilitate those specific conversations (thank God for amazing white people who do this work and do it well so you don’t have to constantly educate people) sometimes it can leave you bone tired and needing to save your energy for more pressing battles ahead.

So that’s all that was happening for me as I was going into watching this episode. And sometime over the course of those two days, I also had the grave misfortune of witnessing the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. Whew! That warrants an entirely separate blog post, and so many other folks have written about it so much better and thoughtfully than I could, so I will save my precious words here and just say that I was not at all amused by the commercial—not in the least. In fact, what occurred to me, after watching it, was that once again how toxic I feel relationships with white women can be for people, specifically women, of color. (I'm consistently amazed how the black folk in the Kardashian's lives sign off on their racial fuckery.) Now, I have written about this toxicity before, right after the Trump election. In particular, I have pondered the duality of having relationships with white women when they can be both incredible allies to women of color and also deeply complicit in our subjugation and abuse. And I was really feeling, in those days leading up the watching this episode of Scandal, both the duality of incredible allyship/friendship in my racial justice work in Pennsylvania with white women as well as my incredible frustration with tone deafness of white women in that same work and also downright disgust with Kendall Jenner and the type of white supremacy that allows the Kardashians to be a million dollar money making franchise.

And then I watched the episode. And my relationships with white women clicked into laser sharp focus into quite a way that they hadn’t before.

Though I don’t consider myself much like Olivia Pope, I realized that I have definitely had an Abby in my life.

In fact, I have had lots of Abbys.

This will be hard to explain if you aren’t a fan of Scandal. Basically, before they had a major falling out, Abby was Olivia’s right-hand woman. Her trusted ally and go to person. Abby is smart and capable. But here’s the thing—Abby is never really a match for Olivia. Olivia is better looking, Olivia is smarter, better educated, better employed. Olivia is in charge. And although Abby is on a surface level Olivia’s best friend, Abby is so jealous of Olivia that she cannot stand really Olivia. She loves Olivia and will technically do whatever Olivia wants her to do but deep-seated envy is always teetering near the surface. And while these may sound like dynamics you assume are typical among women, they are actually quite a big deal, in particular because, Abby is not supposed to be jealous of Olivia. Olivia is black and Abby is white. White women are supposed to be the envy of black women, not the other way around.

This is certainly not to say that I’ve been the envy of all the Abbys in my life. Do I think some of them have been envious of me? Yes, I do. But more than anything I believe that unconscious white entitlement and superiority can and often does play out in friendships between white and black women—its insidious and comes up in all kinds of toxic ways when people are unaware and haven’t done their work.

Abby’s entitlement as a white woman hadn’t really become clearly to me until last season when she leaves working for Olivia to work for the President of the United States. And this season she shows up fully in her power and “in charge”—both politically and racially. She becomes power hungry and I have been really irked by her all season and it wasn’t until this last episode until I understood why. Her behavior has mirrored so many of my experiences with white women in the work world. She gets proximity to power by way of a white man, which has been afforded to her, ironically, by the labor of a black woman. Once she gets there, she proceeds to treat said black woman like shit. When confronted by said black woman, she resorts to tears to get back into the good graces of her black friend. These tears represent a kind of violence. When white women cry, the whole world literally stops to comfort them and in doing so, their tears serve to delegitimize the real feelings and harm they do to black women. And their tears allow them to absolve themselves of the responsibility of participating in systems that perpetuate white supremacy and patriarchy.

As I mentioned, I have definitely had my own Abbys at work. White women who have gained favor with white men or other white women due to success on a project or training or paper I worked on but my contributions went ignored. White women who were temporary allies with me while it suited them only to turn their backs on me when it wasn’t convenient. Mediocre white women I’ve seen get promoted over me or make way more money than me—some of who came after me in the organization and most of whom didn’t have the same education or level of experience. White women whom I’d confronted about their own or their colleagues’ racial microagressions or outright racism only to have them cry about it and make me feel like a “reverse racist” for bringing it up. After nearly twenty years in the work world, they are an amalgam of names and faces but the list is long and the experiences vast. I know Abby well and I know exactly what she is capable of. Of all the characters on the show, Abby is most certainly the most real to me.

In this particular episode, Olivia and Abby have a falling out. And as these thoughts were swirling together for me—the toxic relationships with white women, the Abbys, my racial justice work—I felt a relief when temporarily, Olivia and Abby argued and looked like they were ending their friendship; seemingly ending this cycle of abuse that I know so well. I desperately wanted Liv not to forgive her. After my memories came flooding back of all my own Abbys and Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial, I felt enormous satisfaction and relief when Olivia made her anger with Abby physical and slapped her not once, not twice, but three times. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! It was as if, for just a moment, hundreds of years of invisible injuries and bruises, all the macro and micro aggressions were temporarily healed.

But at the very end of the episode, after Abby breaks down into classic white woman tears, Olivia forgives her. And I must admit that my glorious sense of satisfaction gave way to a kind of sadness and grief. Seriously, I could feel my face scrunch up into a mean mug as the credits were rolling. And then I was vexed for the rest of the day. Then I was left with this final thought— I know that I can’t stay in a place of anger forever. And to be clear: I’m not angry with white women. But I am angry with white supremacy. And I am angry with the white women who choose to continue to remain complicit with it. If Olivia Pope forgives her Abbys, that doesn’t mean I have to. Because truth be told, I have ZERO room for any more Abbys in my life.