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College Racial Tensions to Play Out on TV Drama

LOS ANGELES ― A White college student goes out to party costumed as Black rapper Lil Wayne, angering African-Americans who see it as evidence of insidious campus racism.

The incident may sound familiar but it’s fictional, part of a five-episode arc in the upcoming season of “Switched at Birth,” the Freeform (formerly ABC Family) channel drama.

While Black student protests at campuses nationwide have made news headlines, “Switched at Birth” is providing a rare, if not unprecedented, TV dramatization of the turmoil.

With characters in college, the series has “both the ability and the responsibility to tell those stories,” executive producer Lizzy Weiss said.

“We are really trying to be accurate and honest about both sides of the debate,” she said. The White student, for example, contends he was celebrating his favorite hip-hop artist, not mocking Blacks, with the costume.

But the climactic episode, scheduled to tape this week, belongs to the protesters. The series returns in spring, with the date yet to be announced.

“That’s the point in the story where we realized we needed to shift perspective entirely and let our Black characters lead their own story. … We see the entire episode from their points of view,” Weiss said.

The party incident is one of a series of events that drive African-American students to action at the show’s fictional version of the University of Missouri.

Mirroring real events, Weiss said, Black students encounter “everything from micro-aggressions, as they’re called, small things on a daily basis that students of color experience and usually swallow … to larger acts that are impossible to swallow, and which galvanize them.”

It’s a fitting topic for the series to tackle, both because of its college setting and because, as Weiss puts it, “Switched at Birth” is about those who endure being treated as “outsiders.”

The drama launched in 2011 as the story of two teenage girls – Daphne (Katie Leclerc), who is deaf, and Bay (Vanessa Marano) – who learn that a hospital error sent them home with the wrong parents, and how that discovery affects them, their families and friends.

“We’ve always had deaf protagonists, and we’ve always done stories that you don’t normally get to see on TV … and that tell different versions of diversity,” Weiss said. Among them: an episode that was done entirely in sign American Sign Language with subtitles, and a story line about a Down syndrome pregnancy.

Last year, the series dramatized the issue of college sexual assault.

Weiss said the upcoming campus story arc was inspired by the rise of Black student activism, especially at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where protests including student demonstrations and a threatened strike by the school’s football team led to the president’s resignation last year.

“I’m a storyteller and it was a fantastic story, and it’s a really important story, to show you can make change. You can, as young people, demand change,” she said.

The story arc that unfolds in the first half of the season features “Switched at Birth” actresses Bianca Bethune and Sharon Pierre-Louis and newcomer Sam Adegoke.

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