How Netflix’s The Chair Analyzes White Privilege in Academia


Editor’s observe: The next incorporates spoilers by way of the Season 1 finale of The Chair, “The Chair.”

In Netflix’s The Chair, protagonist Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), pleads together with her colleague, the sensible and progressive Professor Yasmin “Yaz” McKay (Nana Mensah), “You’re going to be the primary tenured Black lady within the division.” Yaz replies with an exhausted sigh, “That is why I am leaving.”

If there’s one second within the entirety of the Netflix mini-series The Chair that it’s best to take with you, it is this one.

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The lengthy historical past of white privilege in larger training is well-documented. Even so, it is not a secret that the elite system has a protracted solution to go in dismantling its historical past of institutional racism that negatively impacts college students of coloration and favors the white elite. The Chair could also be witty, oftentimes satirical, however it’s also a truthful examination of white privilege.

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Picture by way of Netflix

Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman (a former Harvard and Cambridge educational), the six-episode collection stars the sensible Sandra Oh as Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, the primary lady of coloration to have been made the Chair of the English Division at Pembroke School, a fictional “lower-tier Ivy” establishment. As Ji-Yoon navigates her new position as Chair, she struggles to reconcile her emotions of non-public obligation and loyalty to her older colleagues, most notably Professor Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) and Professor Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), whereas additionally preventing to interrupt boundaries within the division. This rigidity is especially detrimental to her colleague Yaz, Pembroke’s groundbreaking new scholar and younger lady of coloration who’s up for tenure. As Ji-Yoon makes an attempt to mollify her older colleagues whereas additionally securing Yaz’s tenureship, she is constantly distracted by her romantic emotions for her long-time shut buddy and colleague, common Professor Invoice Dobson (Jay Duplass), who’s grieving the latest demise of his spouse.

Powerfully, not solely does The Chair refuse to draw back from confronting the rampant white privilege (particularly white male privilege) within the academy, but it surely additionally explores privilege in a means that captures the strain between private loyalty and systemic inequality within the academy.

Ji-Yoon, for instance, views Yaz because the savior of Pembroke’s English division, which has lengthy been tormented by low enrollment. Yaz, who teaches the favored and progressive American lit course she calls “Intercourse and the Novel,” celebrates scholar expression by connecting with them in a means that pulls upon their passions reminiscent of artwork and music whereas additionally mobilizing the talents of shut studying. After Ji-Yoon has to beg Yaz to let Elliot co-teach her class attributable to his low enrollment (to his lack of understanding), Elliot — who’s sadly additionally the pinnacle of Yaz’s tenure committee — dismisses Yaz’s strategies as “low hanging fruit.”

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Picture by way of Netflix

Ji-Yoon is aware of that Yaz is the way forward for the Pembroke English division. She fights for Yaz to obtain the Distinguished Lectureship and even urges the Dean to fast-track Yaz’s tenure. As she tells Elliot, Yaz’s progressive pedagogy is getting college students enthusiastic about literature that was written 150 years in the past. Even so, Ji-Yoon struggles to bend and push again towards the tradition of privilege that will get in the way in which of Yaz’s future. Ji-Yoon nonetheless feels a private obligation to her older colleagues who refuse to alter their instructing methods — although their means of instructing disregards the scholars and utterly fails to handle problems with energy and oppression within the curriculum.

In a pointy and telling scene, Elliot stands on the podium in entrance of the classroom and delivers a dry, white-washed lecture about American creator Herman Melville. One of many college students within the class interrupts him and asks him, “Are we going to debate the truth that Melville was a wife-beater?” Elliot, clearly thrown by the query, stumbles in his response, saying that they need to solely be involved with Melville the creator, not Melville the human being. He dismisses the work of feminist students who’ve written about Melville’s previous, claiming that there is no such thing as a “definitive proof.” He presses ahead together with his lecture with obstinate willpower to the annoyance of the scholars, when Yaz jumps in and says that they are going to cowl Melville’s historical past of wife-beating in her part, in addition to the essential contributions to Melville’s work by the ladies in his life.

Ji-Yoon, although she is aware of Elliot’s strategies are outdated, looks like she will’t push him into retirement. She says that 30 years in the past, he used to pack the halls a lot that you simply could not even get into his class with out particular permission. And but, as Yaz pointedly retorts, he hasn’t up to date these lectures in 30 years. Elliot clearly feels insecure and irrelevant within the new, extra progressive and student-centered classroom, although he would by no means admit it due to his personal pleasure.

