Reading the Readings of Black-ish

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For a moment, put aside whatever opinion of the series itself you may have taken away from its ABC premiere last Wednesday night. Ignore whatever feelings Anthony Anderson’s generally overwrought and underwhelming acting tends to evoke, or even the sour taste left in your mouth by an accused rapist continually appearing on your television without at least bothering to play a professional sport. Disregard ABC’s track record of simply feigning interest in socially aware comedy and/or representation, while vehemently maintaining the status quo. Instead, consider for a moment the prevalent critical response to the series, Black-ish, whose premiere managed “near perfect lead-in retention out of Modern Family,” according to TV by the Numbers. That is to say, those who watched ABC’s current flagship family sitcom stuck around to check out its colorized version.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Black-ish, as the title suggests, offers ABC’s audience (which the fourth-place network lauds as “upscale” and “affluent”) an overtly non-threatening, semi-Black comedy. Some critics have already drawn a line separating Black-ish from other series with primarily black casts based largely on its presence in a coveted network time slot, but with a heavy implication of presumed white-friendly quality.

In a post-Tyler Perry world, there’s even more of a stigma that comes with having a cast of primarily black actors: However talented the cast is, the writing leaves way too much to be desired; from that point on, no other black show, apparently, has a chance. Black-ish isn’t relegated to OWN, TBS, or BET (or, in a past life, UPN); it’s a sitcom on a broadcast network, just like The Middle or Modern Family. (LaToya Ferguson, AV Club)

The move here is a peculiar one, but has recently been attempted within countless articles and commentaries: simultaneously praise Black-ish and ABC’s push towards diversity in a space that’s been sorely lacking for a significant amount of time (often the key is to invoke The Cosby Show as the gold standard), while wholly diminishing the work done by other creatives and entertainment outlets that cater to audiences of color. Let’s be clear. Tyler Perry isn’t producing pretend television as his creations continue to set ratings records for the OWN Network. Mara Brock Akil isn’t phoning it in with her numerous acclaimed offerings on BET. While admittedly, there’s something not-quite-Cosby about If Loving You is Wrong or Being Mary Jane, there’s an earnestly Black presence on television (and YouTube) that are worth the attention of those seeking diversity. But certainly, that’s not what Black-ish is about.

What ultimately gives Black-ish so much warmth—a warmth reminiscent of, yes, The Cosby Show—is its optimism that audiences, of all colors, will not be turned off by its specificity. . . . Like the many, many sitcoms about the affluent white experience, this is a show that is meant to be seen and enjoyed by everyone. (Willa Paskin, Slate)

Another common element of all the e-ink spilled establishing Black-ish as the Emancipation Proclamation of primetime comedy is the emphasis on how (potentially) fulfilling the series is regardless of race. Again, the language here is coded somewhat to obfuscate its meaning, but the primary concern of audiences when presented with a cast of predominantly non-white faces is apparently that the comedy may not be inclusive enough. That there exist culturally and racially-specific threads of humor is largely undeniable. Still, the fairly obnoxious claim here is that, despite how it might appear, this well-to-do Black family is here for your enjoyment, white America. Presumably, Black-ish satisfies some latent desire for the consumption of Black bodies on television (perhaps the safest arena where this fetish plays out), particularly within the family unit, and apparently there just hasn’t been such a meal suitable for the white palate since, you guessed it, the Huxtables. The “warmth” of Black-ish is plainly its digestibility in the eyes of many.

This interpretation of the series—seemingly in spite of its merit—by the critics and tastemakers of the day has somehow unraveled as more patronizing to Black Americans than the decades of exclusion from network television each writer seems fit to rehash almost robotically. While diversity on television as a talking point is an easy one—there’s not enough, there should be more, it’s a good thing when we see it, etc.—the conversation about race is a more difficult one, several magnitudes more nuanced. Nonetheless, just as it’s hard to be surprised that the alphabet network plans to co-opt the outcry for diversity in a hopeful bid to rise from the ashes of forth place (alongside Black-ish, ABC’s new Fall lineup contains markedly more colorful offerings such as Cristela and Fresh Off the Boat, all receiving a healthy amount of kudos from those who give networks kudos for this sort of thing), it’s expected of the media to retread and provide superficial lip service surrounding the issue.

Over and over, representation is explored insincerely and although some appreciation is always warranted when the network landscape is remodeled however slightly towards inclusion, many detailed accounts of the significance of Black-ish read as overly self-gratifying. Thank you noble critics for sitting through a Black(-ish) endeavor and reminiscing gleefully on the times when Heathcliff fathered Theo into something you could deem respectable with classic gags and approachable laughs. Your white-knighting is duly noted. But if what passes for TV journalism today refuses to ask the more pertinent questions about racial representation in media, the whys and hows, it’s clear that they’re as culpable as anyone for the dearth of people of color of prominence on network television and Black-ish inevitably getting canceled. Anthony Anderson’s on it after all. I’m not hopeful. But please take some time to enjoy Tracee Ellis Ross in all her splendor.

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