Dear White People’s Antoinette Robertson On What It Means To Be A Black Woman At the Centre Of An Abortion Narrative
"The onus is on the people who have visibility to create art that is going to inform and inspire the masses."
Dear White People’s Coco Connors is the the kind of role young actresses dream of landing—and she’s the the kind of self-assured, powerful woman we all aspire to be. She’s classy, ambitious, calculated and complex. She has everything figured out: with a meticulously mapped-out path to self-made success, Coco is set to become the break in her family’s vicious cycle of poverty. And then, in season two of the hit Netflix series, Coco discovers she’s pregnant.
Weighing her hopes and aspirations with her maternal instinct, Coco is put into a far-too familiar position: does she drop out of university and raise her child, or does she have an abortion? Antoinette Robertson, who plays Coco on the show, speaks to what this story means for women—particularly women of colour.
When you read Coco’s script for season two of Dear White People, were you surprised?
You know what, Justin [Simien] and Yvette [Lee Bowser]—the show’s creator and executive producer—brought me aside at the first table read of my episode and let me know ‘hey, Coco’s gonna get pregnant and we’ve decided that she’s going to have an abortion. How do you feel about this?’
And what did you say?
We need to be having conversations about women’s health and women’s choices, period. I love the way that it’s presented within the show. In terms of the argument for how the world views [abortion], it presents both sides of the spectrum. There’s a girl who’s scared, who decides she wants to make a choice and that doesn’t necessarily mean that that choice is easy for her to make.
Sometimes the world makes it seem like women are being reckless and haven’t given a lot of thought to making choices with regards to their own bodies. And there are parts of the world and/or this country that don’t allow women to make those choices. So I was one hundred percent on board with having this dialogue and creating a piece of art that would inform and inspire people to live their truth.
What was it like bringing this incredibly emotional narrative to life?
I feel like if you asked anybody on set, they’d say I thought I was pregnant. It was just a weird, cerebral experience. There was all of this emotion related to creating a child with my imagination: knowing what her face would look like, seeing her being half of Troy and half of myself, imagining what kind of unconditional love I could give to her and get from her. But if that wasn’t real to me it wouldn’t have been real to you.
Why do you think it was important for Coco to be the character that goes through this? She’s someone who seemingly has everything together. But even perfectionists make mistakes — and hey, birth control is one of those things that are surprisingly easy to slip up on.
And I truly believe that’s exactly why. I feel like we don’t ever see the girls who have it all together make a mistake. I had sex! [laughs] You know what I mean? You never see that, and definitely never see it with a woman of colour at her age.
I feel like young black women are never at the centre of this abortion narrative. It is usually a girl who is sexually assaulted, or a teen couple… and I’ve never ever seen it told in a way that shows both sides of the narrative, and that also gets us to feel compassion for this young girl and the decision that she made.
I think that’s what’s interesting with season two of Dear White People. There’s obviously conversations about race happening, but then there are all these other stories exploring complex issues: queerness, identity, abortion..
Given that we are intersectional human beings, it is nice to see it depicted in the media as such. The world has a way of painting people’s colour with one brush. Black characters are usually the black token friend, or the sassy Cassie. Rarely do we see characters carefully crafted in a way that places authenticity above everything else. The world doesn’t just see a black boy when they see Lionel, they see a young black man struggling with his identity in the world that’s trying to tell him to be one thing or the other.
The same thing with Coco, she’s having issues in her race and outside her race with the way that the world perceives her and the way that she’s decided to navigate this predominantly white landscape. When we tell more stories like these, it’s going to humanize us to the world as a whole.
As a young actress, is it hard to find roles like these? Do you read read a lot of parts that don’t portray the African-American experience in a way you think is authentic?
All the time! If you were to ask my agent and my manager, they’ll tell you I say no to everything! Why? Because I feel like there was a point in my career where I was just happy to get a line in something. Now, I’ve gotten to a point where I feel like there’s so much more responsibility, and the onus is on the people who have visibility to create art that is going to inform and inspire the masses. Of course there are instances where I haven’t, but now I’ve been enlightened to a world where there are people who are creating art that is purpose driven.
Every single person I work with— cast and crew—is so passionate about creating change in this world. How are we going to humanize people of colour? How are we going to tell stories about identity and sexuality within our community? How are we gonna let people know how being a black face in a white place feels? There are instances where you walk into a room and you don’t want to be a representative for an entire race. Unfortunately, that’s what our reality is.