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Picture by way of Netflix

Curiously, Ji-Yoon reveals that she is going to push again towards the academy’s lengthy historical past of deeply embedded white male privilege, however solely with regards to these whom she does not have a private attachment to. Take, for example, David Duchovny, who performs a fictionalized model of himself — a pompous best-selling movie star creator and Princeton and Yale grad. In The Chair, Duchovny is the poster boy for the painfully ignorant “I do not see coloration” mantra, or as he says, “I do not see coloration, or ethnicity, and even faces at this level.” After he flippantly assumes (as a result of he wrote a very outdated dissertation on Samuel Beckett‘s early novels) he can simply educate Invoice’s class whereas Invoice is suspended, Ji-Yoon, annoyed at his breezy, self-serving perspective, tells him, “The self-discipline has moved ahead and you are still caught again in a unique period.” And but, she will’t say this to Elliot — although it’s equally true for the old-fashioned “Melville skilled” — as a result of as she says, “he makes or breaks careers.” In a very eye-opening scene, Yaz tells her, “You act such as you owe them one thing. Such as you’re right here as a result of they let you be right here, not since you deserve it.”

Invoice is probably the obvious instance of Ji-Yoon’s rigidity between private relationships and political targets. Invoice is painted as a sympathetic character, a borderline alcoholic grieving his spouse who simply can not seem to preserve it collectively. Nonetheless, Invoice can also be blissfully unaware of his personal privilege. Within the midst of a lecture on absurdism and fascism, Invoice satirically does the Hitler salute, which shortly stirs up scholar outrage.

This storyline is hard, a posh take a look at the gray space between free speech, cancel tradition, and redemption, with out fairly taking a facet. Whereas it is apparent that Invoice just isn’t residing a secret life pledged to neo-Nazism, he nonetheless refuses to see how his motion, though temporary and unintentional, was offensive to his college students. When he tries to stage with them, he refuses to apologize and as a substitute defaults to being offended and defensive. We get his frustration at how shortly college students rush to “cancel” him, however on the similar time, we won’t assist however surprise if it will be so arduous to simply put apart his pleasure and ask for forgiveness. Even JuJu’s (Everly Carganilla) apology would suffice, the sage, cheeky phrases of a kid: “I am sorry I made you assume I like Hitler, as a result of I don’t. I do know he’s the worst one that ever lived.”

The cast of The Chair
Picture by way of Netflix

Ultimately, his actions drum up sufficient unhealthy press that he’s banned from campus, a choice that he furiously views as an unfair private assault. Ji-Yoon, in a short second of anger at his full dismissal of his privilege, snaps at him, “You are allowed all over the place, except–” She is lower off by the conclusion that JuJu is lacking, however the message is obvious: Invoice is getting a style of what girls of coloration in academia face day-after-day, and he doesn’t prefer it.

Though on the finish of the present Invoice is formally let go of the college, he does not seem to have actually discovered something from the expertise. That is the place The Chair turns into a bit difficult. Invoice’s storyline tiptoes round a critique of cancel tradition. We are able to sympathize and perceive why Ji-Yoon fights for him, however finally his refusal to apologize and his steady disregard for the way the scholars really feel speaks volumes about his personal privilege. To not point out, that is one side of The Chair that the dramedy does not fairly get proper. Invoice’s storyline is one more instance of a troubled white man overshadowing the storyline of ladies of coloration, significantly Yaz’s, whose storyline is probably crucial storyline within the miniseries.

By the tip of the season, Ji-Yoon’s older colleagues efficiently handle to take away her as Chair. They, nevertheless, stay of their positions. It’s terribly unsatisfying, which is probably purposeful. We ought to be dissatisfied. White privilege appears to have claimed one more victory. Although Ji-Yoon is happier to not be Chair anymore, that is solely as a result of the division’s refusal to maneuver ahead ruined all of her plans. Moreover, Yaz’s job supply from Yale looks as if a win on the floor, however as some girls of coloration observe, Yale’s job supply to Yaz undermines the precise struggles that students of coloration face, whom irrespective of how sensible, typically do not get provided tenure because of the long-held historical past of microaggressions and racist and sexist ideologies in academia.

For probably the most half, The Chair is a pointy, at instances satirical, commentary on white privilege in academia. It does not get the whole lot proper, besides, it performs the essential job of pulling the curtains again on larger training and its position in perpetuating privilege.

The Chair is streaming now on Netflix.

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