A couple issues ago, I put the ABC sitcom Black-ish on the list of new fall TV to skip. I rarely admit to something like this, but I was wrong. It may not be the funniest or most innovative show on television, but I think it’s a socially and politically important one.
Black-ish features an affluent Black family living in a primarily White neighborhood in Los Angeles. The father, Andre (Anthony Anderson), works in advertising, the mother, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is a doctor, and their four lovable children all attend a racially homogenous private school.
Trailers and promotional materials for Black-ish feature characters in traditional African garb, discussions of fried chicken around the dinner table and the throwing of a hip-hop themed “bro-mitzvah.” I assumed this would be yet another “post-racial” television comedy that contradictorily relies on racialized caricatures for its punchlines, like Modern Family and Glee are prone to do. However, Black-ish instead explores Black identities in relation to cultural assimilation and appropriation, as well as what it means to be Black, or “Black-ish,” in America.
In one episode, Andre struggles over his promotion to senior vice president of a new urban division within an advertising firm, specifically questioning what the term urban means in relation to Black cultural appropriation. Andre also expresses concern over his children understanding the importance of Barack Obama’s presidency, not knowing the “head nod” (a “universal” acknowledgement between Black individuals) and whether being biracial means you are “really” Black.
Maybe this is generous considering it’s only six episodes in, but Black-ish reminds me of shows like All in the Family (1971-1979), Cagney and Lacey (1982-1988) and Roc (1991-1994), which explicitly combined entertainment or humor with political and social discussions relating to class, gender and race. In an era dominated by Mob Wives and Cupcake Wars, it’s easy to forget that television has moments of relevance or influence, and that even if network executives care primarily about finances, show creators are invested in particular stories, characters and points of view.
For example, Bill Cosby specifically developed The Cosby Show (1984-1992) as a response to Black sitcoms of the ‘70s like Sanford and Son (1972-1977) and Good Times (1974-1979) which were stereotype-laden and often segregated, in the sense that Black characters rarely interacted with characters of other races; those programs were specifically developed to address the assimilationist tendencies of ‘60s programs like I Spy (1965-1968) and Julia (1968-1971). Going even further back, those ‘60s programs downplayed or avoided racial issues because of previous criticism over the racial/racist depictions on Amos and Andy (1951-1953). As these examples show, television’s history of representing Blackness is one of overcompensation or exaggeration, or of shifting between assimilation or segregation, to the point where discussions of Black identity are either absent or caricatured.
As both FOX and UPN came into existence as broadcast networks, this either/or dynamic subsided, to a degree, as more shows with Black characters produced by Black TV creators filled the schedule. Shows like Family Matters (1989-1998), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, (1990-1996), The Parkers (1999-2004), The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006), and many others, at least offered to increase the visibility—and variety—of Black experiences on the small screen.
Some cable programs, like Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006), also resist television’s either/or history, but are more overt in their interrogations of race in American society. Dave Chappelle often evoked racial stereotypes in order to push audiences to think about their own complicity in systemic racism and racialized thinking.
Similarly, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele (2012-present) features two biracial comedians, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who engage with experiences, tensions and contradictions between their own identities, their various characters and with Black caricatures and stereotypes in popular culture more broadly. One sketch explores the social contexts in which they “talk Black” or “talk White,” playing with the performative aspects of race. Other sketches explore what it’s like to be a Black man walking down the street in a suburban neighborhood, Black Republicanism, slavery and “thug” identity.
Like these cable programs, Black-ish explicitly sets out to examine race whereas many previous broadcast shows did so only intermittently. The show’s engagements with race are thus far light-hearted, especially in comparison to contemporary issues and experiences of Black identity in relation to police brutality, incarceration rates, voter disenfranchisement and a host of other other problems that prove we are a long way from being a “post-racial” America.
Television has long been theorized to act as a forum for cultural and political debate, so maybe shows like Key & Peele or Black-ish will make for good places to start some long-overdue conversations about race. Hopefully, more viewers will recognize the error of ignoring race, or pretending that racism no longer exists, and instead acknowledge how race profoundly shapes our individual identities and everyday experiences.
And just as I admitted my fault in originally advising against Black-ish, we all need to admit that there is still a lot of work to be done in regard to racialism, racism and social justice in the U.S.