Since its premiere in 2014, the ABC sitcom Black-ish has received mixed reviews regarding the show’s representation of the black experience in America. Black-ish depicts the everyday happenings and struggles of the Johnson family, and it also tackles important issues of the day, even controversial ones. This middle class, African-American family of six is headed by father Andre (Anthony Anderson) and mother Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross). Their children Zoey, Andre, Jack and Dianne are played by Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribnet, Miles Brown, and Marsai Martin respectively.
Every week, the Johnson family navigates difficult topics that are common to the black experience today. Black-ish exists in a tough space where the series seems to be morally obligated to depict all parts of the black experience accurately, both good and bad, while simultaneously ensuring that it does not condemn the “other,” which in this case is “non-blacks.” In order to stay true to the struggles of African-Americans in the United States, the acceptance and ratings for Black-ish suffer. People usually turn on fictional television shows to escape the world around them rather than be bombarded by the troubles of the world. Black-ish does not shy away from these troubles. The show dives deep into some controversial issues in black culture and American society as a whole. The controversial topics that Black-ish addresses play an essential role in the societal impact of the show. Despite the early success of the series, the controversial depictions of the black experience in the United States as well as the overall “unapologetic blackness” that make the show authentic and important have led to a decrease in ratings. These topics include race, sexuality, and police brutality, and Black-ish never fails to tackle these hard-hitting topics head on. Remaining controversial in nature is likely the only way for the show to continue holding true to its representation of the black experience even at the price of declining ratings.
Controversial topics are addressed and tackled directly in each episode, but the serious elements are punctuated with tasteful comedic relief. The modern sitcom must be authentically diverse for the sake of accurate representation of minorities in the media. All people deserve to see a depiction of themselves that is true to their experience on television at some point because it can be affirming. If this depiction is not authentic or accurate, however, it is essentially worthless and will do more harm than good. In order for successful diversification of the modern sitcom, the influence of black sitcoms on interracial contact has to be identified and addressed, and it is imperative that the diversity depicted be deep rather than broad. Black-ish satisfies these two requirements and can be considered groundbreaking it terms of its depiction of the black experience. In my opinion, Black-ish is the first black family sitcom to get it right.
Take, for example, two other black family sitcoms, The Cosby Show and The Carmichael Show. While The Cosby Show was groundbreaking in terms of its depiction of a wealthy, African-American family on television, the show did not take on many critical, controversial topics. Also, the black experience that is true to the majority of African Americans is not the life that the Huxtable family lives. The Huxtable family depicts the nuclear, African-American family in a way that had never been seen before on television as members of the family chase their American dream and break myriad stereotypes along the way. The Cosby Show was affirming for African Americans during its network broadcast in the sense that the minority was represented on television, but it is an example of broad diversification that is not deep. On the other hand, The Carmichael Show does address hard-hitting issues, but it lacks the sophistication that Black-ish brings to diversity television. There is a certain effortless intricacy in which Black-ish portrays the black experience that isn’t always there on The Carmichael Show. Furthermore, both of these shows have “black clouds” hanging over them: the Bill Cosby scandal undermines the credibility of The Cosby Show and the abrupt cancelation of The Carmichael Show takes it off the screen. Both of these circumstances take away from the positive influence these shows might have on the black community.
In an attempt to improve ratings, networks including ABC began broadcasting television series with “expanded worldviews.” Rather than sticking to a traditional family sitcom mold, shows became more controversial and more inclusive of minority races, nationalities, and sexualities. Paul Lee, ABC’s entertainment chairman was quoted saying that, “[he thinks] the changes in the demographics in the U.S. are every bit as important a revolution as the technological changes that we’re all going through” (Baysinger). This demonstrates that influential people within the network that produced Black-ish are aware that the demographics of the nation are changing and that networks needed to adapt accordingly. Black-ish and a few other minority sitcoms where created in an attempt to adapt to the changing demographics in the United States. This attempt at adaptation is necessary because if television networks and show writers do not realize the importance of representation and do not adjust, minority groups will be left without affirming representation on television and – in a concern that is important to the business side of television – won’t watch.
While increasing diversity is an important goal in and of itse.f, it is important that television shows do not ostracize but rather educate the “other,” which in the case of Black-ish is the “non-black” audience. A survey conducted by Mastro and Tropp has proven that negative stereotypical TV portrayals of blacks are harmful for acceptance of African Americans (Mastro and Tropp). Stereotypes like “black men are dangerous” or “black women are loud and angry” reinforce negative ideals that may already exist in the audience when depicted in the media. This demonstrates why the complex and authentic depiction of the black experience in Black-ish is important for society as a whole. Reinforcing negative stereotypes is an example of how media representation that is inauthentic or inaccurate does more harm than good for both black and non-black audiences. Black-ish exists to overcome the previously stereotypical portrayal of African Americans on television and is not just aired for the sake of comedy. Reinforcing a negative stereotype about one group to another could be harmful in more than one way, which is why diversity television exists in such a tough space. Black-ish reinforces why negative stereotypes and other mistreatment of African Americans is so hurtful by going far beyond using them solely as jokes. Furthermore, this demonstrates that the writers of Black-ish are aware of the influence this show has on society and contributes to their successfully authentic diversification.
It is also important that television diversity be deep rather than just broad. Sure, having a full line-up of diverse faces and families is great, but if those families are not examined deeply and accurately, the diversity serves as a tokenism, and the depiction is not affirming. The Bechdel test, based on an exchange in a comic strip created by Alison Bechdel, asks whether a sitcom or any other form of fiction contains at least two women characters who speak and who talk to each other about something other than a man. A racial version of this test can be used to ensure that programing is deeply diverse. “Having minority characters talk about race in a way that’s not in relation to white people” is one way to ensure this type of diversity on television (Poneiwozick). Black-ish passes this test in its discussion of the black experience. Unfortunately, the cost of this newfound richness of diversity and portrayal of minorities and engagement with controversial issues has been steadily decreasing ratings.
