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Here’s What ‘Succession’ Gets So Right About Toxic Whiteness

Here’s What ‘Succession’ Gets So Right About Toxic Whiteness

I don’t do requests because I’m not a DJ” should really become the motto of every Black woman who, hired for her expertise and competency, nonetheless has to deal with colleagues and clients who attempt to undermine both.

On the last episode of Succession, the line is delivered by Lisa Arthur—the Gloria Allred-esque Black woman celebrity lawyer—in response to Kendall Roy, who has retained her services, only to consistently ignore every bit of legal advice he is paying her to give him. Instead, Kendall gives Lisa directives and “wish list” requests, like the one that provoked Lisa’s cutting quip, which include immunity from prosecution for himself and a legal-thrashing-dethroning for his father Logan.

When Kendall, sensing Lisa’s growing fatigue with him, tells her he “really value[s] all the work” she does, but then quickly adds the demand that she “try harder,” the tight-lipped smile and subtly derisive chuckle she emits is familiar to every Black woman who has had to grin and bear insufferable whiteness.

To watch Kendall consistently tell Lisa how to do her job—despite possessing neither a law degree nor a work history outside his daddy’s media empire—is to immediately recognize oblivious white male mediocrity and undeserved confidence in its all-too-familiar (vain)gloriousness.

Succession has almost no Black characters. In fact, there are almost no people of color at all in the rarefied world occupied by the Roys, a media dynasty of ruthless billionaires whose sole interest is accruing more power and money, and whose shamelessness is often pridefully sported. “We don’t get embarrassed,” Shiv, sister of Kendall and the lone woman competitor among the four Roy siblings to father Logan’s throne, says in a recent episode.

Whiteness is as much a part of the Roy brand as their family’s obscene wealth; it’s all wrapped up with and inextricable from the reactionary rightwing politics of their ATN News network. The few Black folks who move through the Roys’ orbit are always at the family’s service, and if they are in public-facing roles, it is because their Blackness is yet another thing the Roys can exploit.

Lisa, with her track record of high-profile legal wins for harmed women, is the best attorney the family’s money can retain when a sexual assault and migrant worker mistreatment scandal—a product of the wealthy white cruelty and indifference toward those outside of their sphere—comes to light. The family’s warring factions—Kendall on one side, Logan et al on the other—each try to get her to take up their case. It’s unspoken, but implied, that both sets of Roys want not only the benefit of Lisa’s credentials and reputation, but the optics of having a black woman lawyer to help sanitize their image at a moment when their mishandling of race and gender issues threatens potential legal liability.

Shiv visits Lisa, a friendly acquaintance from her days of working in Democratic politics, and attempts to appeal to her as a fellow sister in the fight against the patriarchy, telling her, “I don’t know what my dad did, and I don’t know what my brother did, and I don’t know what the firm did. I’m in a fucking fuck pie here, Lisa… I could easily get crushed between these two fucking men, and I need to game things out with someone who can give me a read legally and culturally and politically.”

It’s a cringey display of opportunistic and self-serving ultra-white feminism, and the instant Lisa makes it clear that Kendall has beat his sister to the punch, Shiv’s tone curdles into something patronizing and disrespectful. “Careful who you hitch your wagon to, honey,” Shiv sneers on her way out the door, “because a lot of wagons are going in the ditch.”

The sudden turn would almost certainly leave Lisa, and any Black woman who has seen how sisterhood is wielded and weaponized by white women, wondering about the racial implications underwriting that sudden shift.

Kendall indeed lands Lisa as his counsel, and it’s clear his plan is to leverage her assets in service of his image makeover as a whistleblower and Very Feminist Billionaire. (He unironically yells “Fuck the Patriarchy” while entering a gala event.) But he treats her like he does the other women, and particularly the women of color, in his life—with the Loganesque subtext that he’s always the smartest guy in the room and the man who’s actually in charge.

Jess Jordan, Kendall’s long-suffering personal assistant, could probably have seen this coming. As the only recurring Black character on the show for its first two seasons, Jess has seen Kendall’s obliviousness—backlit by his outsized ego and misplaced belief in his own downness—up close.

Jess humors him with a weak smile when he seriously suggests to a room of his best Yes Bros that he wants Chuck D. and Zadie Smith at his upcoming 40th birthday. She watches, mostly impassively, as he repeatedly interrupts and talks over Berry Schneider, the Asian woman PR whiz he has hired to make him look cool—using a strategy ultimately dictated by him. She listens silently as he insists that his kids’ babysitter let them feed a bagel to their rabbit, and then looks utterly unsurprised but totally fed up with his megalomaniacal, negligent bullshit while overhearing him learn the rabbit is sick. (Seriously, someone please give Juliana Canfield an Emmy for conveying the full depth of Jess’s exasperation with Kendall in under two seconds.)

She stealthily shadows Kendall and knows his wants before he does, partly because that’s her job, but also because the help are visible to the Roys only insofar as they validate their lofty opinions of themselves.

If Kendall ever stopped to check out Jess’ reactions to his expressed plans, he might wisely reconsider them. But hubris and whiteness combine to obscure his vision.

That same cloudiness is what leads him to think it’s a good idea to go on “The Disruption with Sophie Iwobi,” the titular host of which is played by Ziwe. Kendall is so unable to actually hear the Black women he encounters that when Iwobi declares that he suffers from Caucasian Rich Brain, he interprets it as a form of playful adoration and tells his assembled guests that she “loves me.” (“What happens is genetically inherited wealth and whiteness cause neural pathways in the brain to constrict and make the patient believe he’s woke when he’s just a total fucking jackass,” she goes on to tell her audience.) It’s a stellar example of the oppressed knowing the oppressor better than he knows himself.

The same might be said of the moment that Lisa, after weeks of Kendall acting in direct contradiction to her advice, finally loses her cool when Kendall makes a scene in front of Department of Justice officials. “Do you think you’re smarter than me?” Lisa asks, rhetorically, knowing the answer is that he absolutely does. She goes on to tell him that during his deposition, he “acted high handed and defensive,” and perhaps most damningly, that he “sometimes undermined [her] status.”

The next time we see Kendall onscreen, he announces that Lisa is no longer representing him. Lisa, who has put up with Kendall’s arrogance and condescension, his dismissals of her counsel, his disrespect for her position and insights until she could not stand it any longer, is, according to Kendall, “a toxic person.”

Stand down and you’re consistently diminished, stand up for yourself and you’re ill-tempered and angry.

There is no Black woman who moves in corporate spaces who is not familiar with the impossibility of this binary casting trope, and Lisa has surely endured it before. Whatever Kendall was paying her, it wasn’t enough.



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