A Practice in Empathy with Chad Sanders

PUBLISHED October 25, 2019

TV Writers on What Creating Characters Has Taught Them About the Real World, a Peek Mag series  

It’s often through seeing our own realities reflected back to us that we are able to process the truths and falsehoods of our lives. Television has been one model through which humanity has been presented a reflection of itself. We tune in to access the lives of other people, real or imaginary, with the hope of escaping from–or finding solace in–our own lived realities. But behind our favorite shows, plotlines, and characters sit the writers of television–the sketchers of our own portraits. How does creating a fictional world for television enable them to see the realities of our own world differently? What truths about humanity must one know in order to construct characters that are real and accessible? We talk to TV writers to better access the ‘us’ in their stories about others. 

Writer: Chad Sanders

TV Credits: Grownish, and forthcoming TV series and feature films with Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman, and Will Packer

Also: Google, YouTube, New York Times 

What is your background and how has where you’ve come from affected your work? 

I’m from Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. It’s mostly all middle class. Very diverse, very international. You earn enough to have your picket fence and send your kids to good schools, and frankly if you’re white your life will be pretty safe.

For us, we had all of that stuff but then also we were black. So there were dangers that existed there that most of the people I went to high school with didn’t have to account for. In writing my book I recently drudged up some of these memories: I saw someone get stabbed to death, a lot of my black friends didn’t have food in the kitchen or their houses got robbed. 

My childhood was spent straddling the line between a privileged, safe, American life, and you know, the black American life…which is just different.

In some empirical ways it’s worse – there’s less money to go around, it’s more violent, there’s more risk. But I think it gave me a really rich understanding of how to look at people and understand people and frankly just code switch; change who I am in different rooms to make myself fit. I think that informed my point of view. 

In what ways?  

I changed schools almost every other year. I think I went to eight or nine schools growing up. I had really hard wired, defined black environments and then white environments, and so as I moved around between them it almost became like a game for my own self-esteem and survival. I needed to understand: Who’s the boss here, who’s the alpha, who’s the beta, who’s the bottom dog, what does everybody want, what are all the little interconnections? I needed to be able to pick up on ecosystems fast to be able to have a chance to insert myself. 

Now when it comes to building ecosystems of my own, like creating a world for a TV show, it’s almost second nature. 

I imagine some characters are going to be a little easier for you to access because they’re somewhat like you or they’re modeled after you, and then some characters won’t be anything like you at all, at least on the surface, but you still have to craft that character and you still have to find a way into that character. I feel like in order to do that successfully you have to have some level of compassion for that character. What is that process like? 

Here’s a boring answer and then I’ll make it more interesting…I feel compassion for people

As an example, a character who steals something from someone else, like an executive who extorts his employees…it’s really easy for me to get to a place where I can see why this person makes these decisions. Maybe they grew up poor and they are spending their entire lives trying to fill themselves up with wealth so that they can feel like a worthwhile person. Maybe they had a family member die of a disease when they were young because they couldn’t afford healthcare. 

To me there are usually really simple interactions between the things going on inside people and what they do. That makes it super easy for me to be like…that person is just being human. And I relate. 

There’s got to be some way we can do that exercise in empathy for real people.

I agree. Every single character is a chance to humanize somebody that people might not understand. To the credit of a largely fucked up industry [Hollywood] does try to look for some little pocket of humanity that people don’t really understand. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they take that thing and white wash it to the point where they’re like…now people can relate to it…because it looks white. But the beginning sentiment is one that is worthwhile, which is let’s try to figure out how everybody can understand everybody else. And that’s the job of a screenwriter. 

In the process of walking in a character’s shoes is there anything you’ve learned about yourself? 

Having to consider so often what each character wants by nature you’re going to end up thinking very deeply…what do I want

I quit drinking a few years ago because I started to look at myself as a character and it was like…well, Chad. you’ve spent like $5,000 a year on drinks, you have had this little crutch, this little layer of surrealism between you and the people you’re talking to or hanging out with for the past ten years. It seems like what you want is to be alone because you’re putting a filter between you and the rest of the world. And I had to stop because it sucked to feel so alone. 