The show begins in the first season with Andre Johnson expressing his concerns about his family and how some members have assimilated to their white neighborhood. He is worried that his children are losing touch with their black culture, which also means they are unaware of the struggles that African Americans face on a daily basis because they are living in a bubble. In the pilot episode, Andre becomes hyperaware of this and, in turn, determines that his new promotion at work is racist because they “put him in charge of ‘black stuff’” as the new senior vice president of the “Urban Division.” This workplace struggle is something that is faced in many different forms by African Americans in the United States today, which makes this depiction accurate. This episode is important because it creates a conflict for the main characters as they do not want to be defined by their race while also remaining “unapologetically black.”
Another more comedic example of broadly deep diversification and representation on Black-ish is an episode regarding sexuality and the black community. Sexuality is a main topic of this episode with the focus being the common discomfort within the black community regarding homosexuality. Homosexuality is a taboo topic within the black community that is usually avoided at all costs. An episode at the end of season one highlights this phenomenon. Dre’s sister Rhonda (Raven Symone) is a lesbian who has decided to live her life and let people figure it out over time rather than to come out to them. Her approach is due to the common lack of acceptance of homosexuality within the black community, especially by the older generation. The episode is appropriately titled, “Please Don’t Ask, Please Don’t Tell.” Some of the funniest moments of this episodes are when some of the African-American characters deny that their family members are gay while providing descriptors common of homosexual relationships. This is an instance where a negative part of the black experience is brought to the light, and discussion surrounding it is forced because it is such an important topic. The discussion is important because it sheds light on an issue that is intraracial rather than interracial, which makes the show more inviting to “the other.” This also allows the show to satisfy the racial Bechdel test because this is presented as an intraracial issue.
The significance of deeply broad diversification on television is important now more than ever within the black community due to the current social climate. The episode titled “Hope,” tackles the current black experience in the United States deeply and accurately. In this episode, The Johnson family sits down to watch the evening news together. While watching the news, there is a story about a case of police brutality in which an African-American man has been shot. Rainbow reminds her children to always be “nice” to the police to which Dre responds by listing recent cases of police brutality in the United States such as Freddie Grey and Sandra Bland, both cases in which the victim complied and still died at the hands of the police. When Rainbow suggests that they “hope” that everything works out, Andre reminds her of President Obama’s first inauguration. In one of the most powerful moments on the show, the episode cuts to footage of President Obama walking alongside the presidential motorcade with a voiceover of Dre asking his wife if she was as terrified as he was that something horrible was going to happen and that their “hope” would be snatched away from them.
This is why Andre feels that his children need to be exposed to the harsh reality of being black and American and why some of the topics on the show like those discussed in these episodes are so hard-hitting and deep. Police brutality is an issue that is a harsh reality of life for African Americans today. This is the best example on the show of deeply authentic representation of what it is like to be black in America today, which makes the series groundbreaking. All of the episodes ring true to the black experience in some sense, but this is certainly one of the most hard hitting and accurate.
Rather than poke fun at or make light of the current racial situation in the United States, Black-ish tackles these issues head on in an attempt to educate viewers. Episodes are not as harsh as a lecture on race in America due to the lighthearted comedic nature of the sitcom genre. The light-heartedness allows the influence of the themes and conversations of the show Black-ish to reach myriad audiences. The fact that it reaches a broad viewership doesn’t necessarily mean that it is received well by all viewers. Ratings have suffered for Black-ish due in part to this depth of diversity. Black-ish dives head first into social and racial issues that go beyond the comfort zone of most viewers. But if the show were only to scratch the surface of these issues, it would not be an adequate depiction of the black experience. This is the tough space in which Black-ish exists and must continue to navigate as long as it is on air.
Black-ish is the epitome of deeply broad diversification on the small screen and should receive more recognition for the accuracy in which it portrays the black experience in the United States. There is much more to affirming representation than simply seeing a person of your skin color on television. Black-ish successfully provides insight into the life of this African American family and is able to dive into each character as an individual rather than using them as tokens. In order to remain authentic and affirming for its minority audiences, Black-ish must remain true to its message and deep diversification on television because minority depictions on television greatly influence society, both intra- and interracially.
Kylie Long is a Senior at Wake Forest University from Plano, Texas. She is a Communication major and Entrepreneurship minor.
Barris, Kenya. “Pilot.” Black-ish. ABC. 24 Sept. 2016. Television.
Barris, Kenya. “Hope.” Black-ish. ABC. 24 Feb. 2016. Television.
Baysinger. “Broadcasters Seek Better Ratings with Expanded Worldview.” Broadcasting & Cable, vol. 145, no. 17, 04 May 2015, pp. 22-23. EBSCOhost
Mastro, Dana E. and Linda R. Tropp. “The Effects of Interracial Contact, Attitudes, and Stereotypical Portrayals on Evaluations of Black Television Sitcom Characters.” Communication Research Reports, vol. 21, no. 2, Spring2004, pp. 119-129. EBSCOhost
Poniewozik, James. “‘Empire’ and ‘black-ish’ Show Why Diversity Needs to Be Deep, Not Just Broad.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 June 2017.
Saji, Peter. “Please Don’t Ask, Please Don’t Tell.” Black-ish. ABC. 06 May 2015. Television.