The Story Behind 'Switched at Birth's' Emotional Racism Episode

Creator/showrunner Lizzy Weiss, director Jeff Byrd and actress Bianca Bethune discuss the switched perspective, the scene that brought them to tears and hopeful takeaways.
Eric McCandless/Freeform

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Tuesday's episode of Switched at Birth, "Occupy Truth."]

Special episodes have become old hat for Switched at Birth. Over its six-year run on ABC Family (now Freeform), the teen drama has tackled sensitive topics including sexual consent, alcoholism, depression and audism, among many others.

But when creator Lizzy Weiss decided to do a storyline about college race relations, she hit a unique roadblock.

"I got to a point in the story, and I put my pen down and I realized we can't do this," she tells The Hollywood Reporter.

However, it wasn't nerves giving her pause. "We can't tell this story from Daphne and Bay's point of view. They're not black. You cannot tell a story in which our white characters are saving the day," she says of her hesitation.

Instead of moving on to another sensitive subject, Weiss pushed onward, albeit with a unique new framework: an episode told entirely from the perspectives of recurring African-American characters Iris (Sharon Pierre-Louis), Sharee (Bianca Bethune) and Chris (Sam Adegoke).

The hour, titled "Occupy Truth," was the culmination of a conversation that first began in the season five premiere. The episode saw each character confront racism in a different way as the racial tensions on their college campus come to a head. Iris goes on a hunger strike to force the college dean to issue a harsher punishment to the group of racist students who left cotton balls on the grass in front of the Black Student Union. Picking up from the preview week, Iris is joined in her efforts to get the administration's attention by Sharee, who also revisits a painful memory of being called the n-word growing up, and Chris, who is unfairly targeted by campus police, assaulted and nearly arrested in a scene reminiscent of the many real-life cases of police brutality against unarmed black men that have continued to infiltrate the news cycle.

"It is part of the whole fabric of the show, which is difference and outsider-ness," says Weiss of the show, which features several deaf and hard-of-hearing regular characters. "We start with deafness and disability and this is just part of that conversation: What is it like to be different from the mainstream? How can I educate myself for what it feels like?"

Although Weiss knew what she had to do to make the episode work, she was skeptical the network would be of the same opinion. "I prepared this big defense," she recalls. "Instantly, the network went, 'That's amazing, let's do it.' There was not even an instance of, 'Oh wait, the girls in the poster are going to be side characters in their own show."

Weiss, however, knew she had to educate herself as well. She enlisted an African-American writer (Talicia Raggs) to co-write the episode and an African-American director (Jeff Byrd) to helm it. Even the soundtrack for the episode was completely comprised of African-American artists.

"I'm not black and I had to be really really open and ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening and make sure we had as many voices as possible in the conversation that were African-American," says Weiss. "It was truly one of the most both challenging and incredible creative experiences of my life."

In Bryd's case, he had a few personal experiences to pull from for the episode, most notably as a football player at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Similar to Chris' storyline in the episode, in which his college baseball team sits out a game in protest to make the administration take notice, Bryd and some of his teammates had walked off the field during a football game in addition to staging a sit-in – motivated by a coach who had said racially insensitive things to another black player. The coach eventually exited.

"It was amazing that it was such a parallel," says Byrd. "I brought a lot of that to the table as we were shooting,"

Byrd also had his own personal encounters with the police to draw upon when it came time to Chris' own confrontation with campus security, in addition to having seen countless videos on the news of black individuals being targeted by the police in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

"We had discussed certain levels of aggressions initially. Everybody was kind of very sensitive to, OK, how are we going to express this without being over the top and trying to be realistic but also not pointing the finger too much at what potentially the campus police might have had going on in their minds? I think we struck a really even and good balance," he says.

There was another in-depth discussion behind the scenes about the moment when Sharee talks with Regina (Constance Marie) about being called the n-word when she was just 4 years old. "I thought it was important to put that word out there. It wasn't used as a taunt or an insult, it was a black person recounting the pain of being called it as a child," says Weiss. "The network couldn't for whatever reason, and that really was something I couldn’t argue with."

Although Bethune didn't have personal experience to pull from for the scene, she made a point to discuss the hot topic with several friends who did. "I wanted to be that vessel for Sharee's story so I wanted to put myself in those shoes," she says.

Despite not being able to say the actual word on camera, emotions still ran high on set the day of filming the scene. "We all felt like she was holding back because it was an incredibly painful conversation not just for the character but for the actress," recalls Weiss. "Jeff started yelling at her, as directors do, using that word and she burst into tears."

Thankfully, Byrd and Bethune had a prior relationship to lean on. Bethune had interned for Byrd's sister, a casting director, years earlier. "Jeff knew that I could go even further and with that, he was throwing things in my ear so that I could get there and I'm grateful that he did because, seeing it now, that's where we needed to go."

Both insist the end result was worth the pain endured. "After we finished that, we were both in tears and we were both hugging one another. It was a very emotional experience for us both but it was beautiful because a lot of times when you discuss that stuff, you can release it," says Byrd. "You know you've done something right when your key grip is in tears."

The result is an episode Weiss hopes speaks to all viewers.

"I hope viewers take away, if I'm a white person, 'I have never realized that's what it might feel like to walk across a college campus and be so different and feel judged and feel a lot of projections on me.' And if I'm a black person, I hope you feel, 'Yes, something someone said on that show is something that needed to be said and hadn’t been said on TV. And I feel heard,'" says Weiss. "I hope there's a shift in perspective for a lot of people who aren't a minority. That's really important thing for me to think about moving forward, especially in the political climate that we're in right now."

The current political climate – which has led to similar kinds of demonstrations such as the Women's March and the Muslim ban protests at airports across the country – has made the episode all the more timely even though it was written more than a year ago when the University of Missouri protests that inspired the episode were still making headlines.

"It's perfect timing for this to air because it's so relevant," says Bethune. "People don't say anything because they think, 'Oh, it's just me, no one's going to listen to me,' and it's not true at all. You come together with people who are like-minded, things can happen, things can change."

Byrd is particularly optimistic about the episode's potential impact given the drama's target audience. "Switched at Birth speaks to the youth and the youth is where we're going to get the most change," he says. "If we can get the youth to look at this episode and start a conversation, five years from now, 10 years from now, it's going to change a lot of hearts and minds."

Switched at Birth airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Freeform.