SOC Column: Black-ish… really? Blackish, really!


Image © 2020 ABC Entertainment

Mia Galvam, Independent Writer

Over quarantine, my family fell into a new routine, one that my pre-pandemic mom would never have gone for. After a long day cooped up together in our small house, we’d each make our way downstairs to watch television together in the evening (even on a school night), often with popcorn, ice cream, tea, or even occasionally dinner. This would never have flown when we were all out of the house at school and work and home late with just enough time for dinner, homework, and bed. However, the new normal had us all craving connection. With a disparity of ages and interests, finding ways to be together that didn’t feel like forced family time (such as walking around the pond or going for a drive) was becoming more difficult.

Often in the evenings even before the pandemic, my parents would settle in to watch a movie or a show at night after my sister and I had gone to bed, or at least to our rooms for our own time. They started watching past seasons of Blackish after missing its successful launch in 2014 and subsequent rise. Blackish is a sit-com about a wealthy intact Black family from California with two-working parents, a mixed mom and a Black dad, living inter-generationally in the suburbs with five kids and two grandparents. When my parents first talked about how entertaining the show was, and how good it was at educating its viewers on issues of race, I snickered to myself. I think it was the title that put me off: Black-ish. Really? But, begrudgingly, I have to admit that my parents were right.

Blackish has given expression to many of my feelings and experiences as a mixed person often torn between White and Black worlds. I relate to Dr. Rainbow Johnson, who was raised in an exaggeratedly liberal family by a Black mom and White dad. Growing up, she wanted to claim all parts of who she was but was often pressured to be either Black or White by social norms. I also relate to their older children, Zoey and Dre, Jr. Due to the affluence of their parents, the kids have gone to private schools without many people of color. They are comfortable and confident in themselves and approach the world as if every opportunity is open to them. It is through the stories of their elders that the children’s situation is held in relief to the larger Black experience.

The show’s creator, Kenya Barris, borrows heavily from his own family life. He grew up poor in an all-Black neighborhood, has a biracial wife who is a doctor, and together they have six children that they are raising in an affluent, predominantly White neighborhood. Sound familiar? He even referred to his children attending a nearly all-White school as “flies in the buttermilk.”

The show is done with humor and grace in how it addresses systemic racism, class, and culture. Barris said in an interview for the Guardian, “Comedy is a good way to give people a spoonful of sugar with their medicine.” He goes on to say, “The specific speaks to the universal, and the best story I knew was a family which was absolutely Black, living in a world that was changing around them.” Blackish does this so effectively through personal and historical stories often presented in highly-creative and stylized ways (check out the riff on School House Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” transformed into “I Am A Slave” or Dre’s tribute to the end of Obama’s Presidency.

The writing is sophisticated and, although you don’t feel beaten over the head, the show’s aim is clear: to unabashedly explore racial identity, to question assimilation and to challenge the misplaced societal goal of color-blindness. The show champions the fair treatment of all people. It may seem incongruous to address such serious societal questions with 30-minutes of situational comedy, but doing so allows us to laugh at ourselves, take a breath, and find a way forward together. However, despite critical acclaim and prime-time success, the show has not been universally well-received. President Trump tweeted that it was “racism at its highest,” while Former President Obama claimed that it was one of his family’s favorite shows. What I know is that Blackish has helped me learn more about myself and the society in which I live in a light and funny way and to share a moment with my family to belly laugh, cringe or eye-roll together. I can’t wait to watch the two-part 2020 election special with Dre’s Democracy Jeopardy, which aired on October 4th.