Say You’ll Be There

PEN15’s standout episode exposes the wounds of childhood racism and offers a path to healing them.

Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine as their younger selves in Pen15, dancing dressed as Spice Girls.
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine in Pen15.

Set in the age of mix CDs and AOL Instant Messenger, PEN15 follows two 13-year-old best friends, Maya and Anna, played by co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, as they navigate their first days of seventh grade in the year 2000. There’s a casting gimmick ingeniously employed: Erskine and Konkle are 31 in real life, playing teenage versions of themselves amongst real 13-year-old actors. The juxtaposition between real teenagers and playacting ones serves a comic purpose, but it also creates an uncanny viewing experience, allowing the viewer to revisit their adolescent years with the intensity of a teenager and the perspective of an adult.

The series’ sixth episode, “Posh,” explores a universal experience for people of color: racism and microaggressions at the hands of their peers. Since Maya’s mother—played by Erskine’s real-life mom, Mutsuko Erskine—is Japanese (Home Improvement’s Richard Karn plays her white father), the series is informed by race throughout. But it comes to the fore in “Posh,” where Maya and Anna work through a group video project with more popular classmates who, like Anna, are white. The plan is for them to be elderly versions of the Spice Girls, calling on the power of milk to cure their osteoporosis. What could go wrong?

Maya, who is hosting the get-together at her house, calls dibs on Posh Spice, but the popular girls push back. “But you look the most like Scary,” they tell her. Maya looks nothing like Melanie Brown, but the girls have already categorized her as other. Maya seems to feel something is wrong, but doesn’t quite know what to do about it, so she forces a smile. To make matters worse, the girls suggest that Maya be their “servant” in the video and also be in charge of manning the camera—not only making her a fictional servant, but their literal one too. One of the cool girls explains, “Because you’re, like, different than us … because you’re, like, tan.”

It would be easy for some to shrug off moments like these as kids being kids, not knowing any better. Some would argue they are just parroting stereotypes and power dynamics they see play out every day. But we aren’t just watching a 13-year-old deal with the fallout of racism; we’re watching Maya the adult deal with it too. On a TV-MA show seemingly made to resonate with viewers who lived through this time period, the audience now has an adult perspective—and is forced to take these young girls’ actions seriously. Maya starts the camcorder, sits on the patio step, and cries. Hurt by the words of these girls and, even if she doesn’t understand it yet, hurt by her best friend’s lack of action. Anna sees the girls are treating Maya differently and tries to divert their attention, but she doesn’t call out the discrimination.

It’s a situation many viewers of color know too well. In middle school, my dad and I were the only black people in the neighborhood. My older sisters had moved away, leaving me, my mother, and my father landlocked in a midsize town in southwest Missouri. I loved my neighborhood; it was home. But as I watch PEN15, I can feel the lurch in my body coming from miles away. Why is this happening? Why is no one intervening? Discrimination or “playful jokes” like this don’t stop at age 13, and neither does the pain they cause. Maya keeps crying, and I begin to sob. I can pause the episode, but Maya has nowhere to go. She must join the group again and dance to “Say You’ll Be There,” trying to laugh, Anna hugging her within the camcorder’s frame.

Best friendships in your teenage years are surprisingly intimate. As PEN15 illustrates, two friends can be attached in what emotionally approximates a partnership or marriage. Adult friendships are chosen more consciously; they don’t just happen in the way that these adolescent friendships do, but that doesn’t mean they are any less serious. This lack of consciousness is how a partnership forged in adolescent glee and circumstance can go so long without directly confronting something like race. Anna and Maya have been friends for years; they loved each other before their worldview expanded beyond the scope of their school.

While Maya is coming to terms with microaggression, Anna deals with what we’d now call white guilt. Maya’s older brother Shuji insinuates that Maya shouldn’t have played along with the white girls’ racist shenanigans, but Shuji’s friend Evan, who is black, shifts the attention to Anna: “You’re more fucked up for making her do that.” To Anna’s credit, she tries to make things better, but it proves meaningless if she doesn’t do what’s most important: directly own up to her own complicity in what transpired.

Although it would be difficult to imagine in the homogeneous worlds of Girls and Will & Grace—or on shows, like The Office, where tokens aren’t fully allowed to pronounce their race beyond a punchline—in some television series’ worlds, people of color are sometimes friends with and have love for white people, even when white supremacy and its systems make it difficult or less than ideal. It can be especially true when you’re young and whom you’re surrounded by is more a matter of geography than conscious choice.

Maya, at least, gets the kind of resolution we’re often denied in real life. After being convinced by Shuji’s friends that she must “beat [Anna’s] white ass up,” Maya yells at her, “You don’t know what it’s like to be me!” It’s the most anger we’ve seen in their relationship thus far, but Anna’s response is perfect: “You’re right. I don’t. You’re right. … And I should have told them that you are Posh Spice.” Anna offers no excuses, no shifting of blame, just a promise to do better—to be there.

Watching Anna say the right things, the things my friends could have said and didn’t, undoes some of my adolescent pain. She’s acknowledging how fucked up that daily experience was when so many never wanted to legitimize it. In college, I received a series of messages from a childhood best friend. It had been years since we were an inseparable unit, when people accidentally called us by the other’s name despite my skin tone and hair, his blonde hair and blue eyes. Race was something we rarely talked about as kids, but he wanted to apologize for never intervening or making any space for racial difference to exist positively in our relationship. A few months later, home for the summer, he brought up the topic again, this time in person. We talked about it outside of an IHOP, balancing as we used to on the concrete blocks in the parking lot, lingering into the late hours of the morning—something we hadn’t done in years.

While the gesture was important in spite of its delay, I can’t help but wonder what that kind of embrace could have felt like when we were still adolescents—if we could have had a friend say to us they’d be there at 13, if those friends could have known better how to be there. “Posh” gives teenagers—and former teenagers—a road map for a beautiful kind of reconciliation in the face of discrimination, and I think the world is truly better for its existence.

Correction, Feb. 28, 2019: This post originally misidentified Maya Kunkle’s age. She is 31.