What Does It Mean to be Black-ish?
How "Exceptional" African-Americans Still Bolster Our Stereotypes
In high school, I took a class called “The Black Experience in White America,” studying stacks of books on critical race theory, reels of historical documentaries, and pages of prose written by African Americans. The course asked: What does it mean to be black in America?
For me, this was a driving existential question because my own story didn’t match the stereotypes. The media often portrayed blackness as being trapped in a socio-economically oppressed “urban” neighborhood, eschewing formal education, being surrounded by black people, not having a relationship with one’s biological father, and facing blatant racism. As a black teen in an upwardly mobile, two-parent home in a San Francisco suburb, my experience was more likeTheCosby Show than Boyz n the Hood.
Still, my young black identity already bore the scars of racism, suffered the isolating effects of otherness, and possessed deep questions about how far a brown-skinned girl like me could really go in our society. I wondered: Am I as black as the black kids whose lives match the stereotypical narrative? Does America see us as equally black?
Many years later, the conversation on what it means to be black in America extends far beyond the classroom. We see it happening in the public square: on hip-hop tracks, in movies, and in sketch comedy shows like Key & Peele. Now, it’s even happening on network television, with ABC’s new fall comedy Black-ish.
Black-ish on TV
Black-ish is about an upwardly mobile black family that lives in the Los Angeles suburbs. The father, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), is a senior advertising executive who was born and raised in Compton—a predominantly black, socio-economically oppressed area of L.A. As a child, he decided to live a “better life” when he grew up, so he applied himself in school and worked hard to build a successful career. When he married his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor, they decided to raise their four children in an upper-middle class, predominantly white neighborhood, where they share a house with Andre’s racially conscious—and hilarious—father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne).
The premise of the show is rather unrealistic. Apparently, Andre woke up one morning, about 15 years into his marriage, and suddenly discovered that his wife and kids completely lack racial consciousness. Throughout the first three episodes of the series, Andre freaks out with each realization that their economic success has come at great cost to their blackness. He’s concerned that his oldest son wants to play field hockey instead of basketball. He’s appalled when he discovers that his kids aren’t aware that Barack Obama is the first black president. And he’s worried that his kids “don’t see color” and that his wife seems to support their colorblind approach. Andre tries to convince Rainbow and the kids that they have abandoned their racial identity and must return to their cultural roots. But the only person who agrees with him is Pops.
While many TV shows have centered on a black family—including the popular ‘90s series Family Matters, The Steve Harvey Show, and Sister, Sister—this one is unique in that it explicitly examines both race and class. In essence, it asks: What does it mean to be upwardly mobile and black in America?