First, let’s establish that I am a fan of black-ish. Dre and Bow Johnson ― a successful ad executive and anesthesiologist living in an all-white LA neighborhood ― are the perfect representation of how integration has both benefitted and failed black people. They are the best and brightest of black America, who have assimilated into the upper middle class while grappling with the black community they have left behind. In its best episodes, Black-ish is insightful and heartfelt.
But colorism has been Black-ish’s striped elephant in the room, and one of its weak spots.
The Johnson family is what many would consider light-skinned, with the exception of Diane, played by the adorable Marsai Martin. (Three of the actors who star in Black-ish ― Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi and Miles Brown ― are biracial in real life.) I’m not sure if this casting was intended, but it provides a rich opportunity for exploration of color and blackness.
But for a long time, Black-ish only (and very briefly) touched on colorism in an episode where Bow grapples with her disdain for Junior’s white girlfriend, as she remembers being a mixed race youth struggling to fit in with both the black and white crowd.
It seemed the show might take another swing at it in a recent episode titled ToysRn’tUs, which tackles black representation in media and culture. When Dre casts a fair-skinned black family for an ad campaign (that his assistant jokes looks like the DeBarge’s) his co-workers note that he has an affinity for lighter skin. Dre takes offense at this ― as many black people do when accused of colorism ― but never reflects deeply. Instead he kneejerk reacts by re-casting the family as West African in traditional garb. Cue the lame jokes about them being Somali pirates (who, incidentally, reside in East Africa) and then the show kind of sputters to an end with Dre sheepishly admitting that sometimes he gets carried away in his pursuit of equality.
I understand that Black-ish is a comedy, but this is an unsatisfying finish for a show that dedicated an entire episode to why it’s okay for black people to use the N-word.
As the episode ran I wondered why, when Dre was considering how to re-cast the black family, it didn’t occur to him to put in people with the same skin color as his own daughter.
The fact that Dre entertained two categories of blackness in his mind: light-skinned and African ― speaks to a real-world problem. Although they represent the vast majority of the black population, medium and dark-skinned “just black” Americans are often simply not seen and, inexplicably, find themselves struggling for equal and fair media representation.
One of my new faves, Calvin Klein model Ebonee Davis, addressed this in an open letter to the fashion industry;
I was told that brands only booked black girls if they looked like they’d been “plucked from a remote village in Africa” or like a “white model dipped in chocolate,” and from the start of my career in 2011, I lived by those words.
She repeated the point in a February TEDX Talk;
Casting directors would ask me, “Where are you from?” to which I would respond, “Seattle.” And then, “Where are your parents from?” to which I would respond “Seattle.” I was met with looks of confusion. As if it were impossible to conceptualize that black beauty exists right here in America.
Black-ish’s awkward handling of color makes me raise an eyebrow at Martin’s character Diane who has, to this point, absorbed the worst of the family’s female traits. Bow is the idealistic mom, Zoey the stylish daughter. Diane is... the evil genius. The one who was put on a no-fly list, the one who might be demon-possessed, the one who is feared by a grown black man (Deon Cole’s character Charlie).
It doesn’t help that the show hasn’t done a great job of explaining why Bow and Zoey wear their loosely-curled hair naturally while Diane’s kinkier-textured hair is straightened.
I’m just hoping the Black-ish writers are self-aware enough not to fall into the Coming to America trap of attributing the stereotypically negative characteristics to the sister with the darker skin.
Tackling colorism is not easy. It’s evidence that oppressed people can oppress. But it’s an invisible force that shapes alot both within and outside of black American culture. Black-ish’s season is not over yet, and the show has done an overall great job of tackling complex issues, so I have faith that they will take another stab at the issue of colorism and get it right.