What makes a compelling character is a really clear wanting, and really clear decisions based on what is coming at them. It has sort of made me see myself the same way. 

Character work  can be thought of as establishing what a character wants, what a character needs, and then sort of exploring the tension between those two, which to me is a highly insightful way to look at life in general. What would you say that the world wants right now, what do you think we need? 

I think what we want is to be important. We want to matter. We want to be better than somebody else so that we can feel good enough. And to me that’s communicated by the way we create the avatar version of ourselves on the internet and use it to talk down to other people, and use it to condescend, and use it to be the version of ourselves that we’re not actually, and use it to spend more time thinking about the version of ourselves that we’re not actually, and living lives so that we can take pictures to feed to it. 

I think what we need is the opposite: We need to put our phones down. We need to sit still for a second and see what ideas come to us, see what people we’re walking past everyday who we could be connecting with, see what people we live with that we could be connecting with. I think we need to be still.

We’re like crying, whining toddlers competing for attention and resources and we need to take a nap. 

And we need to matter to ourselves first. It’s hard for a lot of people. 


You’ve stated that your forthcoming book, Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned from Trauma and Triumph is about, “…how black people can apply the lessons we derive from traumatic experiences to our careers.” Without giving too much away can you describe in what ways your own life models this concept? 

When I worked at Google I was fresh out of school, I had gone to college at an HBCU, I had moved to Silicon Valley, it was the first time I had ever been away from my family and people I trusted – a very cliche fish out of water story. 

I got to Silicon Valley and everything about it looked right. The company was fifteen years old at that point, it was so cool, so sexy, free food, and self-driving cars, and dogs walking around, and all these smart people from all over the world. And I was learning so much. But I was suffering. I felt bad about myself because as much as this company wanted to be progressive, and special, and woke, the operating system was still…whiteness. It was still this sort of bro-code that was underneath everything. What was expressed as a “bring your whole self to work” style was really a “bring an assimilated version of yourself that makes everybody else here feel comfortable.”  

I gave up on that because it was fucking with my self esteem. I started just being myself, and doing stuff I had learned growing up and at Morehouse.

I started relating to people with honesty, almost subversive honesty to an extent, which is a big part of how I communicate with the black people in my life. We talk about the thing underneath the thing.

We talk about how things are really moving around. And when I started using that voice instead of my bro-y voice I started to reach people differently. People started to feel me differently, my managers started to feel me differently. They could tell I was actually smart. They could tell I was moving a little bit differently. 

You’ve said in an interview, “Stop heroizing your future self. Be the future self you idolize today.” I think about that concept a lot – that we put off so much for this future version of us that will be happy. But no, your life is happening to you now, in every moment. How do you think people can stop heroizing their future selves? 

What you just said is a big part of it. It’s like “this is water.” Realizing that the thing that plays out in your brain about what’s going to happen a year from now, or five years from now, it’s not real. It doesn’t exist. Neither the future nor the past exist. You’re already the future version of some older version of yourself. You have to be where you are. 

This is a pill that I need to take everyday. Especially people who do this job, you can spend your life living in other people’s worlds. And the people in your life need you here. Now. And you need yourself here, now. 

I mean…hate to be a broken record but…everything that happens in our phone is something trying to pull us away from where we are right now in this moment. It’s something trying to put a wedge between us and the other people in our lives.

So that’s where I’m at with it. The worst thing in the world would be to live your whole life and come to the end and know that it’s the end and think like… I wasn’t there. I missed the whole thing. 

P.S. There’s More

  1. Chad’s “I Don’t Need Love Texts From My White Friends” for NYTimes
  2. Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned from Trauma and Triumph order link 
  3. David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” graduation speech 

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