Season 2 of Aziz Ansari's Netflix original series, Master of None, premiered less then two weeks ago and is receiving high praise from critics and fans alike, most notably for its powerful exploration of what it's like to come out in a black family. Dev's (Ansari) childhood best friend and resident lesbian Denise (played by Lena Waithe) is the star of the episode, titled "Thanksgiving."
Warning: spoilers ahead!
The episode begins in 1992 and spans over 25 years of Denise's life, exploring the awkward, defiant, joyful, and heartbreaking stages of Denise coming to terms with her sexuality. In 1995, Denise refuses to wear the dress her mother (Angela Bassett) picked out for her wear to Thanksgiving dinner, instead opting for hammer pants, an oversized hoodie, and a backwards snapback, much to her mother's dismay.
In 1999, Denise and Dev (Ansari) inconspicuously smoke in Denise's room before the Thanksgiving meal, and she admits her feelings for girls for the first time. "I always thought there was a good chance," Dev adds. "You're the only girl who wore Jordans to the spring fling."
Dev asks why Denise doesn't want to tell her mother. "Being gay isn't something black people want to talk about," she explains. "Everything's a contest and your kids are like trophies. Me being gay is like tarnishing her trophy."
Denise eventually comes out to her mother Thanksgiving day, seven years later in a diner. The two pick at their Thanksgiving meals while Basset nags her daughter about giving her grandchildren. Distant and uncomfortable, Denise realizes that it's time to tell her mother the truth. "I don't like having sex with men," she spells out for her mom. "I'm gay. I've always been gay. But I'm still the same person. I'm still your daughter. Nothing's changed."
Her mom wipes the tears streaming down her face. "I don't want life to be hard for you. It's hard enough being a black woman in this world, now you want to add something else to that." Basset chokes up, "I just never thought I'd have a gay daughter."
When black kids are repeatedly told they have to work twice as hard to get half as much as their non-black peers, queerness is seen as another demerit and parents can feel like they failed to do what's best for their child. Her mom's heartbreak is more about her worry over how much more Denise will have to wrestle through life and how she, as a mother, could've prevented her child's struggle.
Waithe, who cowrote "Thanksgiving," said the episode was largely based on her own life. It was a bit uncomfortable reliving her coming out years so viscerally, and her mother was worried about people's perception of her reaction, but Waithe wanted to show the complexities of the emotions in that moment. “That was a very difficult thing for her to go through," Waithe explained to HuffPost. "Not because she doesn’t like gay people and not because she’s homophobic, but because she got a kid with an added element that she didn’t quite bargain for. And it’s also an element that no one ever taught her how to deal with."
It might have been hard and deeply personal, but it was an important story for Waithe to share with the world. She believes minority writers have a responsibility to share their stories authentically and honestly. “In this world, we’re often silenced," she told Out Magazine. "Particularly as a black woman, you’re told to shut up and sit down. We’ve been silenced for hundreds of years. No more.”
Stream the "Thanksgiving" episode on Netflix now.